The Coastal Post - June 2000

Character Assassination by County Officials;
Health Chief's Dismissal Hearing Begins

By Jim Scanlon

The formal, official charges for the dismissal of Ed Stewart, the former head of Marin County's Environmental Health Services, and Dave Mesagno, the county's most experienced septic system inspector, were made public on May 10, 2000 when the Marin County Personnel Commission convened to hear Stewart's appeal. (Mesagno withdrew his appeal citing a need to move on with his life). All previous deliberations have been secret and although the present hearing was open to the public at Stewart's request, the Coastal Post obtained correspondence containing the charges only after a verbal struggle with county officials.

The Commission rejected Stewart's motion to dismiss the County's case as Stewart's lawyer, Gary Messing argued there was no "foundation" for the allegations. That is, the charges made against the two long term employees do not contain the who, what, when and where necessary to be substantiated and make it impossible to mount a defense.

The Personnel Commission went into secret session several times during the day to confer with its attorney before finally listening to the examination and cross examination of the first of what is estimated to be 40 witnesses.

The entire hearing will take an estimated ten days, but the only day available for the second day of hearings in the next two months will be June 22. The months of July through September have not yet been considered, but with the schedules of so many people involved, this hearing could take months to complete.

In a letter dated January 13, 2000, Linda Christman, Assistant County Administrator wrote to Stewart, "...You have a lengthy history of improper conduct, a history of subjecting employees to inappropriate, unprofessional, discriminatory and harassing conduct in the workplace, and of allowing others whom you supervise, to do the same."

Christman lists 33 charges-or, perhaps better stated, conclusions-alleging violations of county policies on affirmative action, discrimination, sexual harassment, violations of the merit system, incompetence and inefficiency and disorderly or immoral conduct.

What is unusual about the conclusions is that none of them are dated or datable. Furthermore, there is no record of anyone ever complaining about Stewart or Mesagno before they were dismissed without notice and given five minutes to clear their desks and get out of the Civic Center. Although a "lengthy history" of improper conduct is alleged, there is no record that any county official spoke to either of the men during their respective 28 and 16 year "lengthy histories" with the County.

There is also no mention of any complaints ever being filed by any of Stewart's staff. At the time of their dismissals, both men had filed grievances complaining of political pressure by Supervisor Steve Kinsey and five other county officials, to approve unsafe waste water disposal systems. (See "What The 'Character Assassination' Is Really About.")

Essentially the charges consist of a vague hodgepodge of allegations of sexist, racist, vulgar, crude language and behavior occurring over an unspecified time period of years that was never documented, met about, or noted in personnel files.

For example Christman charges: "You have observed, without comment or taking corrective action, years of offensive, discriminatory and harassing comments on the part of white male employees within your Division, and especially male supervisory employees who report to you. In particular ...the conduct of Dave Mesagno... his racist and sexist remarks, have created an intimidating and offensive work environment for female and minorities within your division."

This charge lacks any foundation of specific facts that can be verified independently, or refuted. Violations of rules and laws are framed as, "On such and such a day , in such and such a place, you did such and such to so and so, in violation of section 123 of the code of whatever." It seems clear that no one could offer a defense to such an all-encompassing mass of vague, defamatory statements.

When the men were dismissed in September 1999, the reason for dismissal given by the County was "Gender Discrimination." This charge was apparently investigated by a private contractor hired by the County and resulted in the so called "Shapiro Report" alluded to in Christman's letter. According to Stewart, this report basically exonerated him. So the County restructured the charges as presented in January 2000. Curiously, the original "Shapiro Report" was not made available.

Donna Williamson an attorney on contract to the County delivered an opening statement declaring that the case was about racist, sexist behavior in the workplace, where women were ogled, degraded and discriminated against in favor of white males. Where Stewart tolerated a men's-club like atmosphere, a fun place to work, where it was fun to say "no" to powerful Marin County developers. Where women were ridiculed and jokes were made about dog-eating Asians, Aunt Jemaima, fat people, Jewishness, where Stewart insulted customers and managers, and expressed no remorse for his behavior. She said this was not a case about whistleblowers or performance but about legal and ethical responsibility to provide a safe workplace.

Stewart's attorney, Gary Messing, greatly exasperated, objected to Ms Williamson's statements as containing allegations and wording not included in the written charges and cited his earlier objections to the lack of foundation and completeness when he made his failed motion to dismiss the County's case.

When Williamson began examining the County's first and only witness of the day , Linda Oqvist, a seven year county employee who supervised three secretarial workers, and whose desk was close to Stewart's office, Messing began a non stop series of objections to Williamson's "leading the witness" with her questions. For example she might ask "Did you often hear inappropriate language used in the office", without establishing "who, when what, where".

Williamson was repeatedly asked to reformulate her questions by the Commission Chairman and it was a painful experience to listen to her reformulations followed by Messing's inevitable objections to her "leading the witness." At the rate this hearing is going, the terms of the Commissioner's are likely to expire before it is completed.

Oqvist's seemed sincere and cooperative and, although she was the County's witness, her testimony actually cleared up a few of the inflammatory accusations made against Stewart. For example, the "dog eating Asian" jokes were made by unnamed employees from the Philippine Islands at the monthly pot luck lunches. She said that many of the employees had "Far Side" cartoons on their desks and that the offensive cartoon on Dave Mesagno's desk was a drawing of Bart Stinson stuck in the buttocks of a large woman titled "Crack Kills." She seemed honest and truthful in often being unable to remember when, or who, was present when vulgar language was used.

She said she had never complained of offensive behavior, although she added "I wish I had".

Stewart said later, "I wish she had too!"

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