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Hernando government engineer files federal discrimination complaint

BROOKSVILLE — A staff engineer for the county government has filed a federal discrimination complaint, saying she is the target of a campaign to keep her from being promoted.

In the complaint, filed late last week with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Diana Koontz says county environmental services director Susan Goebel-Canning is retaliating against her for complaining about another utilities department employee.

In the complaint, Koontz wrote that employee, administrative assistant Denise Kane-Agosto, failed to complete tasks Koontz assigned to her "because of my gender."

Since lodging the complaint about Kane-Agosto, "I have been subjected to retaliation in the form of false disciplinary write ups and harassment," Koontz wrote. "Susan Goebel-Canning advised me that I should not even bother to apply for an upcoming open position (engineering manager) because I am not management material.

"There has been an ongoing campaign to discredit me in an effort to prevent me from any promotional opportunities," wrote Koontz, 43.

That's the same allegation Koontz's former supervisor, engineering staff manager Dale Ravencraft, made on her behalf earlier this month just before he was forced to resign.

Cheryl Marsden, the county's administrative services director, said she could not comment on the pending EEOC complaint. Goebel-Canning denied the accusations in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month. Kane-Agosto declined to comment.

Employees can file a complaint if they suspect they have been discriminated against because of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, disability or age. Complaints are often addressed in mediation. If not, or if mediation fails, an EEOC investigator will take the case, according to the commission's website.

If an investigation finds a violation, the commission seeks a voluntary settlement with the employer. If that fails, the case goes to the commission's legal staffers to decide whether the agency should file a lawsuit. The employee can sue if the commission opts not to.

Koontz's complaint comes about two weeks after Ravencraft's resignation.

Ravencraft has acknowledged that Koontz made a misstep when, trying to save the county money, she directed the contractor to plant grass seed at the Peck Sink storm water drainage site south of Brooksville. The site plan crafted by the county's engineering consultant called for sod.

Diverging from the plan relieved the consultant of possible liability for damage that later was caused by tropical storms Beryl and Debby, Goebel-Canning told the Times earlier this month. When Goebel-Canning directed Ravencraft to give Koontz a written reprimand, he tried to persuade his boss to reconsider, arguing that counseling and training would be appropriate. Goebel-Canning insisted, so Ravencraft handed Koontz a reprimand memo on July 2.

A week later, Ravencraft told Marsden and Goebel-Canning he had changed his mind and would not complete the official reprimand form. Ravencraft and Goebel-Canning compromised, agreeing to give Koontz a verbal reprimand. Goebel-Canning said Ravencraft dragged his feet, though, so she gave him a verbal warning.

Ravencraft also failed to address issues with his staff, including the simmering tension between Koontz and Kane-Agosto, Goebel-Canning has said. He was given the choice Aug. 6 to resign or be fired, Goebel-Canning and Marsden said the next day. Ravencraft said he had already decided to leave.

In a memo to County Administrator Len Sossaman, Ravencraft said he thought that gossip stemming from the disharmony between his two employees prompted Goebel-Canning to take a hard line against Koontz.

Goebel-Canning has denied that. She has, however, noted areas where she says Koontz needs to improve.

In a July 26 memo to Marsden summarizing a meeting with Koontz held after Koontz's annual performance evaluation, Goebel-Canning called her a skilled engineer who needs to focus on "watching her tone and language when interacting with citizens and co-workers."

"Although the purpose of the meeting was to constructively convey to the employee that her negative behavior needs improvement, Ms. Koontz was defensive and condescending in her demeanor towards me," Goebel-Canning wrote.

In an emailed response, Koontz called Goebel-Canning's memo "a gross misrepresentation" of what happened.

Koontz and Teamsters union representative John Sholtes were scheduled to meet with Sossaman this week. County Attorney Garth Coller recommended that the meeting be canceled after Koontz filed her EEOC complaint, Sossaman said.

In an email to the Times, Sholtes said the informal meeting could have shed some light on what he called "managerial problems" in the department.

"If these issues are remedied, I am convinced the EEOC complaint would go away, but now . . . the matter will drag on, costing the taxpayers more money in legal fees and possibly more embarrassment to the county," Sholtes said. "The employees and the taxpayers deserve better."

Koontz started full time in the county's engineering office in January 2011. She has no other blemishes on her personnel record.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando government engineer files federal discrimination complaint 08/21/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 7:21pm]
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