Complaint asks Boyle to create policy for reporting harassment

Published 5:58 pm Thursday, December 5, 2019

Boyle County’s tourism director filed a formal sexual harassment complaint with the county government in October, asking the fiscal court to do more about comments made by Magistrate Phil Sammons about her legs.

The Advocate-Messenger obtained Jennifer Kirchner’s complaint through an open records request filed last week. In it, she recounts what occurred at a public meeting of the Boyle County Fiscal Court on Sept. 10, when Sammons made a joke about how nice Kirchner’s legs were as she was presenting annual tax-rate information about the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Kirchner also describes the effects the incident has had on her since and alleges it was “not an isolated incident with Magistrate Sammons.”

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“I can confirm there are other employees at the courthouse who have similar and even worse done to them by Magistrate Sammons, but they have not felt comfortable coming forward,” the complaint claims. “Since this occurred in September, I have heard many stories regarding his disrespectful and harassing behavior from others outside the courthouse, as well.”

The complaint asks the fiscal court to request Sammons’ resignation.

“Second, I would love to see more progress towards standard best practices. Training is a step in the right direction, but there’s more to it,” Kirchner wrote, referring to a diversity training event county officials attended after the Sept. 10 incident. “I would like to see a plan of action in writing and made public. It is important to me that issues like this don’t happen again, and if they do, that there is a very clear protocol for both the complainant and fiscal court.”

Sammons declined to comment on the complaint Wednesday.

Kirchner said at this point, more than a month after she filed her complaint with the county, she has yet to hear back. Even filing a complaint was difficult because there’s apparently no formal process in place to handle incidents of alleged sexual harassment, she said.

Kirchner said she still thinks something more should be done by the county in response to Sammons’ comments, but she’s most interested in the other request made in her complaint — that a process is developed so that anyone experiencing harassment in the future has a clear path to a resolution.

“I think what’s become really clear is that our local policies and procedures are very dated and need to be addressed,” she said. “… I’ve been really, really surprised that it’s 2019. I was shocked when that was said to me, but I was even more shocked at the lack of processes in place for these kinds of events. The aftermath — it kind of has been more hurtful than the actual incident itself.”

The newspaper’s open records request asked for any grievances or formal complaints filed by or on behalf of Kirchner, as well as “any responses back to Kirchner from the court or (Judge-Executive Howard Hunt).” The county provided Kirchner’s complaint, accompanied by a cover letter from CVB board Chair Brittney Adams; no other documents were included.

Judge-Executive Hunt said Wednesday that he “immediately” took action when he received the complaint, and County Attorney Chris Herron has been in contact with Adams about the complaint ever since the county received it.

“I take anything like that very seriously. I communicated with the county attorney, he talked with Brittney and has communicated back and forth with her,” he said.

Kirchner said Wednesday that Adams had spoken with County Attorney Chris Herron “briefly” after the complaint was filed.

Hunt said he does believe “there is an absence of procedures of what to do when something like this occurs in the future. We’re going to take care of that.”

Hunt said the county is in the process of updating its regulations and procedures to include a formal process by which someone could file a complaint and how that complaint would be handled. Any new process would be brought before the fiscal court for approval, probably next year, he said.

“We’re addressing the complaint and I think that’s where we should leave it,” he said, explaining he couldn’t comment further without consulting an attorney.


‘They treat me differently’


Kirchner said the whole situation has made her realize how difficult things can be for people who speak up against harassment.

When Sammons made a joke to Danville Mayor Mike Perros about Kirchner’s legs during the Sept. 10 meeting, it caused some in the room to laugh. Kirchner was initially unaware of what had caused the laughter. But after Sammons explained to her what he had said, she responded.

“Listen — I’m a professional woman up here talking about tax rates, not to be objectified about my legs,” Kirchner told Sammons, as some laughter continued.

Kirchner said she gets asked about the incident all the time and she had to have a talk with her children about what happened and what was going on because of the publicity.

“People do act differently around me. They treat me differently,” she said. “… People are just uncomfortable around me, and I didn’t do anything wrong to begin with.”

But Kirchner said there have been positives, as well. A lot of women who are older than her have told her about incidents when they were harassed and they didn’t speak up; they’ve told her they wish they had, she said.

Kirchner said while her complaint asks for Sammons to resign, she’s open to other suggestions.

“I still think that that would be appropriate. If they had a better solution, I would listen to that, too,” she said. “I’m not uncompromising. I truly want this to be handled better in the future.

“… I feel a moral obligation to make sure that this doesn’t happen again and if it does, we deal with it in a much better way.”


‘Good people who want to do the right thing’


Adams letter prefacing Kirchner’s complaint notes that the complaint is being filed in part due to a lack of response from the county following the Sept. 10 incident.

“While there was a public statement, no one from the Boyle County Courthouse ever contacted Jennifer or I to discuss the issue or respond to the email,” she said, referencing an email she sent to the fiscal court in the days immediately after Sammons’ comment. “The board and I find the lack of direct response very disrespectful. While a public statement was necessary, you failed to address the victim personally. You are good people who want to do the right thing. There is still time to stand up for what you believe is right.”

Adams’ letter continues, “After waiting on a response from fiscal court, hearing stories from other women about Magistrate Sammons and deliberating, Jennifer has decided to push through the victim shaming and retaliation to file a formal sexual harassment complaint. In lieu of being able to determine a formal process … I have provided you with an incident report form completed by Jennifer. I ask that you acknowledge receipt of this complaint via email with a detailed plan to address the complaint no later than by close of business Friday, Nov. 1.

“As leaders, I encourage you to take measures to handle this matter properly, but I also encourage you to look to the future. It is up to you to let the world know that you are not complicit in harassing and demeaning behavior by establishing policies and procedures to ensure everyone walking into the Boyle County Courthouse is welcomed and treated with respect.”


‘Dreading the day that I have to return’


Kirchner’s complaint summarizes the Sept. 10 incident this way: “As I was stating the details regarding the tax and discussing other CVB financial matters, I realized that I was being laughed at by Magistrate John Caywood, Magistrate Phil Sammons and Mayor Mike Perros. I was confused and flustered and asked what was happening. I spun around a few times as well, trying to put the pieces quickly together. … I had not realized that (Sammons and Perros) were pointing and joking about my legs and what I was wearing.

“Magistrate Caywood, while laughing, told me they were ‘talking about me’ and I should ‘be careful.’ At that point, Magistrate Sammons detailed to me exactly what he said as Mayor Perros tried to distance himself from the comments.”

Kirchner wrote that she has not been back to a fiscal court meeting since the incident.

“I am dreading the day that I have to return, but know that it is an important part of my job,” she wrote. “The lack of respect from the Boyle County Fiscal Court members and other associates during and after the event has left me feeling exhausted and insecure … After this occurred, so much that I have worked for has been forever changed. My effectiveness has been compromised and the constant commentary has taken a toll on me mentally. And the worst part is that I did nothing wrong. The offenders can move on, but I do not get to.”

Kirchner alleges that others have had “similar and even worse done to them by Magistrate Sammons” and recounts a different incident from 2017, when Sammons used an analogy about a hunting dog to suggest that Jody Lassiter, president and CEO of the Economic Development Partnership, should be fired.

“… if you got a dog that won’t hunt, you shoot him,” Sammons said at the time, as reported in The Advocate-Messenger. “So we need to take that step and move forward …”

Kirchner also alleges that “in previous years, I informally reported harassment by Sammons.”

“I explained that I was uncomfortable working with or being near Sammons as he often talked too close and rubbed my back and arms,” she wrote. “I was told that I did not have to be alone with or work closely with him and that this was a known issue with Magistrate Sammons.”


‘A better conversation’


Kirchner said Wednesday she is disappointed in how the situation has been handled, but hopeful it can be resolved in a positive way.

“I’m not angry at one particular person. I know Magistrate Sammons would take it back in a heartbeat if he could,” she said. “So I don’t necessarily want to keep rehashing the unfortunate comment. But I do wish that there was a better conversation happening about what they’re going to do to make this all right. Maybe that’s not Magistrate Sammons resigning; maybe it is. I have not heard anything from them, at all.”