The Coastal Post - August 2000

Sexual, Racial Hysteria VS. Public Health
At Whistleblower's Hearing

By Jim Scanlon

While listening to six hours or testimony and cross examination of the second and third county witnesses in the Personnel Commission at the June hearing on the dismissal of Ed Stewart a strange sense of unreality crept over me and my companion. The former head of the county's Division of Environmental Health was fired, without warning, on five minutes notice as if he were a deranged, vindictive saboteur, and not a 28 year employee with an unblemished record,

I swung emotionally between a sense of pride that in this county, under our system of law, five distinguished Commissioners would listen politely, attentively and respectfully to testimony, and feelings of anger and frustration that the substance of the county's complaints against Stewart were absurd. Basically the same vague generic accusations of vulgar language and tolerating an atmosphere hostile to women and minorities. Situations that can and should be easily corrected with warnings and monitoring.

The first day of testimony was 42 days before, the next would be 51 days in the future, with at least seven days of testimony after that. I began to wonder if the Commissioners might crack under the strain.

Linda Williamson, the attorney representing the county seemed more relaxed, self-assured and direct in her questioning of her witnesses. There were fewer objections from Gary Messing, Stewart's lawyer who was less edgy and pointed in his objections. The Chairman of the Commission was firm, but gracious and polite---he could easily have been cast in a staring role as a judge in a television or stage drama.

There were just a handful of spectators: a representative from Marin County's middle managers association, two employees of environmental health, two spouses of witnesses, an employee of Health and Human Services, a researcher for the Coastal Post and me. A hearing on the only "Whistleblower's" ever to get fired in the history of Marin sees no other press coverage.

Stranger yet, the first witness had been the head clerical supervisor, the second was a woman who started off as a clerk typist and was promoted, under Stewart's tenure, to an Environmental Health Specialist. the Third, a white male former airline pilot with public health experience in the UK, currently a supervisor taking the place of Dave Mesagno who was fired along with Stewart. The witness was supervising the entire Division while the acting Chief was on vacation.

This last witness, a six year employee (whose rise might be considered meteoric) testified that he was startled four years or so ago when he was promoted over a woman with more experience than him, even though he felt he was marginally qualified! All three seemed to be doing quite well.

No one so far has provided a date and place of a specific act on the part of Stewart, He did have a large deflated plastic doll hanging on the wall of his office for several years and Mesagno, whose specialty was septic systems and sewage, had a cartoon on the wall of his cubicle of Bart Simpson stuck in the buttocks of a large, elderly obese woman. These facts were not contested but hardly seem to justify being fired on five minutes notice after twenty eight and sixteen years respectively.

Again we heard testimony of the potluck sign up sheets on which two specialist of Asian Pacific descent signed up to provide "dog meat stew," and who could see the sign up sheet. Did Stewart ever see the sheet? Again we heard of references to Stewart's former supervisor Mark Riesenfeld, the present County Administrator as "Sadam" and "Hitler" and "Mr. Mustache." Stewart did use "Mr. Mustache" but was it a derogatory name or a term of endearment?"

One witness testified that Alex Hinds, Stewart's recently appointed boss, was referred to as "Mr. Hymie" (a derogatory term for New York Jews used by Jessie Jackson as when he referred to New York as "Hymietown"). Under cross examination we discover that Stewart actually told the person who used the term not to use it again. Everyone had trouble spelling "Hymie"

No one yet has admitted knowledge of present or past employees who complained about Stewart or Mesagno. All three witnesses said they had not complained themselves because it might be dangerous. The last witness did complain to Stewart about Mesagno's rudeness and, according to him, Stewart agreed, but said that Mesagno experience and knowledge was invaluable to the department.

Under the surface, two dozen diverse, intelligent, ambitious employees of both sexes seem to have intensely competed for a limited number of positions and this created concealed conflict and resentment.

It seems clear that the real problems with Stewart and Mesagno were the complaints about their enforcement of county codes on wastewater, presumably what they are supposed to do to protect the public from disease. One can look at the county charges as a diversion, a witch hunt pounced upon to justify termination. But since there were no cautions or warnings of dissatisfaction the Commission might just reverse the termination.

It also seems clear from the testimony of witnesses that others higher up in County Administration knew of participated in, and tolerated the practices for which Stewart and Mesagno were fired. Certainly Riesenfeld, the County Administrator although a 1994 memo on the "Penis Pasta Incident" was produced in which Riesenfeld cautioned employees on appropriate Christmas gifts after an employee--not in Stewart's department--gave a gift of pasta shaped like little penises.

Hinds, Stewart's supervisor was a new employee who worked for the County only a few months before he transferred Mesagno, the sewage expert, which provoked Stewart to file his "Whistleblower's" grievance which resulted in his being fired. Well no, the county's position is that he and Mesagno were fired for tolerating aggressive male sexual innuendo and boorishness, victimizing women by not promoting all of them who applied, allowing minority workers to be racially insensitive to themselves and posting and tolerating offensive Bart Simpson cartoons.

Although the last two witnesses testified to the offensive cartoons being where the public and visitors might see them, they were quick to add that they never saw Mark Riesenfeld or Alex Hinds or Supervisor Steve Kinsey exposed to such offensive graphics.

The next hearing is scheduled for August 10 at 9 AM. Perhaps one or two high county officials will be questioned. People with high status are not used to being cross examined and the hearings might get interesting.

Persons interested in helping with Ed Steward's Legal Defense Fund should send donations to the Marin County Federal Credit Union, Account 8817, 30 North San Pedro Road, San Rafael, CA 94901.

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