Ex-chief, 2 others allege discrimination - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

Ex-chief, 2 others allege discrimination

Harris to appeal her termination

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Posted: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:04 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Former Marana assistant police chief Barbara Harris and two female former police sergeants have filed gender discrimination complaints with the town, alleging a hostile work environment and retaliation.

An outside investigator has been hired by the town to look into the complaints.

The town received Harris’ complaint on June 20, the same day Harris was fired, according to Deputy Town Attorney Jane Fairall.

On May 16, Sgt. Lanell Garbini submitted a letter of resignation, citing “on-going gender discrimination” and a “hostile work environment.”

On May 28, Sgt. Michelle Ochoa submitted her letter of resignation.

The two sergeants filed a joint, amended discrimimation complaint with the town on June 26, according to a release distributed by Jodi Horton, who represents the three former officers.

Harris declined to comment. Garbini and Ochoa could not be reached.

The Marana Police Department employs 109 people, 82 of whom are sworn officers, and 27 who are civilian employees. Of the group, 35 are women, about 32 percent, 12 of whom are sworn. Two woman supervisors are civilian.

Harris, Garbini and Ochoa also filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on June 30, Horton said.

Fairall said Monday morning that she had not yet received notification of any formal complaint from the state or federal level.

“EEOC is strictly prohibited by law from confirming or denying the existence of discrimination charge filings, investigations, or administrative resolutions,” wrote U.S. EEOC spokeswoman Christine Nazer in an e-mail. “Information about specific cases only becomes public if and when the EEOC files a lawsuit, which is usually a last resort.”

Typically, when a formal complaint is filed at the state or federal level, the Arizona Civil Rights Division handles the matter.

“The ACRD and the EEOC annually enter into a work-sharing agreement which outlines the procedures for the two agencies to efficiently process discrimination complaints,” Fairall said in an e-mail. “They have split the work geographically — charges originating in Pima County are handled by the ACRD under the work-sharing agreement.”

Since January 2007, the town has received two formal discrimination complaints, one of which is ongoing, Fairall said.

Sometimes it can take six to 12 months to resolve a formal complaint. The January 2007 complaint was not resolved until that October, according to the deputy town attorney.

Harris’ leave and termination

Harris was fired as assistant police chief on June 20 after pulling out of a separation agreement with the town.

Two surveys of the police department, one paid for by the town and the other by the Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs, were critical of the department’s leadership, and in particular that of Harris.

The Police Executive Review Forum interviewed 36 sworn officers and four civilian employees last November. This profile of the department, commissioned by the town, was conducted in hopes of putting the department back on the right track, citing problems with leadership, communication and morale.

“Even by her own account, the assistant chief does not consistently follow the chain of command,” according to the PERF report, which was issued in December.

Released in January, the AZCOPS survey contained 48 respondents out of the 76 Marana officers and civilian employees who received it.

“In the narrative comments, there were strong condemnations of top management personnel, in particular, Assistant Chief Barbara Harris,” according to the AZCOPS survey.

Between March 11 and May 31, Harris was placed on administrative leave. During that time, she was paid nearly $20,000.

On May 7, Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat listed seven reasons why Harris should be considered for termination: low morale during her tenure, disregard for the chain of command cited in the PERF report, lack of leadership confidence cited in the AZCOPS survey, Harris’ role in the firing and reinstatement of an officer and dispatcher, a vote of no confidence from the Marana Police Officers Association, contributing to division in the department and a failure to perform the job of assistant police chief.

“It is my judgment that your inability to provide effective leadership, as well as your divisive effect on the Marana Police Department, threatens the well-being of the town,” Reuwsaat wrote in her termination letter.

“I was told on at least two occasions by the Town Manager that he had let me down and thrown me to the wolves without giving me the support I needed,” wrote Harris in her 15-page, pre-termination rebuttal on May 19.

She also stated that morale is “intangible.” Harris said including the AZCOPS results as a reason for termination was “ludicrous,” and she questioned the validity of the MPOA’s March 4 vote of “no confidence” against her.

“When I was hired, I implemented changes which would support more professional systems and practices and assist with more consistency in treatment,” Harris wrote in a May 19 letter to the town council and interim police chief.

Garbini told The Explorer in October “since Chief Harris has come aboard, she’s brought the place up to higher standards. I think the direction the department is heading now is more positive. People are being held accountable and some don’t like it.”

At the end of her rebuttal, Harris requested that she be placed back on duty.

On June 9, Harris signed a separation agreement with the town. She stood to receive $107,000 in a lump sum payment, a letter of reference from the town, and indication in her personnel file that she would be eligible for rehire. In return, Harris would agree to retire on June 30.

The town council approved the agreement the next day, giving Harris a seven-day period in which she could withdraw from the agreement, according to U.S. law.

Harris pulled out of the agreement on June 16, said Town Attorney Frank Cassidy.

“We felt like that was the town council’s best and final offer,” Cassidy said. “She did make a counter offer when she revoked the agreement, and her counter offer was taken to the council on the 17th of June at an executive session and it was not accepted.”

The release sent out by Harris’ representative Jodi Horton indicates that Harris requested part of the lump sum to a tax-deferred account.

“Separation agreements are individually negotiated, but the two choices the town typically has when paying out a lump sum is treat it as a salary and take out all the normal deductions, or make it as a 1099 payment and leave it to the receiver of the money to pay all the appropriate taxes, so those are the two options that we gave to Barbara Harris,” Cassidy said.

Harris filed an appeal of her termination with the town manager’s office on July 7, the last day she was eligible to do so, Horton said.

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