Lincoln Council Censures One Of Its Own
— City Council members censured one of their own in October, admonishing councilman Johnny Stowers for disrespectful conduct toward city staff. The council voted 6-1 on Oct. 18 to censure Stowers, who represents Ward 4, Position 2, following an investigation by attorney Charles Harwell into a complaint filed in July by Al Videtto, Lincoln’s director of technology and field engineering. Videtto’s complaint originally went to mayor Rob Hulse, who then turned it over to City Attorney Steve Zega to investigate. Zega recused due to a conflict of interest, and Harwell was brought in.
Videtto complained that Stowers often used profane language when expressing displeasure with city staff, spoke disparagingly of supervisors and staff members in front of their co-workers and guests and made employees feel harassed.
Harwell’s investigation found the allegations to be true but that they did not constitute illegal harassment or discrimination. The censure approved by the council said Stowers’ actions do not reflect the official policy of the city of Lincoln and are not in keeping with the spirit or letter of official policy of the city.
“The City Council hereby urges Alderman Stowers to remember that his words and actions, while he is on the City Council, are not only his own, but are also perceived by employees and the public to represent the City,” the censure resolution states. “Therefore, the City Council further urges Alderman Stowers to think before he acts or speaks in an official capacity.”
City Council members Gary Eoff, Doug Hutchens, Bobby McDonald, Doug Moore, Robin Moore and Troy Myers voted for the censure. Stowers voted against it. Council member Doyle Dixon was absent.
Stowers, who was unopposed for another two-year term in November, last week declined to comment about the resolution or about the complaint filed against him.
Videtto filed a two-page complaint with Mayor Rob Hulse on July 16 about a specific incident and repeated pattern with Stowers. Videtto stated he believed the issue being raised required direct intervention by the mayor.
Videtto wrote that the incident occurred July 14 outside Harps in Lincoln. Videtto said Stowers stopped him and asked about a task he had requested be done before the next Council meeting. Videtto said he responded he had not had time to do it yet but that it would be completed before the meeting.
Videtto wrote that Stowers then “blurted out loud” to him in profane language.
Videtto also writes that on previous occassions Stowers had referred to city employees as “being stupid” and used profane language in reference to city employees.
“While he has the right to be disgruntled, this behavior in a public place, along with other issues I have witnessed, are unbecoming a council member,” Videtto said in his complaint.
Fearing retaliation for himself and other city employees, Videtto said he was making his complaint public and also filing it under the “Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989.”
He said he believes Stowers’ actions constitute a “hostile work environment” for him and other employees who had complained to him.
Videtto’s letter lists 12 grievances on behalf of himself and other staff members.
Grievances included confrontation in public areas, using profane language and derogatory speech about city staff, lack of civility to employees during Council meetings, public attacks on employees’ supervisors, degrading comments about other employees and behavior creating a hostile environment.
Requests made by Videtto were that Stowers show respect for employees’ personal space, time and beliefs; stop cornering staff to talk ill of supervisors, co-workers and employees; and stop disrepectful talk to contract employees or in front of guests.
Videtto writes that he believes Stowers is a valuable member of the Council and that Stowers’ comments in Council meetings bring counter-points to light that others overlooked. Videtto writes that on a personal level he likes Stowers.
“It is not with his concern or his civic duty that I have an issue, rather with the methods he has employed that make city staff feel harassed,” Videtto said.
In his four-page investigative report dated Sept. 17 and addressed to Hulse, Harwell said he interviewed Videtto and four other city employees. He did not name the four employees to protect them from any retaliation, Harwell stated.
The report says that Stowers declined to be interviewed during the investigation.
The report found that Stowers did not show respect for personal boundaries and confronted employees outside city hall and their work hours; ignored the chain of command; was unnecessarily critical of city staff; lacked civility and used crude language not befitting a public official both in private and public settings. The report said Stowers’ actions could be considered creating a hostile work environment with a concern about retaliation.
Harwell said he found facts to support a “finding of true” for each of the points or concerns.
Harwell reported that he was especially troubled by the fact that several employees interviewed indicated they were concerned about retaliation if they were to say something to protect themselves.
“It is unacceptable if an employee is being harassed and feels powerless to do anything about it,” Harwell wrote in the report. He said there was a risk if Stowers were to continue a pattern of behavior that both he and the city would be required to defend a court action.
Harwell recommended that Stowers not address city employees except to exchange greetings when there is a chance encounter and even then, he should “choose his words carefully and not be seen as using his position to make an employee uncomfortable, particularly a female.”
Harwell’s conclusion was that Stowers should limit his contact with city employees and should obtain any information he needs as a City Council member by working through the chain of command.
He also said Stowers should address issues and avoid the instinct to attack individuals, seek to be civil as a public servant, watch his language and eliminate the public use of expletives.
The report states that Stowers could be censured by the Council for each of the concerns. But it also notes that there is no legal remedy to force a change in behavior.
“It is nevertheless important that he understand that inappropriate language is not persuasive,” Harwell writes in the report. “There are simply better ways to communicate concern or dissatisfaction as to any aspect of city business.”
Hulse last week said it was unfortunate any concerns had gotten to the point of a written complaint and investigation. When Videtto submitted his complaint, Hulse said he turned everything over to the city attorney.
“As mayor, I expect all elected officials to treat all staff, as well as the public, with the respect, courtesy and professionalism they deserve,” Hulse said. “I’m hoping that through the course of my 12 years as mayor and eight years on the Council that I’ve laid that foundation which will continue to be built upon even after Jan. 1.”
He praised the city’s staff, saying they do a great job and work hard.
“We owe them a debt of gratitude for everything they do,” Hulse said.