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Wildwood council votes to defer censure proposal, opts for mediation

At its April 23 meeting, the Wildwood City Council made a decision regarding the previously proposed censure of Councilmember Tammy Shea [Ward 3] after having received complaints from city staff members.

Following an evening of discussion and the swearing-in of six new councilmembers, the updated council voted 15-0 in favor of pursuing mediation efforts rather than a censure. The solution, proposed by new Councilmember Kevin Dillard [Ward 3], defers the process of providing mediation opportunities, between Shea and the other aggrieved parties, to an ad-hoc committee comprised of three councilmembers: David Bertolino [Ward 5], acting as chair; Tim Woerther [Ward 7] and Niles Stephens [Ward 8.]  Councilmember Larry McGowen [Ward 1] was absent for the vote.

For Shea, the decision was a welcome one.

“We’re going to get to a resolution, step by step,” Shea said.

The former council voted 10-4 on April 9 to prepare a censure in response to a series of reported comments from nine city staff members citing concerns of a “hostile work environment” that “created anxiety,” “diverted focus from work responsibilities” and made employees feel “fearful of retaliation,” according to a summary of the aggrieved employee statements that was made available to the public on the city’s website and published by Councilmember Joe Garritano in an online Ward 8 newsletter.

The language for Resolution 2018-11 to censure Shea also was provided to the public at the April 23 meeting and contained quotes from employee allegations. The censure was brought forth by McGowen and Councilmember Ray Manton [Ward 2] in response to the complaints, some of which dated back to May 2017.

“Almost 40 percent of our full-time city staff feel that they work in a hostile work environment, and I agree,” Manton said at the April 23 meeting. “Just look at the documentation. We’ve never had a situation like this in the history of our city.”

According to the city’s censure resolution, the nature of the alleged complaints include instances of reported yelling, profanity and threatening one specific employee with job loss.

“When I reviewed the complaints, I didn’t see it as one person, or two people, or three or four,” Garritano said at the April 23 meeting. “We ended up hearing from nine individuals.”

Shea has denied the allegations and was afforded the opportunity, On March 7 and 21, to provide documentation refuting city staff claims; however, she provided no documentation or rebuttal. According to Shea, the reason was due to the timing of the censure proposal amidst other legal items regarding other city affairs, which were presented in a closed session earlier in 2018.

“To say that I should be held responsible to mediate a complaint that was made against me sandwiched between two legal threats is a convenient deflection of responsibility of this entire body who is considering it,” Shea said at the April 23 meeting. “It takes a lot of strength to not over-respond to false allegations.

“If you read the complaints, they are not first-person accounts. I don’t know what the heck is going on, but what I did was I attempted to resolve discrepancies in the administration of city policy that I saw, and I was hearing from residents directly affecting their experiences. There is no place else for me to take my concerns except the administrative level.”

On April 9, McGowen had motioned for the full redacted employee complaints be made public. However, as of April 23, the resolution and other public documents still contained only quoted summaries of the alleged situations.

“There’s something insidious about this, that we are voting [whether] to censure regarding information we have that we cannot discuss publicly,” Councilmember Steve Taylor [Ward 4] said. “When I read some of the elements of the complaints, they are neither lewd or abusive. Nothing rises to that level. The medicine is worse than the problem here.”

While the council’s vote to defer mediation did not kill the censure resolution, it did place its fate in the ad-hoc committee’s hands. The committee is expected to return a recommendation regarding the fate of the resolution for ultimate review and approval of the city council at a later, undetermined date.

“It seems we went ‘problem, problem, censure’ and we missed an important step in there, which is to fix the problem,” Stephens said at the April 23 meeting.

Councilmember Debra Smith McCutchen [Ward 5] addressed an ongoing concern – unrest among councilmembers – and suggested that perhaps a retreat was needed to allow old councilmembers and new councilmembers to come together and get to know one another better.

“There is a concern here, and we need to sit down like adults,” McCutchen said. “We are a council. We are not a ‘they’ or a ‘him’ and a ‘her’, we are a council, and we need to find a way to bring ourselves together to be able to work together for the good of the city.”

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