Report says Hernando County utilities worker's claim of harassment unfounded

BROOKSVILLE — A claim by a county utilities worker of retaliation and harassment by his bosses has been determined to be unfounded, according to the results of an investigation released by the county this week.

Chris Soto, an inspector in the Utilities Department and a Teamsters union steward, claimed he was being harassed and that assistant utilities director Jesse Goodwin was aggressive and hostile in talking with him about a possible job change.

In a Dec. 5 email, the day after his meeting with Goodwin, Soto wrote: "I believe this attempt to remove me from my position as an engineering inspector was a retaliatory action for the many union issues and grievances filed by employees that I have helped to represent.''

The investigator saw it differently.

"Christopher Soto's conversation with Jesse Goodwin may well have appeared to be threatening, intimidating, harassing and retaliatory in Soto's subjective perception,'' wrote investigator Kent Weissinger. "However, given all the information derived from the interviews of supervisors and employees, it seems likely that the conversation was not intended by Goodwin to be that way.''

The report is the latest peek into the workings of the Utilities Department, which has been plagued by harassment and discrimination allegations for several years.

Weissinger's report recounts details of dysfunction in the operation of the utilities office, including battles between employees. One, engineer Diana Koontz, has filed a federal discrimination complaint. Another, her supervisor, Dale Ravencraft, was forced to resign after he refused to discipline Koontz for what he considered a minor error.

Ravencraft wrote a long, scathing memo, detailing the internal strife and "hostile work environment" at the utilities office.

Even as Weissinger was investigating Soto's complaint, employees revealed another harassment allegation that is now being investigated separately.

In the midst of the internal turmoil, utilities head Susan Goebel-Canning started an internal efficiency study. The so-called "manpower evaluation'' is examining where the department might be able to cut costs.

On the morning of Dec. 4, Soto was called into Goebel-Canning's office to answer why witnesses had reported that he was in his county truck at two locations one day where no county work was taking place. He had explanations for each case. At the end of the session, Goodwin asked Soto to stop by the Wiscon Road utilities office later.

The two arrived at the office at the same time, and Goodwin asked to talk to Soto in the parking lot. He asked Soto if he would be willing to work temporarily as a water plant operator, a job he had done before he became inspector. Soto said he had no interest in that job.

"At that time, (Goodwin's) demeanor and tone began to change from pleasant to firm then to terse, bordering on contempt,'' Soto wrote in his email to the Teamsters, copied to the county's human resources head, Cheryl Marsden, and Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben.

Then, Soto wrote, Goodwin began to talk to him about permanent placement in the operator's job if his inspector's job were to be eliminated.

"It was during that discussion the statement was made, 'The way I see it, you have two options. Take the job or not have a job,' '' Soto quoted Goodwin as saying.

"I found this comment to be intimidating and threatening, meant to bully me into complying with his wishes by playing on the fear of separation of employment,'' Soto wrote. "I was greatly offended by this openly aggressive and hostile statement.''

Soto told Goodwin that he thought Goebel-Canning had a negative perception of him because he has helped employees with workplace complaints as part of his union steward's job. Goodwin ended the conversation saying he would tell Goebel-Canning what his answer was regarding the plant operator's job.

Goodwin's version of the conversation was somewhat different. He denied telling Soto that he had to switch jobs or he would not have one.

But Goodwin did acknowledge that some people do not like working for him because he holds his employees accountable, especially when they are in the public eye.

Another employee told Weissinger that Goodwin's management style is "always a form of intimidation'' and he didn't think Goodwin realized the effect that had on some workers.

Months before the incident with Soto, Goebel-Canning had an informal counseling session with Goodwin.

"I explained to him that his tone comes across very strong to some employees and he needs to be mindful of that fact when conveying his message,'' she said.

Goodwin said that his approach is to get employees to do the work they were hired to do. Those who do their jobs should not feel intimidated by him, he said.

Soto took issue with Weissinger's findings.

"Intimidation is not a management style,'' Soto told the Times. "It's prohibited by the Fair Labor Act.''

He said the findings were "pretty much what I expected. … It's a document to cover the county's backside.''

Soto said other interviews with employees who agreed with his viewpoint were ignored by Weissinger. He called the investigation "a farce'' and "a dog and pony show.''

He said he plans to obtain the interview notes and submit them to an independent human resources expert.

Weissinger is a former assistant county attorney, and during his tenure he oversaw legal issues for the Utilities Department. He was chosen for the investigator's job for that reason and because Marsden had a conflict in investigating because she administers the employee contract and heads up the administration's negotiating team with the Teamsters, according to Jouben.

Soto is on the bargaining team for the Teamsters.

"The county considered Kent to be both independent and unbiased,'' Jouben told the Times in an email.

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

Report says Hernando County utilities worker's claim of harassment unfounded 12/20/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 20, 2012 7:03pm]

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