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Treasure Island public works director under fire

After hearing allegations of racism, favoritism and unsafe work practices by the city's public works director, the city began an investigation Wednesday into the claims.

The allegations were outlined in a petition signed by 30 of the Public Works Department's 41 employees seeking the ouster of their boss, director Ronnie E. Owen. The petition was presented at a commission work session Wednesday afternoon.

The petition comes on the heels of a state investigation that led environmental officials to order the city to stop disposing sewage into a sand pit that drains into a canal and environmentally sensitive waters.

The state also ordered the city to adopt a safe method of disposing sewage or face a possible fine of $10,000 a day, as well as criminal pollution charges.

Public works employee Jeff Moss presented the petition on behalf of the 30 employees and told the City Commission that Owen has put the employees, as well as residents, at risk with his unsafe disposal practices. Moss also said Owen uses other unsafe practices putting employees and residents at risk.

But the crux of the petition was that Owen has grossly mismanaged his department and is a racist with a caustic style that includes favoritism and crude and unfitting comments.

Moss said employees fear reprisal from Owen and they want to see a swift investigation and appropriate action taken.

"The powers that be have created a massive problem with inept administration," Moss said. ". . .But that does not excuse overt racism and exposing residents to hazardous situations."

Owen, reached at home, said he was disappointed that employees in his department went straight to the commission with complaints without talking to him first. He declined to discuss the specific allegations in the petition.

Commissioner Temple Corson said at the meeting that he was concerned by the large number of employees who had come forward.

"These are very serious allegations: racism, favoritism," he said. "What impresses me is that 30 out of 41 employees have signed this. Obviously there's something wrong in Denmark and I, for one, intend to find out what it is."

Mayor Walter Stubbs said Tuesday he thought the petition amounted to nothing more than people following the lead of a disgruntled employee, but on Wednesday, after about 30 employees showed up at the meeting, he directed the city manager to investigate the matter.

"If there's a problem, we'll find it," Stubbs said.

However, on Tuesday, Stubbs said the city would not fire Owen _ "an excellent employee" _ over allegations by a disgruntled employee.

City Manager Peter Lombardi had no comment on the petition because he had "just begun an investigation" and did not know whether he would have to bring in the police department to help him or not.

Owen had this to say in a telephone interview to a reporter: "I wish they had had the courtesy of going to the city manager or of coming directly to me and talking about it. You can get along in this world as long as you're talking and when there's no communication and all of a sudden it's a petition at the commission, then something's wrong.

"Nobody has come to me and said anything as to what's on their mind."

Residents thanked Moss and the employees for coming forward.

"I am proud to live in a city where city employees have the courage to put the welfare of the citizens above job security," said Nancy Schubart. ". . .Since whistle blowers are protected by law, I'm sure there will be no reprisals against these courageous employees."