The city of Decatur has only two workers in its Revenue Department after losing the office's two most senior employees in late April following disciplinary actions that led the manager to retire early and the tax and license auditor to quit.
Sal Jasso’s retirement as manager takes effect July 1, but he is using vacation time until then that otherwise would have been cashed out at his retirement. Julia Wells, former tax and license auditor, submitted a resignation letter April 27 that said she was leaving “due to a hostile work environment,” according to documents obtained by The Decatur Daily through a public records request.
Recently promoted Chief Financial Officer Kyle Demeester, who oversees the department, said a temporary employee was hired and two permanent employees will start May 17. He said the city recently posted the manager’s job and he hopes to hire someone soon. As of now the department operates with the temporary employee and another worker hired seven months ago.
“My hope is that by the end of the month we’ll be a fully staffed department again. I know HR and I have been working really hard on getting that fully staffed,” Demeester said.
Jasso has been with the city 27 years and with the Revenue Department for 14. Wells had been in the Revenue Department almost three years. They provided little information on their reasons for leaving their jobs.
“I guess I’m just on vacation until I retire,” Jasso said last week. “I have comp time and vacation time to be off until then, but I’m afraid of any type of retaliation if I were to talk about it.”
Wells likewise declined to give specifics last week, saying only that she was aware of conduct “that would look very bad on the mayor and the new CFO, but I do want to speak with my attorney first. It’s a lot of stuff. This has been going on about a year.”
In her resignation letter, she attributed her decision to “a hostile work environment created by the current Chief Financial Officer, Kyle Demeester; the City Clerk, Stephanie Simon; and the Mayor, Tab Bowling, of the City of Decatur. I am resigning from my duties at this date and time and will not return to the position, as I am using one week of my accrued vacation for my one week notice.”
The City Clerk’s Office and Revenue Department share space on the first floor of City Hall.
Simon was promoted to city clerk April 5 after former clerk Stacy Gilley went on medical leave Dec. 14 and retired April 1. Demeester was promoted to CFO on March 8 after his predecessor John Andrzejewski retired in January.
Demeester said he was surprised by Wells' accusation.
"I am not really sure how or what warranted the comment that I created a hostile work environment," Demeester said Friday. "She did not mention any specific allegations and nothing in my interactions with her could give rise to this accusation."
Simon also said she did not know what prompted Wells' allegation.
"I am unaware of anything as I had very little interaction with her," Simon said.
Both Jasso and Wells had been subject to disciplinary proceedings in the weeks before their departure.
According to an April 13 letter from Bowling to Jasso, the manager met with “the leadership team” on March 24 about concerns reported to the Human Resources Department “that have been going on for some time.” The reported behavior, Bowling wrote, included “horseplay, goofing off, unprofessional and profane language, and interactions with other employees and citizens that are rude and inconsistent with excellent customer service.”
After that meeting, according to Bowling’s letter, Jasso was put on several days of paid administrative leave. Because he’s not a department director, the City Council has no say in his employment status.
Bowling and the leadership team, which included City Attorney Herman Marks, met with Jasso on April 2, according to the letter.
According to Bowling’s letter, Jasso “acknowledged and took ownership as the manager of the department for the majority of the horseplay and unprofessional language and behaviors.” Jasso also, according to the letter, “recognized the need to manage differently” an employee, Heather Weeks, who now is one of the two remaining Revenue Department workers. Weeks was hired Oct. 5.
Marks, according to the letter, told Jasso that under his leadership “an environment was created that made others feel uncomfortable. That he had confidence in your ability to be a good supervisor and manager, but that you needed to understand the seriousness of what was being considered should you be permitted to return to your position.”
The plan after that April 2 meeting was for Jasso to remain as manager until Dec. 31, when he would retire. The idea was that he would train a new manager before that time.
Sometime after the meeting, however, Jasso changed his retirement date to July 1 and, rather than cashing out accrued vacation pay upon his retirement, he is using it now.
Jasso last week said he did not know how the department will function now.
“Julie (Wells) had a lot of banking experience and she’s been there about three years and I had been in the department for about 14 years, so I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing is black and white there. There’s a lot of situations every day that you have to really know what you’re doing or you can get the city sued. There’s a lot of data entry, but there’s also a lot of state law and ordinances that you have to know to do that job. I don’t know how they’re doing it or what they’re doing, honestly.”
Human Resources Director Richelle Sandlin on Friday said the rights of Jasso and Wells when faced with disciplinary action were very different.
“The manager position — Sal’s position — would be exempt from the merit system and due process. Julie’s position is not exempt from the merit system and due process,” she said. “The disciplinary processes for those two are distinctly different.”
As a non-exempt employee, Wells had a right to know the charges against her, a right to a determination hearing and certain appeal rights if disciplined.
Six days after Jasso was advised that his job was at risk, the city gave Wells a notice of possible disciplinary action.
“You have participated in unprofessional behavior in the office during business hours engaging in, among other things, profane language and horseplay with co-workers and a supervisor,” according to the March 30 notice signed by Bowling. “This horseplay includes but is not limited to wrestling. This activity is actively engaged in by you and you even showed co-workers injuries you received in these activities.
“While on duty, you created or erected a monument or shrine of some kind with pictures of your supervisor.”
The notice also accused her of other infractions involving time entries, delayed filing of daily revenue reports and customer service issues. The notice claimed she had deleted files on her computer after Jasso was placed on administrative leave, suggesting “you were aware of the wrongdoing you were participating in and were attempting to avoid detection or destroy evidence.”
Bowling met with Wells for her determination hearing April 8 and sent her a letter the following day, which The Daily also obtained through a public records request.
“I was pleased to hear you accept responsibility for your actions, admit they were unacceptable and show remorse,” Bowling wrote. “You said it was your desire to remain with the city and it appeared to me from your demeanor and statements that you were serious.”
Bowling wrote that he had determined that the charges asserted against her were accurate, and he placed her on probation for six months.
Sandlin on Friday said her department was not aware of problems in the Revenue Department until March.
“It’s our understanding it was reported at some point to prior leadership over those two departments (Revenue and the Clerk’s Office), it just never elevated to HR or to Legal,” she said. “We’re taking steps to make sure people know HR is here as a mediator for all levels.”
Sandlin sent a letter to Wells asking that she specify the events creating a hostile work environment, but on Friday said Wells had not responded.
Bowling declined to comment on the specifics of the personnel actions Friday but said he was surprised no customers had complained about Revenue Department operations.
“Normally we’re expected to be perfect in the eyes of our residents, but nobody contacted us. That shocked us,” he said.
He also said he was disappointed staff in the Clerk’s Office did not alert Human Resources or Legal to the Revenue Department conduct, and he has since met with them to make sure any future issues are reported.
Bowling said the personnel issues were an educational moment for Demeester in his new role as a director.
“The new CFO, who is responsible for Revenue, learned through this. He had been in his role for a week and a half (before HR learned there were problems). He had an opportunity to see the importance of staying close to a department and asking questions, looking for signs,” Bowling said.
The city’s investigation indicated the conduct was ongoing under the previous city clerk and CFO, Bowling said.
Demeester said the Revenue Department is short-staffed, but he and others have pitched in to help.
“We’re doing all we can,” he said. “It’s kind of been a team approach. People from everywhere, not just people in Finance, are pitching in to help keep the operations going. I don’t think it’s missed a beat, to be honest.”