Ex-Veterans Services leader blasts work environment

Published: Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 8:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 8:15 p.m.

In September, Major Stroupe stepped down from his county job of battling for better care for veterans. On his way out, he fired a volley at the county administration in what he says was a bid to help lower-level employees.

Supervisors protect their own jobs and those of their senior-level colleagues at the expense of other employees, he said in a lengthy letter to Alachua County commissioners after he retired from the Veterans Services Department, which he led for more than two years.

"Many county employees live in fear of losing their jobs for 6-9 months out of every year due to budget cuts,'' he wrote. "In the Community Support Services Department, lower-grade employees' positions are offered up as budget cuts in order to save unneeded positions at higher levels because of seniority."

In his letter, obtained by The Sun through a public records request, Stroupe also said employees cannot go beyond their department director to express their concerns and frustrations without fear of retaliation.

Employee morale, which he noted has been low in recent years, cratered in 2012, he said, when workers heard that Communications Coordinator Mark Sexton was getting a raise of around $25,000 at a time when other employees hadn't received a raise in years. Sexton was offered the raise to keep him from accepting a six-figure job offer elsewhere.

"When they announced the Mark Sexton thing, you could hear a pin drop in the whole building," Stroupe said.

These and other incidents ramped up his frustration and led him to retire, Stroupe said, several years sooner than he had planned.

"In my entire work experience, I have never worked for worse supervision than what we have," he said of Alachua County.

County Manager Betty Baker said she is looking into the issues Stroupe raised to determine which ones should be addressed.

"You have to do an objective review … and you have to wade through some of what's written to get to the facts," she said.

While Baker said she doubts there was a real threat of retaliation for Stroupe, she acknowledged he could have perceived it as such. She said she doesn't want any worker to have that perception.

"It sounds like his fear was genuine," she said. "But I don't think it's been an organizational dynamic for that to be occurring. At least I hope not."

In an interview with The Sun, Stroupe, who worked for Levy and Gilchrist counties running their veterans services departments before joining Alachua County, elaborated on the problems he mentioned in his letter.

He said he had expected to retire at the same time as his wife, who won't do so for another four years, but decided to retire early because of the work environment.

Positions cut

In some of his strongest comments, Stroupe said management positions were spared while lower-level jobs were lost.

Human Resources Manager Kim Baldry provided The Sun with a list of the positions the county eliminated over the past three budget cycles, most of which were vacant at the time. Out of 21 positions that were cut, she classified two as management-level roles: a clinical manager in Court Services and a position in Community Support Services' now-defunct Poverty Reduction Program.

However, in an email to The Sun, she wrote that she considered many of the other eliminated positions to be professional-level, from which it is a natural progression for some employees to move into supervisory and management roles.

Of the 21 eliminated jobs, she listed 10 as professional — including the director of legislative affairs position, which was folded into Sexton's job — and another as a high-level fiscal position. There were eight positions Baldry considered lower-level, and those included two building mechanics, a record technician and clerical or office assistant jobs.

"I consider management as a position that manages more than a function," Baldry wrote. "You are managing/leading people."

Baker said that, especially after the 2008 recession hit, departmental managers reverted to a "protect your own" philosophy and tried to shield their divisions from deep cuts, which she said is typical across organizations in those kinds of situations. She was the administrative services director at the time and said she had the same "knee-jerk reaction" at first.

However, she said, supervisors have been more concerned with defending their departments as a whole, not specific employees.

Over the course of the county's budget sessions, Baker noted, department heads made concessions to help other divisions and found money to finance county workers' first real raise in six years for this fiscal year.

"I don't think that managers were looking out for themselves and throwing low-level employees under the bus," she said.

Some lower-level administrative positions, such as office clerks, might not have been needed in certain departments anymore because of more efficient databases or other forms of technology, she said, but the county has shifted some of those positions to other divisions in recent years.

Making the management structure more efficient also has been taken into consideration, she said.

In his letter, Stroupe also cited a $60,000 raise that outgoing County Manager Richard Drummond gave to former Community Support Services Director Elmira Warren before she retired last year.

Warren got the raise, Drummond told The Sun at the time, because she had not received the Senior Management Service Class designation for the Florida Retirement System. The raise actually amounted to about $10,000 in additional earnings, the amount she would have received in retirement benefits with that designation.

Retaliation feared

Stroupe also said employees fear retaliation if they reach out to someone of authority beyond their department director to express their concerns.

He said he experienced this firsthand when he was told by Warren she would not support adding a new counselor to the Veterans Services team.

Stroupe said he had been promised the department would make that request but didn't feel he could appeal to anyone else when he was told that wouldn't happen.

"Where did I have to go? If I went to the county manager, I'd have been gone," Stroupe said.

Warren told The Sun it was unfortunate Stroupe felt that way but said she had an open-door policy with her employees and wouldn't have retaliated against someone for having a different opinion.

She also said she never promised him another counselor, although her department already had added a new staff member to Veterans Services at Stroupe's request in the recent past.

"I don't promise people anything. I give them the opportunity to prove to me there is a need and then we will move forward with it," she said. "I didn't promise him a position. I said we would look at it."

Whenever an employee told Warren his or her office needed extra staff, she said she needed something more concrete on which to base that request before bringing it to the County Commission.

Warren said she determined there wasn't a need for a new counselor after looking at the numbers.

Lanard Perry, assistant director of the Community Support Services Department, said the number of calls and in-person visits from clients had dropped by about 30 percent at the time. The extra staff member that previously had been added to Veterans Services had helped make that office more efficient.

Baker, who became county manager in July after Drummond retired, said she, like her predecessor, has an open-door policy for employees.

Drummond hosted periodic meetings where employees could meet with him and voice their concerns, although Baker said she plans to tweak that practice. Instead of inviting workers to come to her office, she said she will go to their worksites.

After these meetings adjourn, she will stick around for a little while to talk one-on-one with any workers who wish to speak with her privately.

"We cannot have employees fearing speaking out or going to the top," Baker said.

Stroupe said he took his concerns to Baker, with whom he had never really worked, in the hope she would address the issues.

"I'm not trying to cause a furor. I'm just trying to fix things that are broken because they're not treating our employees like people. They're treating them like pawns," he said. "I can only be hopeful that it will be fixed."

Ed Van Buren, chair of the county's Veterans Services Advisory Board, said the board knew Stroupe didn't always have a "smooth going of it" when he tried to implement improvements for his office.

"I don't think he was treated with the respect that he should have been," Van Buren said. "We're sad that that work environment is in such a state of flux that it ran off a pretty good fella. We're hoping that the new selection, Ms. (Kim) Smith, will be able to work in that environment or even get it changed if necessary."

Commissioners react

County Commissioners Susan Baird, Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV, Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson and Lee Pinkoson all said they were concerned about Stroupe's letter and are waiting for Baker to review the situation.

Pinkoson said he would like to hear from Baker before deciding what, if any, changes need to be made.

Chestnut and Hutchinson both pointed out that commissioners stay out of the day-to-day operations of the county. Chestnut said he doesn't want to micromanage by intervening.

He cited low employee morale, which he said he already was aware of, and the fear of retaliation that Stroupe mentioned as issues he would especially like to be addressed.

"It could be an isolated incident, but I think we should look at it and at least give the manager an opportunity to address those issues that Major Stroupe brought up," Chestnut said.

Hutchinson said this is the first time he has seen an employee come forward with a detailed set of complaints in his current term as commissioner.

"If this was the third time or fifth time it had happened, we'd be concerned systemically about what was going on, but that's not the case," he said.

Whether perceived or real, Baird said Stroupe's fear of retaliation is an issue that should be addressed because no employee should be afraid of that. "This kind of a letter just puts up a red flag, you know?" she said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gmail.com.

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