Danville hires outside attorney to investigate grievances against mayor, city manager

Published 5:16 pm Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The City of Danville will hire independent counsel to investigate a trio of grievances filed against Mayor Mike Perros and City Manager Ron Scott by two city employees. The motion was made Tuesday night after the city commission returned from the first of two executive sessions held for personnel reasons.

Commissioner Denise Terry made the motion.

“In light of circumstances surrounding a grievance filed against the mayor and the city manager — who is typically responsible for investigating grievances — I move we hire an independent, outside attorney to investigate the grievance filed by Erica Engle, and also the prior grievance filed by Joyce Collins, and any other related facts,” Terry said.

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Terry said that independent counsel will be Barbara A. Kriz, of Kriz, Jenkins, Pruitt & Jones, P.S.C. out of Lexington.

Collins and Engle, long-time city employees, filed complaints against Perros stating he made discriminating and harassing remarks to them or about them in the workplace.

Engle has also filed a grievance against Scott, stating that he failed to exercise his duty as city manager and act after he was told about the comments Perros made to other employees about her, according to city officials at the meeting.

Terry said Commissioner J.H. Atkins, who is mayor pro tem, will sign a professional service contract to employ the firm, “so that a written report can be prepared as expeditiously as possible.” She then spoke directly to Engle and Collins, who were seated in the audience, telling them that the attorney “and some city staff will be contacting you and that will start the investigation.”

Commissioner Rick Serres said he felt like he should make a comment.

“We’re doing this because the city manager is involved in the grievance as well, and we need another investigator, it’s typically his role,” Serres said. “That’s me pleading ignorance on this whole thing, so if anybody else was like me, that’s your explanation.”

Engle, who has worked for the city for 22 years, filed a complaint in October against Perros with the Danville Ethics Commission about an incident she says happened in 2018. She says two city employees said Perros told them that he heard “Erica’s got her panties in wad” over issues she had voiced about her pay rate with the human resources director, and that she would never get a raise.

Engle says she was told about other comments Perros had made to employees after that incident, including that she needed a better attitude and to smile more; she says she stopped coming to the administrative offices when she knew the mayor was there. In her complaint to the Ethics Commission, she wrote that “these were all meant to intimidate, humiliate and otherwise harass me, and therefore created a hostile work environment,” and violated the city’s personnel policy prohibiting workplace harassment.

Although the Ethics Commission, which held an open meeting about the complaint, decided the issue did not fall under its jurisdiction, all members voiced serious concerns if these incidents did in fact happen, and urged Engle to file a grievance. It issued a formal recommendation that the city should take it upon itself to investigate.

After the Ethics hearing, Engle said she hadn’t come forward about her complaint because others had filed grievances with no resolution, and said those 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.”

Collins is one of those who chose to go public. She filed a grievance this summer against Perros for making remarks about the color of her skin and that she wears wigs in front of a new employee she was training, then repeating the comments to a second new city employee.

Collins is African American and wears wigs due to being a breast cancer survivor.

She didn’t make her grievance public until September, after a joke-gone-south situation in a Boyle County Fiscal Court meeting was publicized, making her feel more comfortable in coming forward.

While in the audience of that open meeting, Mayor Perros made a joke about Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Jennifer Kirchner not wearing socks as she gave a presentation, which Magistrate Phil Sammons took to another level by commenting on the attractiveness of her legs.

Sammons was swiftly called out by Kirchner on the spot, with many in the room laughing over the incident. Due to the aftermath, including letters to the editor, a social media comment storm and public statements from other public officials condemning Sammons’ comment, Sammons apologized. The fiscal court also publicly condemned his statement, but Sammons was not given any formal reprimand.

Collins filed her grievance in June, asking for a handwritten apology letter from Perros, and agreed the issue could be taken up in executive session, which is how personnel issues are typically handled, during a week she was on vacation. The city cannot take action during closed session; and it did not take any action concerning the grievance after returning to open session.

Collins spoke to City Manager Scott after the fact, asking why no public apology was offered; she was told she had not requested one, and that the mayor verbalized his regret over the situation and gave an apology to the rest of the commission in closed session. Collins was given a handwritten letter from Perros on his personal letterhead; a diversity training was held for city officials; and there was to be no further interaction between Collins and Perros, which were her three requests to satisfy her grievance.

When Collins continued to question why no action was taken in open session, she says Scott reiterated she did not ask for one, and told her there was no need for this “unless you just want to publicly embarrass the mayor.” After Collins went public with the situation, Scott said during a city commission meeting that it was determined the mayor was “not acting in an official capacity as mayor” when the incident happened. Perros was at city hall signing checks when he made the comments.

Perros has discussed his actions in interviews, and since apologized to Collins during a public meeting. He maintained he did not first deliver a public apology due to “advice from counsel,” referring to City Attorney Stephen Dexter. Dexter seemed to dispute that claim during a past city commission meeting, explaining he is no one’s personal attorney on the commission and does not mandate when or how an official chooses to offer an apology.

“I really don’t know what to think,” Collins said Wednesday when asked about the commission’s move to hire an outside attorney to investigate both grievances. “I guess I’m glad they’re finally trying to see the light on the city’s mistakes.”

She says she really does hate that it all had to go this far. “All I want is for this city to do their employees right. The mayor clearly broke the city’s policies — all I wanted was to be treated equally.”

Collins says she doesn’t feel like Scott stood up for her as city manager; she feels he stood up for the mayor, instead.

“I’m not wanting the mayor to get fired or anything. I just want the right thing to be done. Don’t overlook us because we’re at the bottom, and he’s at the top. I felt like I didn’t matter because I’m just an employee.”

As Tuesday night’s meeting concluded, Commissioner Atkins seemed to surprise the rest of the commission by making a motion that the commission go into another executive session, again for personnel issues. No action was taken when they returned to open session.

Wednesday, Atkins said he requested a return to executive session “because I had some things left that I wanted to say and get off of my chest,” and that it was a continuation of the topic from the first session.

Kentucky law allows public agencies such as Danville City Commission to meet in closed session on personnel issues only when the discussion “might lead to the appointment, discipline or dismissal of an individual … without restricting that (individual’s) right to a public hearing if requested.”