Collier staffer: Commissioners are 'abusing' employees, destroying morale

Claiming that Collier County commissioners are "abusing' employees and harming morale, the head of commission's staff asked to be fired Wednesday.

Executive Manager Ian Mitchell said his work environment had become "untenable" and was unable to perform his duties.

Mitchell, while not naming any commissioner as the one at fault, but saying "some" commissioners have failed in their duties, said he did not come to the board to be denigrated for political points. He said he could only do his job if commissioners would agree to work collectively for the greater good of the constituencies they represented and were "willing to adapt to the principles of good governance."

"If you find this principle unacceptable, I ask you to terminate my position. This is a choice I ask you to make today," he said.

The request shocked commissioners, who eventually voted 4 to 1 to explore options to let Mitchell out of his contract. Commissioner Georgia Hiller dissented.

"I'm just stunned ... I have enjoyed working with you. I know we've had low morale in there and you've tried to bring a little spirit in there to keep people's spirits up. ... I don't know what to say," said Commissioner Donna Fiala.

But some employees said Mitchell's comments echo a pattern that has been going on in county government for some time.

Collier Airport Authority Executive Director Chris Curry said things in the county are more difficult than they have to be.

"I don't know why," he said, although he did admit he knows there is animosity between him and Hiller over the Immokalee Airport. "You just do the best you can and keep your employees motivated. But it is a tough work environment."

Curry said the work environment is difficult because most decisions with the board are split, which often leaves employees feeling they should go in two different directions.

Curry said one of his employees said the county's employees cannot feel confident in their decision making. He said the employee told him they worry they will put their supervisors in a position to be ridiculed in front of the commissioners.

It also seemed obvious to some in the public. Before commissioners recessed their meeting on Tuesday evening, Jim Hoppensteadt asked the commissioners to think about how their actions effect employees.

"They have done an excellent job this year," said Hoppensteadt, president of the Pelican Bay Foundation. "I know there are political issues you grapple with and you don't always see eye to eye. But please don't make your staff a political issue."

Mitchell, who has direct responsibility for the commissioners' management staff, including commission aides, said unnecessary scrutiny of employees has undermined morale and led to a distraction in employees' work. He charged that commissioners "abuse the dignity of county personnel and result in the frivolous use of taxpayer money and resources."

Commissioner Tom Henning wondered if it was Mitchell's review that prompted his comments. Mitchell declined to elaborate on his decision except to say it was not his evaluation, which was good, and said the decision has been forming for some time and that what happened surrounding his evaluation was the "straw that broke the camel's back."

Hiller and Commission Chairman Fred Coyle have been at odds over Hiller's request to delay the evaluations of Mitchell and other employees until a new board could be seated following the November general election.

Hiller has said the delay is appropriate because a "lame duck board" should not bind the current board to contractual or financial obligations "which may not be acceptable."

In an email, Coyle took Hiller's requests and said she was hoping to wait until a new board was seated when she could "control the Board of County Commissioners."

"I think that is a false assumption on her part," he said.

Coyle said Wednesday that his email only highlighted what happened at the commission meeting.

"It will continue," he said. "People get worn down by the things you see, allegations of misconduct. People don't need to deal with this stuff."

Henning told Mitchell he had the opportunity to discuss his issues with the board with individual commissioners. He said he would not ask Mitchell to step down, but if Mitchell chose to resign, Henning would respect his wishes.

Coyle said Mitchell had done a wonderful job for the county.

"There is no question about his concern that this is an untenable work environment," he said. "The position he holds is one of the toughest in Collier County government. ... Clearly, it is in the best interest for the taxpayers if the board is more sensitive to how ... insinuations and allegations impact employee morale."

County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow said Mitchell could not receive a severance if he was terminated under the circumstances. Mitchell had hoped to receive six months severance of his $64,444 annual salary should he be terminated.

Mitchell is entitled to six months severance by contract if he county terminates him when he is "willing and able to perform his duties." Otherwise, Mitchell would have to resign and give the county 60 days notice to be entitled to his accrued leave time, which is less than six months salary.

Coyle said he thought Mitchell was entitled to a severance package because he was not responsible for his work environment.

"This board cannot and will not improve," he said. "It is in the public's best interest to reorganize the office."

Coyle asked Klatzkow to come back with options to be able to pay Mitchell. Coletta wanted to know why the commissioners could not take the same stand with Mitchell that they took with former Bayshore Community Redevelopment Agency Executive Director David Jackson.

Commissioners agreed to terminate Jackson in June and pay him six weeks' salary, but Klatzkow pointed out that commissioners were terminating Jackson because doing so would allow them to help the financially struggling organization, which has to pay back an $8.8 million loan in September 2014.

Klatzkow said the commissioners could terminate Mitchell and ask that he receive six month's severance, but he doubted County Clerk Dwight Brock would pay it.

"He wants to be fired and paid, too," he said. "This is a big boy job. If you don't like the working conditions, find another job. I can come back with something, but I do not see severance pay (as part of that)."

Henning said he thought Mitchell could work individually with commissioners, work with Scott Teach of the county attorney's office and work with human resources to resolve the issues.

"This has taken me by surprise," he said. "We have a great staff in our office. I know this election season has been very tough. But it's over. I think there is an opportunity for improvement and I hope you allow it to happen."

Commissioner Jim Coletta disagreed and said the county was a "hostile work environment" and that employees "sue over things that go on in the county every day."

"I don't think Ian would have any problem documenting a hostile work environment," he said.

Klatzkow said commissioners wanted to be careful not to have a legislative finding of a hostile work environment in their office.

County Manager Leo Ochs also agreed to bring back options for the commissioners to consider about what should be done with their office, including whether it should go back under the purview of Ochs' office.

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