CLIFTON PARK — When the Clifton Park Town Board voted in a separate decision last month to hire an outside attorney to investigate toxicity at City Hall, members of the board said the issue traced back to an April 4 memo from the city attorney to the Town Board traces a city official who was abusive and created a toxic work environment.
The city official named in the memo was Superintendent of Highways Dahn Bull. Before the memo was released this week, it was not clear which city employees were involved.
In the memo, obtained through a FOIL request for The Daily Gazette, City Attorney Thomas McCarthy accused Bull of sending an email to an administrative assistant that was “inappropriate, abusive and toxic and created a clearly hostile work environment.”
The memo says Bull later apologized for the email. The problem has to do with McCarthy’s claims that Bull was trying to circumvent the typical equipment-purchase verification process, which involves the city attorney or city auditor reviewing contracts and asking questions before a deal.
Bull said Thursday he’s not trying to bypass anyone and he hasn’t changed the way his department makes purchases since he took the job in 2016. While he admitted to apologizing for the email in question, he defended his general conduct.
“In all my years as a highway foreman, I have had a warm and honest working relationship with all my colleagues 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 related to city officials’ follow-up discussions on the Highway Department matter, provides the clearest information yet on the hostilities that have taken place at City Hall.
Town Supervisor Phil Barrett said the April 4 memo was intended to clear up confusion about the work environment.
“As I said at the beginning of the discussion, the identified workplace toxic issues had nothing to do with me,” Barrett said. “The false narrative regarding the memos, uttered by certain City Council members, left the impression that the workplace issue identified in the memos affected me.”
But council members who voted to hire the outside law firm to investigate the toxicity say there are other matters separate from the road safety issue that need to be investigated, but they declined to give details.
“There are other things that need to be checked. I’ll leave it at that. I won’t go into details,” said board member Amy Standaert, who voted with board members Lynda Walowit and Amy Flood on May 16 to hire attorney Hilary Moreira of Bond, Schoeneck & King Attorneys, based in Garden City, New York, investigate workplace culture at City Hall.
Standaert said the workplace culture issue originated in McCarthy’s April 4 memo to the board.
“As an employer, we get in big trouble when an employee makes an allegation that says ‘hostile work environment’ if we ignore it,” Standaert said.
Bond, Schoeneck & King’s Moreira has not opened an investigation, Standaert, Walowit and Barrett confirmed Thursday.
“I’m trying to set up a meeting with City Council and Bond, Schoeneck & King so we can discuss next steps for the investigation,” Standaert said.
Moreira was hired on May 16 at an hourly rate of $335. Barrett and Councilor Anthony Morelli, who said he was not involved in questioning the law firm, voted against the decision to close the law firm.
Barrett has accused the three female members of the all-Republican city council of shutting down the law practice to create controversy.
“There is no controversy here,” Walowit said Thursday, defending the move to hire an outside attorney to ensure city employees are comfortable in their jobs and have an opportunity to make their grievances heard. “We do what’s right for the people who work for the city.”
The dispute between the road builder and the prosecutor’s office isn’t the only personnel issue the city has grappled with lately.
At its June 13 meeting, the city council voted by an equal 3-2 ratio not to hire a hearing officer to investigate a disciplinary action against a city employee. The resolution said the hearing officer — under Section 75 of the Civil Service — reviewed a disciplinary notice that Barrett served on a city employee on April 27. This discipline was the result of an alleged incompetence stemming from neglect of professional duties.
In this case, Barrett and Morelli supported hiring the hearing officer, while Standaert, Walowit and Flood voted against.
The hearing officer’s ruling said that on May 5, the city official, through a lawyer, said he was requesting a hearing about the disciplinary action. The employee is not a bull.
Before the board hired an outside attorney on May 16, a city employee filed a complaint with the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office alleging that Barrett had touched an employee.
No city official will confirm whether the April 27 disciplinary action mentioned in the hearing officer’s 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 that referred to some type of physical altercation. This came after a very serious adverse personnel action. I had taken a very serious adverse personnel action against an employee and apparently this followed.”
In McCarthy’s April 4 memo via the Highway Superintendent, McCarthy told the city government that his office or the comptroller’s office reviews procurements “to provide a basic level of assurance” that the agreement is being properly administered.
McCarthy said he’s “noted an increasing tendency by the Highway Superintendent to circumvent, curtail, circumvent, or otherwise impede a meaningful review of its procurement steps, means, and methods, beginning in early fall and accelerating since the last election cycle in November.”
McCarthy said an egregious example occurred in February when Bull submitted a $1.3 million request to acquire plow trucks and related equipment. McCarthy said he had a number of questions about the proposed purchase, including number of trucks, price, their exact purpose and how they would be acquired.
McCarthy emailed Bull on Feb. 22, saying he and the auditor “don’t quite understand what you’re doing and are offering to meet with you to sort it out.”
The next morning, Bull wrote: “We just order trucks here Tom,” adding that he had fulfilled his obligation to notify the board of the purchase. “Four out of five board members accepted the memo, asked a few questions, and then offered their support. I see we are all ready to move this forward. I’ll be happy to work with (Town Comptroller) Mark (Mark Heggen) on this, but any delay in these orders will add another month to the waiting list.”
The meeting did not take place, and as a result McCarthy never drafted an executive order for the city council to consider the purchases at the February 28 meeting.
On Feb. 28, Bull sent a memo to the city’s attorney and comptroller, saying he intends to retain his own part-time adviser to the Highway Safety Committee and Department, according to McCarthy’s April 4 memo.
The attorney was never considered, but the idea angered McCarthy, who called the Feb. 28 memo “highly inappropriate and misguided and, frankly, amazingly disingenuous.”
After the February 28 board meeting, McCarthy went on vacation. During his absence, Bull emailed Legal Secretary Meg Springli on March 2, accusing McCarthy of “playing games” by not putting the purchase on the agenda.
“Incredibly disappointing that your boss continues to play games. Actions like this only solidify my decision that it is legitimate to go out and seek my own legal counsel and avoid this nonsense,” Bull wrote. “Tom (McCarthy) should be more professional, but I think that’s asking too much. Amy (Standard) and I will discuss this with you tomorrow.”
The March 2 email was the one that McCarthy described as abusive and toxic as he believed it was putting undue pressure on Springli, “in my absence, without my ability to verify it, and in disregard of our previous practice.” $1.3 million procurement on the agenda at the office.”
Bull provided Springli with details March 3 that answered McCarthy’s questions, and upon his return, McCarthy reviewed the information, drafted an order, and the City Council finally approved the purchases on March 14.
In his April 4 memo, McCarthy said the purchase was just one example of Bull’s “tendency to understate, obscure, rush through, and otherwise obstruct my review of procurements and purchases.”
That April 4 memo prompted the city government to consider hiring a mediator to resolve the dispute between McCarthy and Bull. But McCarthy rejected the idea, prompting the city council to make its separate decision to hire an outside attorney to investigate the general working environment at City Hall.
Bull said he replied to McCarthy that he was willing to meet with an intermediary.
“While I disagree with the contents 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 continue meeting with the help of an intermediary was ignored.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
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