CLIFTON PARK – When the Clifton Park Town Board voted in a split-decision last month to hire outside counsel to investigate toxicity inside Town Hall, members of the board said the issue originated with an April 4 memo from the town attorney to the Town Board describing a town official who was abusive and created a toxic work environment.
The town official named in the memo was Superintendent of Highways Dahn Bull. Prior to the memo being released this week, it was not clear which town employees were involved.
In the memo, which The Daily Gazette obtained through a FOIL request, Town Attorney Thomas McCarthy accuses Bull of sending an email to an administrative assistant that was “inappropriate, abusive, toxic and creates a clearly hostile work environment.”
The memo says Bull later apologized for the email. The issue has to do with McCarthy’s claims that Bull tried to circumvent the typical equipment-purchasing review process, which includes the town attorney or town comptroller looking at contracts and asking questions ahead of a deal.
Bull on Thursday said he is not trying to go around anyone, and he hasn’t changed anything about the way his department makes purchases since stepping into the job in 2016. While admitting to apologizing for the email in question, he defended his overall conduct.
“In all the years I have been the highway superintendent, I have had a cordial and honest working relationship with all my fellow employees, and I have never had a formal complaint against me,” he wrote in a statement to The Daily Gazette on Thursday. “I reject the categorizations written in the memo about me and the Highway Department.”
The release of the April 4 memo, along with an April 18 memo having to do with the Town Board’s follow-up conversations about the Highway Department issue, provide the clearest information yet regarding hostility that’s taken place inside Town Hall.
Town Supervisor Phil Barrett said the April 4 memo should clear up confusion about the workplace environment.
“As I said from the beginning of the discussion, the toxic workplace issues that were identified had nothing to do with me,” Barrett said. “The false narrative related to the memos that was expressed by specific Town Board members left the impression that the toxic workplace issue identified in the memos involved me.”
But council members who voted to hire the outside law firm to investigate the toxicity say there are other matters separate from the highway supervisor issue that need to be looked at, but they declined to provide specifics.
“There are other matters that need to be looked into. I will leave it at that. I won’t get into specifics,” said Board Member Amy Standaert, who along with board members Lynda Walowit and Amy Flood voted on May 16 to hire attorney Hilary Moreira, of Bond, Schoeneck & King Attorneys, based in Garden City, New York to investigate the workplace culture inside Town Hall.
Standaert said the workplace culture issue originated with McCarthy’s April 4 memo to the board.
“As an employer, when an employee makes any allegation using the words ‘hostile work environment,’ if we ignore that, we get into big trouble,” Standaert said.
Moreira, of Bond, Schoeneck & King, has not begun any investigation, Standaert, Walowit and Barrett confirmed Thursday.
“I am in the process of trying to arrange a meeting with the Town Board and Bond, Schoeneck & King so that we can discuss next steps for the investigation,” Standaert said.
Moreira was hired on May 16 at an hourly rate of $335. Barrett and Councilman Anthony Morelli, who said he was not involved with the interviewing of the law firm, voted against the resolution to hire the firm.
Barrett has accused the three female members of the all-Republican Town Board of hiring the law firm as a way to create controversy.
“There is no drumming up controversy here,” Walowit said Thursday, defending the move to hire the outside attorney as a means to ensure town employees feel comfortable in their jobs and have a way to make their complaints heard. “We’re doing what’s right for the people who work for the town.”
The dispute between the highway superintendent and the town attorney is not the only personnel issue the town has dealt with recently.
At its June 13 meeting, the Town Board voted along the same 3-2 split not to hire a hearing officer to look into a disciplinary action involving a town employee. The resolution said the hearing officer – pursuant to Civil Service Section 75 – would have looked into a notice of discipline that Barrett served to a town employee on April 27. That discipline was a result of alleged incompetence arising from a neglect of job duties.
In that case, Barrett and Morelli supported hiring the hearing officer, while Standaert, Walowit and Flood voted against it.
The hearing officer resolution said the employee, through an attorney, notified the town on May 5 that he demanded a hearing on the disciplinary action. The employee is not Bull.
Prior to the board hiring outside counsel on May 16, a town employee filed a complaint with the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office alleging that Barrett put his hands on an employee.
No town officials will confirm if the April 27 discipline action mentioned in the hearing officer resolution involved the same employee who filed the complaint with the sheriff’s office.
But after the May 16 meeting, Barrett said: “A report was filed referencing some sort of physical altercation. This was following a very serious adverse personnel action that occurred. I had taken a very serious adverse personnel action against an employee, and apparently, that’s what followed.”
In McCarthy’s April 4 memo regarding the highway superintendent, McCarthy told the Town Board that his office or the comptroller’s office review procurements “to provide a basic level of assurance,” that the agreement is being handled properly.
McCarthy said he has “noticed an increased tendency of the highway superintendent to circumvent, short cut, evade, or otherwise hamper a meaningful review of his procurement steps, means and methods, beginning in the early fall, and accelerating since the most recent election cycle in November.”
McCarthy said an egregious example came in February when Bull submitted a request for a $1.3 million acquisition of plow trucks and related equipment. McCarthy said he had a number of questions about the proposed purchase, including the number of trucks, the price, their exact purpose and how they would be acquired.
McCarthy sent a Feb. 22 email to Bull, saying he and the comptroller “don’t fully understand what you are doing, and offer to meet with you to clarify it.”
The next morning, Bull wrote: “We are simply ordering trucks here Tom,” adding he had met his obligations to inform the board about the purchase. “Four out of five board members accepted the memo and asked a few questions, then offered their support. I see we’re all ready to move this forward. I’ll be happy to work with (Town Comptroller) Mark (Mark Heggen) on this but any delay on these orders adds another month to the waiting list.”
The meeting didn’t happen, and, as a result, McCarthy never drafted a resolution for the Town Board to consider the purchases at the Feb. 28 meeting.
On Feb. 28, Bull sent a memo to the Town Board, attorney and comptroller saying that he intended to retain his own part-time counsel for the Highway Safety Committee and the Highway Department, according to McCarthy’s April 4 memo.
The counsel was never retained, but the idea upset McCarthy, who called the Feb. 28 memo “highly inappropriate and misguided and, frankly, stunningly disingenuous.”
After the Feb. 28 board meeting, McCarthy went away on vacation. While he was away, Bull sent a March 2 email to Legal Secretary Meg Springli, accusing McCarthy of “playing games,” by not placing the purchase on the agenda.
“Incredibly disappointing that your boss continues to play games. Actions like this only cement my decision to rightfully go out and seek my own legal counsel and avoid this nonsense,” Bull wrote. “Tom (McCarthy) should be more professional than that, but I guess that’s asking too much. Amy (Standaert) and I will be discussing this with you tomorrow.”
The March 2 email was the one McCarthy described as abusive and toxic, believing it put undue pressure on Springli to “jam through a $1.3 million procurement onto the agenda in mý absence, without my ability to review it, and in disregard of our past practice in the office.”
Bull supplied Springli with details answering McCarthy’s questions on March 3, and, upon his return, McCarthy reviewed the information, drafted a resolution, and the Town Board ultimately approved the purchases on March 14.
In his April 4 memo, McCarthy said this purchase was just one example of Bull’s “tendency to short-hand, obfuscate, rush through, and otherwise impede my review of procurements and purchases.”
That April 4 memo prompted the Town Board to look into hiring a mediator to resolve the dispute between McCarthy and Bull. But McCarthy rejected the idea, leading the Town Board toward its split decision to hire the outside counsel to investigate the general work environment inside Town Hall.
Bull said he submitted a response to McCarthy saying he was willing to meet with a mediator.
“While I reject the substance of the memo, I have taken these events incredibly seriously and will continue to do so,” Bull said in a written statement. “My sincere and good faith offer to meet further and with the assistance of a mediator has been ignored.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.