Workplace bullying accusations were misunderstandings, Mt. Shasta city councilor says

Kelsey Shelton Skye Kinkade
Mount Shasta Herald

During an uncomfortable meeting Monday night, the Mount Shasta City Council addressed accusations that the city has become a toxic place to work and voted 3-2 to cancel a self-requested performance evaluation for city manager Bruce Pope.

After hearing public comment from city planner Juliana Lucchesi about her stressful working environment, councilor Tessa Montgomery said she's heard similar complaints and then called for councilor Tim Stearns' resignation. She also asked he be censured.

A screenshot of Mount Shasta City Councilor Tessa Montgomery during the March 22, 2021 council meeting, held via Zoom.

The council unanimously passed an ordinance that affirms the relationship between city employees, the city manager and the council members, which is already part of the city's municipal code and the council protocols. The ordinance assures city employees that no retaliatory actions will result from implementing these measures or for reporting violations.

The ordinance was placed on the agenda after complaints from staff concerning interference by city council in staff work, attempts to influence staff recommendations, requests for staff response to time consuming inquiries and suggestions that failure to meet these requests could result in adverse employment actions, said city attorney John Kenny. He did not specify which councilor or councilors were the source of the complaints.

A screenshot of Mount Shasta City Councilor Tim Stearns during the March 22, 2021 council meeting, held via Zoom.

"My concern is that these circumstances, if true, could be considered 'abusive conduct,'" Kenny wrote in the meeting's agenda. "Just as in the case with sexual harassment, the city has the obligation to protect its employees from abusive conduct (bullying) in the workplace. Failure to meet this obligation can result in liability."

Before any council discussion on the topic, Stearns made a motion to adopt the ordinance, after which Montgomery asked to speak.

"When I was told about the allegations about these three city staff members, two of which are young women, I was shocked," said Montgomery. "This can't be tolerated ... If these allegations are true ... it would be best for council member Tim Stearns to resign so we can continue with the business at hand."

She added that the council should consider a censure – a formal statement of disapproval – of Stearns' actions. The council will discuss a censure further at their next regular meeting on April 12.

In a follow up interview Tuesday afternoon, Stearns said he doesn't know what "facts, circumstances, or stories the city manager or others may have told" Montgomery to prompt her to ask for his censure.

"I surmise it relates to my criticism of how planning activities are being handled, and my frustration at staff's lack of communication in response to my inquiries," he said. "In my frustration, I may at times have been too heated in my communications, but I have never acted with malice toward any employee. My concerns are the direction in which some staff want to take the town, and the lack of the city manager's engagement and leadership at this critical time."

More:Mount Shasta council clears way for Golden Eagle to build new charter school on Pine Street

More:These nonprofits got a little slice of Mount Shasta's budget

Montgomery said Tuesday morning that she was addressing Stearns' questionable behavior after hearing similar complaints from three staff members, some members of the planning commission and the beautification committee, former council members and "a handful of citizens" and that's why she stepped up to address the problem. She said city councilors know they're not supposed to direct staff, but instead communicate with them through the city manager and Stearns' behavior is clouding issues.

"The council, as a whole, can direct the city manager, but not just one person," she said. "That protocol has been ignored numerous times."

During public comment at Monday's meeting, former city councilor Barbara Wagner and Kathy Morter both expressed concerns that city staff be able to work in a hostile free environment.

In a letter written by Morter and read aloud by city clerk Kathy Joyce, Morter said she's "saddened and angry to hear about the continued violations ... I urge the council to be aware of your liability. City employees deserve a hassle and interference free workplace."

Lucchesi told the council that she's having problems getting work done. "My department is just me, and on top of that to be bullied in the workplace has been making it unbearable. "I love planning, I love working for the city ... but its become so difficult."

Lucchesi said she left work that day because anxiety about the evening's council meeting caused her to have chest pains.

On Tuesday, Stearns said Lucchesi is an "intelligent, hard-working and productive planner." He said he appreciates her talents and dedication but said she's overloaded with work.

"That is not to criticize her abilities, it's just that there is too much work for one person," said Stearns. He said he's suggested to both Pope and Lucchesi that she needs additional personnel to assist her, and suggested looking into interns from either California universities or College of the Siskiyous for less detailed tasks. "My suggestions were not in any way to indicate that the planner does not work hard, she does. But they may have been taken as being criticism."

In her letter read Monday evening, Morter said she has "high expectations for council and their behavior as leadership in the community. I am sorry that there is an abusive relationship and bullying going on at this high level of government." 

More:Mount Shasta City Council decides against fines for businesses who defy mask mandate

More:Mount Shasta mayor opened pub on Super Bowl Sunday despite COVID order

"Anyone who has been an employee knows if you are looking for an efficient productive environment for employees, you will have relationships to motivate them so they will want to come to work, and doing the opposite of that is a cost to all citizens of Mount Shasta," Wagner said. "We all pay taxes, if we're not getting efficient and good work out of city hall, we all pay, because we are not getting our money's worth."

Stearns has served more than 20 years on the Mount Shasta City Council. He lost his seat in the 2018 election, but in November was voted back in, alongside first time councilor Montgomery and councilor John Stackfleth, who was reelected for a second term.

City manager evaluation

After the ordinance was passed, the council turned to an evaluation of Pope, which he'd placed on the agenda himself. Pope said Stearns had previously voiced displeasure with his work.

Stearns said he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the council when he told Pope last week that it might be best if he retires at the end of this fiscal year, on June 30. He said he's seen a decline in Pope's work since his formal performance evaluation in November and provided a detailed four-page document titled "Why it is time to terminate the city manager contract." Most prominent on Stearns' long list of reasons is that Pope is continually "dropping the ball" and shows less enthusiasm and attention in managing the city’s departments and business.

Mayor John Redmond said he believes an evaluation is unnecessary, and Stackfleth agreed, pointing out one had been completed four months ago.

Stearns argued unsuccessfully that another evaluation would be beneficial, but the council voted 3-2 to drop the evaluation, with councilor Jeffrey Collings casting a no along with Stearns.

Pope's contract with the city was renewed in September 2020 for two more years. His contract ends Sept. 29, 2022.