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Hernando officials to try to calm employee tensions at utilities site

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Administrator David Hamilton will meet with workers at the county's Wiscon Road utilities office this morning to try to calm tensions that have led employees to make accusations, sign petitions and threaten one another.

Hamilton and a representative of human resources interviewed workers at the facility last month to get to the bottom of a deep divide. At the center of the controversy is the shop steward for Teamsters Union Local 79, five-year employee James Beck.

Beck was placed on paid administrative leave Wednesday. "We are in the middle of an ongoing investigation and I cannot discuss specifics at this time,'' said Cheryl Marsden, administrative services director.

In September, 46 of 116 workers at the office signed a petition denouncing Beck and accusing him of causing constant disruption and destroying employee morale.

None of those who signed were members of the union, however. Some workers later told Teamsters officials that they barely knew Beck and felt pressured into signing the petition.

The union then called for a full investigation, saying Beck was under attack because he was pointing out safety violations and other issues at the site which didn't fit with the proper way to do things.

Beck, they said, had been singled out for reprimands for behavior that other employes also exhibited but for which they had not been disciplined.

Among the recommendations that Hamilton is expected to make are a suggestion that Beck look into other job opportunities with the county "in an effort to reduce the tension at Wiscon and to give (him) another opportunity to prove his value to the organization.''

Hamilton said Wednesday that he believes that other job opportunities are available in the county but that Beck's status with the county has changed.

While county officials wouldn't comment on the reason for the paid administrative leave, Chris Soto, a fellow union steward, said the county is accusing Beck of falsifying his original application when he applied for work five years ago.

Beck had been a substitute teacher with the Hernando School District and left after a student accused him of putting his hands on him. No charges were filed and both Beck and the district agreed to part company, Soto said.

He said the union would defend Beck and that Beck wasn't actually employed by the district and didn't list the substitute job for that reason.

Hamilton's recommendations are far broader than just Beck's future.

He recommends that utilities management including Environmental Services Director Joe Stapf regularly visit staff at the site or at job sites to "see how things are going.''

"If the culture is to change, management have to be seen as interested in being part of the change,'' Hamilton wrote.

In the assessment, he raised questions about the management structure at the site, which might have been partly a throw-back to when the county acquired Florida Water Services. His recommendation is to draft a plan to "thin management/supervisory positions that brings management closer to the operating level.''

Other recommendations include assurance that staff does not interfere with employees' choices on whether or not to join the union, additional training for staff focused on conflict management and respectful workplace habits and moving forward with a plan to consolidate utilities offices at Wiscon Road.

That would enhance all forms of communications, Hamilton noted.

"A commitment by every employee that service to the public is his or her primary goal,'' is Hamilton's final recommendation. He wrote, "Arguing and disrupting the organization for whatever personal reason takes the focus off the daily work (and) away from serving the customer.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando officials to try to calm employee tensions at utilities site 01/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 7:50pm]
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