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Most impactful stories of 2019: Complaints, apologies, investigation and more follow controversial Sept. 10 incident

Editor’s note: This is the third of five stories chosen by The Advocate-Messenger’s staff as the most impactful of 2019.

What was intended as an off-hand joke by Boyle County Magistrate Phil Sammons turned into one of the most controversial storylines of late 2019.

Beyond the immediate impacts of Sammons’ public comments about the attractiveness of a woman’s legs, the incident wound up bringing attention to other complaints about Danville Mayor Mike Perros, who was joking around with Sammons Sept. 10 when Sammons made the comment.

Apologies and statements condemning Sammons’ comment followed over the coming weeks. Many in the community called for resignations from both officials. Others have since said there’s been enough said and everyone needs to move on.

Boyle County Fiscal Court is in the process of developing a new harassment policy that would create a process for reporting future incidents of harassment.

Danville hired an outside attorney to investigate complaints against Perros; the city recently released the report from that investigation, finding a lack of evidence to support claims of discrimination.

Here are some of the moments and community opinions from the past four months:

 

Sept. 10 — Magistrate jokes about tourism director’s legs

 

When tourism director Jennifer Kirchner stood before the Boyle County Fiscal Court Tuesday morning, she expected to talk about the 3-percent room tax her agency levies on hotel stays in the county. But she did not expect public officials to talk and joke about her legs.

But members of the court and some in the audience did just that, leaving Kirchner embarrassed and angry.

Some background to understand what happened: Earlier in the meeting, Magistrate Phil Sammons had jokingly made a motion to give Danville Mayor Mike Perros, who was in the audience, a pair of socks because he wasn’t wearing any. It’s not the first time Sammons has made fun of Perros for wearing shoes without socks.

When Kirchner’s turn on the agenda came, she stood at the podium.

“I’m just here to acknowledge we do a 3-percent transient room tax for being an SPGE (special-purpose governmental agency) and also if you have any questions about our most recent financials, they’re on there as well,” she told the court.

While Treasurer Mary Conley was asking Kirchner for a copy of the annual tourism budget, Perros caught Sammons’ eye and pointed at Kirchner’s shoes.

“No socks,” Perros whispered across the room to Sammons.

“If you had legs like that, I’d …” Sammons mumbled in reply, the last part of what he said being too quiet to hear.

“Jennifer, they’re talking about you,” Magistrate John Caywood said. “I’d be careful.”

“Why?” Kirchner asked, looking confused.

“Jennifer, I made a comment about you,” Sammons said. “The mayor’s making fun of you.”

“I’m not making fun of her,” Perros said. “She didn’t have any socks.”

Then Sammons repeated his earlier comment for the whole room.

“I said, ‘If he had legs like that, he wouldn’t have to wear socks.”

Multiple people on the court and in the audience laughed at Sammons’ comment, but Kirchner pushed back.

“Listen — I’m a professional woman up here talking about tax rates, not to be objectified about my legs,” she said.

There was more laughter from members of the court and the audience.

Later in the meeting, Magistrate Jamey Gay spoke up.

“Jennifer, if I could, I do want to apologize for the court,” Gay said. “That was completely inappropriate. I appreciate you standing up for yourself as well.”

“Yes it was,” Sammons said.

After the meeting, Sammons asked a reporter not to put what he had said in print. “When you do that (write a story), take that out,” he said.

When the reporter declined, Sammons offered an explanation.

“The mayor made that recommendation and I shouldn’t have paid any attention to him,” Sammons said. “It was just a joke between me and the mayor. I’m sorry I made the comment. I was just following up on what the mayor had to say. OK? Put it some way about me and the mayor was joking and she took it serious.”

 

Sept. 12: Apologies follow controversial comment

 

A Boyle County magistrate has attempted to privately apologize to the local tourism director for a joke he made about her legs during a public meeting, according to tourism director Jennifer Kirchner.

The day after Magistrate Phil Sammons’ controversial comment, some men who had been at the meeting also issued public statements.

Danville Mayor Mike Perros sent a letter to the editor to The Advocate-Messenger Wednesday morning, in which he apologized for his role in what happened and said Kirchner “was right to stand up for herself and her professionalism. I was wrong to respond to a previous comment made to me in a public meeting.”

Boyle County Judge-Executive Howard Hunt held a press conference to address the matter.

“I as the Boyle County Judge-Executive neither agree with nor embrace the comments put forth by Magistrate Sammons during Tuesday’s fiscal court session,” Hunt said. “Our county has a rich history of putting strong, capable women in key positions. Our citizens will not and should not accept anything less than every individual to be treated with respect and consideration they deserve.”

Kirchner said she has been somewhat surprised by the level of attention the story has gotten. That attention can be good because it can lead to change, but she also said she worries the more publicity there is, the more “potential it gets for being more salacious.”

“I don’t want to just add on to political mayhem. I don’t think this is a political issue,” she said. “I am in a place where I feel strong as a woman and I feel like I do have support … It’s getting attention for a reason and at the end of the day, I’m quite happy that it is, because it’s gone on too long.”

 

Sept. 13: Sammons writes letter apologizing

 

… I have waited until this time to address the community in order for all concerned parties to have their say, understanding it’s always better to act on logic and not emotion.

“At the time of my comments at the fiscal court meeting, I intended no disrespect to Ms. Kirchner however, my words were hurtful and for this I want to apologize to the entire community as I made these feelings known to Ms. Kirchner, and grateful she accepted that apology.

As a proud father of a daughter who was also a Centre graduate and two sons who are attorneys for this commonwealth, and a grandfather of three boys and two girls, I would never intend to do anything that would be represented as disrespectful to a female, and tried to show that example in the way I’ve loved and treated their mother and grandmother in our 55 years of marriage.

As a representative of this community, I understand my actions have caused embarrassment and for this I offer my apology, not only to the community but to the fiscal court as well. I look forward to serving this community in the future.

Phil Sammons, 

Boyle County Magistrate

 

Sept. 19: Emails show community reaction

 

Multiple people have requested disciplinary actions against a Boyle County magistrate and Danville’s mayor over comments made concerning the local tourism director’s feet and legs during a public meeting last week.

Open records requests filed by The Advocate-Messenger produced emails to Boyle County Judge-Executive Howard Hunt and Danville City Manager Ron Scott from people who said the incident during the Sept. 10 Boyle County Fiscal Court meeting warranted further action or response.

Perhaps most notably, the chair of the Danville-Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Brittney Adams, told Hunt that Magistrate Phil Sammons “should be disciplined up to and possibly including asking for his resignation.”

Adams, who leads the board that oversees Kirchner’s work, wrote in her email to Hunt that Kirchner “has done a wonderful job standing up for herself” after Sammons’ comment.

“We could not be more proud of her. However, the (CVB) board feels compelled to address the matter of Magistrate Sammons’ inappropriate comments organization to organization,” Adams wrote in the Sept. 13 email. “… what Magistrate Sammons said in that courtroom is inexcusable and there should be consequences. Further, his effort at an apology to Jennifer indicates his lack of understanding and ability to be a repeat offender in your courtroom.”

Judge-Executive Hunt was also emailed by Marty Gibson and Ben Nelson.

Gibson, chair of the Economic Development Partnership, emailed a statement, previously provided to The Advocate-Messenger and posted publicly by the EDP, stating that Kirchner should have been “afforded a respectful forum, free from discrimination and harassment” and calling for “meaningful conversations within our community to foster inclusive behavior.”

Nelson called for Sammons to be “formally censured/disciplined up to and including termination for his misconduct.”

Nelson stated he was writing “on behalf of many concerned citizens” about what happened.

“As a HR professional who has worked with diverse employers, it is my experience such public inappropriate behavior would typically result in an immediate termination for cause,” Nelson wrote.

 

Sept. 21: Chamber chair writes letter

 

The recent antics of Magistrate Phil Sammons and Mayor Mike Perros were certainly ill-mannered and insensitive to Jennifer Kirchner. We applaud Ms. Kirchner for standing up for herself against such unprofessional and unwarranted behavior.

Unfortunately, this incident is just one of many in which our elected officials’ words and behaviors have reflected poorly on our community. 

… The time has come for all of our elected officials to conduct our public meetings in a professional and decorous manner. Stop the snide remarks, the cutesie comments, and speaking without thinking. Treat those who stand before you with the dignity and respect they deserve.  You were elected by the citizens of our community to represent us — and your behaviors are a direct reflection upon us. The citizens of Danville/Boyle County deserve better.

 

Rick Waldon

Chairman, Danville/Boyle County Chamber of Commerce. Inc.

 

Sept. 25: Sammons apologizes again

 

A Boyle County magistrate who made a joke about the local tourism director’s legs at a public meeting earlier this month said it was “a regrettable, stupid comment” and he intends to behave differently from now on.

“Last meeting, I made the most regrettable comment I’ve ever made in my life,” Magistrate Phil Sammons said during Tuesday’s Boyle County Fiscal Court meeting. “I’m very sorry for that. I’ll always hate that comment.”

Sammons noted he has apologized multiple times for the comment — to tourism director Jennifer Kirchner, to the fiscal court and to the public. He said he wanted to “once again” apologize to the public and to the members of the fiscal court for the comment, which “this old boy will never make again.”

“You’ll see a different magistrate out of me. The jokes will stop at the door. All I ask is the public’s accepting my apology and I deeply ask for your (acceptance of my) apology.”

 

Sept. 27: Letter-writer wants complaints to stop

 

It saddens me to read that our elected officials and tax paid employees behave like children scoffling over a toy or some such nonsense.

I think it is time for all emails and conversation regarding the comment Mr. Sammons made to the Danville mayor cease without further action on anyone’s part and especially fiscal court and one Jennifer Kirchner.

Had someone not been eavesdropping there would not have been such a commotion. Try being the professionals you are supposed to be and move on. All this talk makes one think someone is attempting to hide something they don’t want the public to know.

 

Betty G. Edwards

Mitchellsburg

 

Sept. 28: City employee’s complaint against mayor

 

After a Boyle County magistrate commented on the appearance of a woman’s legs during a public meeting Sept. 10, the City of Danville offered to let Boyle officials attend an upcoming diversity training event it was scheduling for city officials.

Danville’s diversity training plans were already in the works due to a city employee’s earlier complaint against Mayor Mike Perros, according to documents obtained through open records requests.

Joyce Collins, who has worked for the city for 11 years as an administrative assistant to the mayor’s office, filed a grievance against Mayor Perros on June 17. She says he made harassing and discriminating comments concerning her appearance. An anonymous phone call was made to The Advocate-Messenger about the grievance.

Documents provided by the city show Collins claims that in June, she was training a new employee as her replacement because she had taken a new position elsewhere in city hall. Collins writes that when she introduced the new employee to Perros, the woman referred to herself as “the new Joyce.”

“The mayor’s comment was ‘you can’t be the new Joyce because you don’t wear wigs’ and I said how do you know this is not my hair, trying to play it off over the embarrassment. Then he said ‘and your skin is not as dark as hers,’” the grievance reads.

Collins is an African American. She wears wigs due to hair loss from past treatments for breast cancer.

The grievance also notes another situation she says happened a few months before, as Collins and another city employee were serving cake for a retirement celebration during a city commission meeting.

“The mayor was talking to a lady and called us the city’s ‘cafeteria girls.’ The word got back to him, and he came in and … asked me if I heard him say it, I told him yes,” and that the other employee heard it, too. She wrote that Perros sent each of them a rose as an apology.

Collins’ proposed solution to her grievance asked for a handwritten apology from the mayor, an apology in executive session with the city commission and no further interaction with the mayor. She also wrote, “City employees are required to have diversity training, does the commission? If not, I think it should be required. Being a public leader of the City of Danville, saying things like that in front of a stranger is inappropriate, hurtful and embarrassing to you all to dismiss this.”

 

Oct. 2: Apology letter from Perros

 

Apologies aren’t meant to change the past, they’re really meant to change the future and I don’t intend to offer my apology with an excuse. There is no excuse for bad behavior, in any context.

I am not perfect, I make mistakes and I realize I have hurt city employee Ms. Joyce Collins. I believe it’s never too late to apologize and its never too late to say I’m sorry. I am human.

I was raised that when you make a mistake, you acknowledge it, apologize for it if it hurt someone and then learn from it. Over the past two weeks, I have lived as I was raised; I have made mistakes, I have apologized for those mistakes to those affected and I will continue to learn from those mistakes. In fact, over the past two weeks, I have publicly apologized three separate times.

I now apologize, publicly, for the fourth time, and this time, to Ms. Collins again.

… While I have no control of the dialogue at a national level, I look forward to our local dialogue about diversity. Danville has benefitted from a rich history of inclusion of many citizens of various ethnicities and backgrounds. It is my sincerest wish we continue to learn from each other.

 

Mike Perros

Danville

 

Oct. 16: Residents speak at city commission

 

Some citizens who took to the podium to speak during Monday night’s Danville City Commission meeting were steadfast that a grievance against Mayor Mike Perros is a diversity issue, but others had different takes on the situation.

Cheryl Burton asked why there have not been any repercussions for Perros’ actions.

“… If Mr. Atkins had done it to a white female, I’m sure his job would be gone because he’s a black male. That’s how the black people perceive this,” Burton said.

Resident Alonzo (Lonnie) McGuire had a different take on the situation. “It’s not a black or white issue. It’s a wrong or right issue,” he said, to many “amens” from the crowd. “So we’re going to leave the black or white out of it, please.”

McGuire asked the men in the room to think about how they’d feel if similar comments were made to their wives, mothers or daughters.

“As a man in his position, it’s making Danville look bad, period. Take the color of everyone out of it, consider it, and no matter who he said it to, it’s wrong — period. Either he doesn’t care or he knows nothing will be done about it. He’s older than me; he knew what he said was wrong, he just didn’t care about saying it.”

 

Oct. 29: Danville Ethics Commission redirects complaint

 

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.

“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.”

 

Nov. 12: Outside attorney hired to investigate

 

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.

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

 

Dec. 6: Complaint asks for policy to report harassment

 

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.

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.”

 

Dec. 10: Cullen apologizes to Sammons

 

A Boyle County magistrate said this week he hopes the spirit of the Christmas season brings with it some forgiveness for one of his colleagues — Magistrate Phil Sammons, who joked about the attractiveness of a woman’s legs during a public meeting in September.

“Sir, I want to apologize for you, with everything that has happened over the last several months,” Cullen told Sammons. “I know that the comments that you made were not intentional. I would not have liked to hear them, but I know it was not intentional. I would think at this point, we’re having to suffer a lot; you’re having to suffer a lot. And I really am sorry for all you’re going through.

“I wish that someone would have taken you aside and said, ‘You know what? Maybe this isn’t a proper thing to say.’ Because you have shown over the last several months that you truly are sorry. You’ve apologized several times; this court has apologized several times, and you are truly sorry, and you’ve not made those mistakes again.”

“Thank you for wanting to put this to bed,” Sammons told Cullen.

Sammons said he would like to put the incident “behind us, get it over with, forget about it, and let’s move on. Thank you, my friend.”

 

Dec. 13: Columnist criticizes Cullen’s apology

 

By ELAINE WILSON-REDDY

Contributing columnist

In the article, Cullen was quoted as saying how hard it is to keep up with PC (politically correct) culture, and that it changes as often as technology.

Really? Suddenly it’s PC to NOT make sexually harassing comments to women in their professional capacity?

Cullen asked if it’s expected for the magistrates to flog Sammons because he “misspoke.” Sammons didn’t misspeak. Misspeaking is asking for a grilled chicken when you meant to ask for fried chicken. Misspeaking to saying it rained Tuesday when it actually rained Wednesday. Sammons not only meant to say what he said, he and City of Danville Mayor Mike Perros had a laugh at Kirchner’s expense. Sammons did not misspeak.

… Integrity is often described as doing the right thing when no one is watching. If we are going to have high expectations of our children, we adults need to slow down and remember they are watching.

 

Dec. 19: Report finds insufficient evidence of discrimination

 

The independent counsel hired by the City of Danville to investigate three grievances filed against city officials by two employees was returned to the commission Friday.

After a two-hour executive session held Tuesday afternoon, the commission unanimously passed a resolution containing statements from the attorney that there is insufficient evidence that employees have been discriminated against based on their race or gender.

Commissioner J.H. Atkins read that Kriz conducted 13 different interviews, had “full access to city staff” and “reviewed a host of critical documents.” The report concludes there is insufficient evidence to establish that any city employee has been subjected to any discrimination on the basis of race and gender, Atkins said, “Or that Erica Engle had been subjected to retaliation for reporting” the discrimination.

The report concluded that Mayor Perros’ “comments regarding Collins, Engle and (Jennifer) Kirchner were reviewed in isolation and not sufficiently severe or pervasive (enough) to create a sexually or racially hostile work environment.”

After the meeting, Kirchner said she did not file any complaints against the city or any person within the administration. “My name included in the resolution seems unwarranted and I plan to look into it,” she said after the meeting. “That really surprised me.”