Ethics Commission redirects complaint against Danville mayor

Published 5:43 pm Monday, October 28, 2019

The Danville Ethics Commission decided a complaint filed by a long-time city employee does not fall under its jurisdiction, but it is issuing a formal recommendation that it should be investigated. 

Monday afternoon, the commission met in open session to discuss a complaint against Mayor Mike Perros, as submitted by Erica Engle. She has worked for the city for 22 years, and requested an incident from July 2018 be reviewed. 

In Engle’s complaint, she writes she had a conversation with Donna Peek, the city’s HR director, during which she voiced concerns about her rate of pay. She said her concerns were shared by Peek with City Manager Ron Scott, who shared the concerns with Mayor Perros. 

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“The next morning, upon entering the administrative offices … Mayor Perros stated to Joyce Collins and Ashley Raider (employees) … ‘I hear Erica’s got her panties in a wad. She’s never getting a raise,’” Engle wrote. She said the two employees were “extremely upset by this comment,” and that it had become “customary for Joyce to hear the mayor make unnecessary, rude comments whenever I would bring paperwork to administration that required his signature.” 

Engle says the two employees made HR Director Peek aware of the comment, who then relayed the incident to Scott. 

“Donna (Peek) made me aware of the incident later that same day, mentioning that Ron must have repeated what Donna had told him about me. There was no other way the mayor could have known,” Engle wrote. 

Engle says she was “completely appalled and humiliated by this hurtful comment,” and that as a loyal employee to the city for more than 20 years, “I was sickened by the idea that an elected official would have the audacity to make such a cruel statement. If he was willing to say it while standing in city hall for any and all to hear, who else had he been willing to say this to?” 

She says that after the incident, she stopped going to the administration side of the building before making a call to be assured the mayor wasn’t present. Engle, who reports to Utility Manager Earl Coffey, said she would not be in the same room with the mayor again. 

“I believe the comment was made with every intent to intimidate, humiliate and otherwise harass me and therefore created a hostile work environment,” Engle wrote. She said other comments from Perros were noted after this incident, “such as ‘Erica needs to have a better attitude,’ and ‘Erica should smile more.’” She says the comments were relayed to her by Coffey under Scott’s direction to do so. 

Engle feels the mayor violated the city’s ethics code, under the section about personal honesty and integrity, as well as the city’s personnel policy, which prohibits workplace harassment and discrimination. 

In her letter, as well as just after the meeting, Engle said because other employees have filed grievances with no resolution, she chose not to do so. “These employees now have a ‘black eye’ with upper management. I only began to feel safe to share my grievance once others began to speak out publicly.” 

Commision chair William Carter went around the table to ask each member’s feeling about whether or not the complaint fell under its jurisdiction. Vice chair Liz Erwin and members Arnetta Myers, James Hunn Sr., Buck Rogers and Sarah Berry were present, along with the board’s attorney, Charlie Cole. 

Myers said although she firmly believes what the mayor stated was offensive, “as far as if it should be under the auspice of this committee, I’m not sure. I’m just being honest — I’m not sure. I’ve got to hear a little more I think about why it should be here.” 

“I think we all know that words hurt … and they last for an eternity,” said Hunn. He said the board was reading about one specific incident Engle is describing, but that “it seemed like something else to me is going on …” because of her attempts to completely avoid the mayor. “… we need to know more. We know what the complaint is and what was said, but we don’t know what was in between that. To me, it’s still something ongoing.” 

Rogers said it first had to be determined if it’s even the responsibility of the Ethics Commission. “I would assume our legal counsel, in the final analysis, would give us that opinion. If it’s decided that it’s in the purview of this group, then I think I’m ready, as all of us are, to dig in and make a decision. But first of all, is it our business?” 

Carter said regardless of what the commission decided, “I hope it advances to the appropriate investigative agency, whomever that might be, to continue.” 

Attorney Cole said he went through the city’s ethics ordinance and it’s his opinion the complaint does not fall within its jurisdiction. He also reviewed case law and attorney general decisions, but was not able to find anywhere an ethics board had taken up this “similar type of facts scenario.” 

He said although Engle had indicated in her letter that she didn’t want to pursue a grievance against the mayor, it “is available and of course the law prevents retaliation. You don’t even have to state that — it’s a part of it.” 

Cole also suggested that the local human rights commission — Citizens Concerned for Human Relations — could be an appropriate venue for the complaint. 

As part of the official statement from the Ethics Commission, which will be delivered to the city, Engle and Mayor Perros, Cole said there will also be “an advisory opinion” that is a recommendation Engle pursue the complaint through other venues. 

Rogers said that’s a major point he hopes everyone gets. “It’s not that people are refusing to explore this, it’s a matter or whether it’s our right, or duty, to explore it.” 

Cole said perhaps it’s even appropriate that the Ethics Commission include a recommendation that the city look into the issue. 

Although the commission unanimously agreed the issue wasn’t under its jurisdiction, as far as what they’d been given to review, all members also agreed on the importance of showing support for any employee who feels like they have been harassed or discriminated against. 

After the meeting, Engle said she understood the commission’s opinion.

“I will probably put forth a grievance as they suggested. But I will tell you, there’s a lot more coming,” she said.

She declined to elaborate further.