Personnel Appeals Hearing Kerry Bigelow: Conclusion, Short Edition

Some quick thoughts on tonight’s hearing (Personnel Appeals Hearing Kerry Bigelow: Evidence and Process).

Was there clarity? No. Are some issues more understandable? Yes.

Both the Town and Mr. Bigelow agree that he was a solid worker with a “good attitude”. Both agree that something changed when Mr. Bigelow filed an EEOC complaint when he was passed over for a drivers job, a job his supervisor Larry Stroud said he was well suited for, a job that went to a less qualified candidate.

While the Town and the Appeals Board skirted the issue numerous times, it is also clear that the Town agreed Bigelow’s initial review process for that job wasn’t handled appropriately, that the deficiency in that review rose to the status of a “serious incident” and, apparently, led to the dismissal of a public works manager.

From that point on both sides construct a completely different, but strangely congruent, narrative of Bigelow’s employment.

The Town claims Bigelows behavior, as reported by 10 fellow employees and documented by 7 resident complaints filed by 5 citizens of Chapel Hill, disintegrated. The formerly solid worker now was conducting himself in a detrimental way – a way requiring immediate dismissal. No warnings. No counseling. No management intervention.

The Town crafted a story of a prudent investigation by an outside consultant who clearly documented a series of “serious incidents” from a belligerent, aggressive, combative (and, as the CAI private investigator saw it), dangerous employee.

Bigelow and his lawyer Al McSurely claim that the Town’s first documented “serious incident” was Bigelow’s EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaint. They sketched out a time-line and a series of Town management maneuvers that deprived Bigelow of due process and led to his retaliatory firing. As Bigelow concluded this evening “they were out to get me..well, they got me”.

The Personnel Appeals Board, led by chair Anita Badrock, did a good job of trying to tease out the truth – what truth, at least, that could be discerned from the anemic Town documentation and contradictory statements made by all the participants, including Mr. Bigelow. Kudos to Anita for her deft handling of tonight’s process.

Kudos, also, to the citizens who turned out. Folks were patient, generally quiet and many held on the full 5+ hours to hear both sides out.

While Mr. Bigelow and Counsel McSurely did a good job laying out a narrative, Bigelow did contradict himself several times, especially when it came to his understanding of the consequences of leaving the pre-disciplinary hearing. It could well be that the 10 employees who verified Bigelow’s discipline problems had their own axes to grind – possibly been cherry picked to deliver a particular slant on his service. It could well be that the frightened citizen was exaggerating or even antagonistic towards Bigelow for some unspecified reason. Simply saying that it was all lies without clearly communicating a factual counter-narrative did not help Bigelow.

The outcome of his case could well hinge on whether the Board believes that Bigelow was afforded due process moreso than if the Town’s case has merit.

Which, finally, leads us to whether the Town’s case was solid.

Given what I have heard from dozens of staff members over the last decade, I could believe a narrative where Town Management actively made life difficult for employees who file EEOC complaints, who ask tough questions.

Yes, hiring CAI, a company with a well-established anti-union stance to manage an investigation of two union organizers for unrelated issues was boneheaded. Yes, there could be more to CAI’s involvement than being the most convenient option, as the interim HR director suggested this evening.

Did Bigelow make that case this evening? No.

It was clear the CAI’s von Der Lippe was hired to do a particular job. That job was not properly done – mistakes in the final report, undocumented investigative questions (possibly leading questions), inadequate interview notes/recordings, confusion as to the Town’s management structure, etc.

Was this because von Der Lippe had some kind of union-busting agenda, as some have suggested? No.

Simply, he was given a particular charter, provided provocative hearsay evidence and pointed directly in Bigelow/Clark’s direction. Based on what he said he was told by Clark and Bigelow’s fellow employees, by management and citizens, you could almost – almost – understand why he ran a background check on them for fear of his own safety. That fear, though, betrays an unfortunate bias which, as far as I can tell by the testimony this evening, undermines the Town’s case.

Finally, the Town failed to provide specific details of the allegations.

We heard of an initial incident – unsubstantiated by any uninterested party – involving what sounds to me as an innocuous comment supposedly made 7/22 on the eve of VP Biden’s visit to the Greenwood neighborhood. We heard of a second incident in September which severely frightened a resident – to the extent that she cowered behind closed blinds until the trash truck left the neighborhood.

On cross-examination, Director Norris alluded to a series of escalations between the two dates, yet it still remains unclear and unsubstantiated what those escalations were. What was clear is that there were a series of missed opportunities to resolve these issues. Miscommunication, especially during the disciplinary process, played a major role in the mess before us.

North Carolina is a right-to-work State, which, essentially means that employers are free to fire folks for any damn reason they want (except gender, race, creed and politics). And while I certainly don’t want an employee who exercises “detrimental personal conduct” resulting in “serious incidents” working for the Town, based on Chapel Hill’s stated principles, the Town is required to do a better job than they did this evening in proving the allegations.

I’m going to sleep on tonight’s evidentiary hearing. Maybe the facts, what few there are, will hang together better in the morning.






2 responses to “Personnel Appeals Hearing Kerry Bigelow: Conclusion, Short Edition”

  1. jcb Avatar

    I’m not arguing the town is right here, but as a manager (in a corporation, not government), I can say that I’ve certainly had incidents that I wish in hindsight were better documented (in the middle of one now, in fact). You deal with a lot of situations every day and you try to create a paper trail for things that will have a longer impact and sometimes you misjudge. In fact, if this was truly the orchestrated campaign that it has been made out to be by the NAACP, I would expect the town would have been more careful in its documentation. Or else they are truly inept at orchestrating as well. Not a case I envy the board to decide – literally he said/she said and then you have to weigh if the allegations if true warrant the treatment.

    Thanks, Will, for putting all this time into documenting what’s going on. We may never know the full truth, but you’ve helped us understand what we can.

  2. Administrator Avatar

    As a former manager, I’m also well aware of the dearth of documented evidence you might have in these cases. I’ve unfortunately been in Mr. Norris’ situation a couple times in the last 20 years – it is no fun.

    For $5860 I did expect a bit more thoroughness and detail from CAI and the Town. There might be mounds of details the public wasn’t privy to but based on last night’s testimony it sounded like a lot of undocumented hearsay.

    We have 10 employees collaborating the Town’s narrative, only 3 of which are willing to testify in some detail, 2 of which only by affidavit, leaving only 1, Mr. James, to flesh out some detail directly.

    The 2 filing affidavits appear to be testifying about singular incidents. It’s not clear what prompted their recollections but it is clear that neither independently complained prior to the investigation. 1 of the affidavits only relates, 2nd hand, a story about an altercation that almost came to blows between Bigelow and someone else.

    In presenting their case, the Town fumbled with dates, mixed up incidents (the EEOC incident on behalf of Bigelow vs. the “Biden” incident of 7/22.

    At first the Town says there were two incidents in Greenwood – the 7/22 and something in September which culminated in the firings. Later the Town describes a pattern of escalating incidents between those dates but doesn’t provide any description of those incidents. In two hours I gathered a bit more information than I had before but also was left more perplexed about some of the management decisions/omissions.

    That said, Bigelow’s response, that it was all lies, the Town and staff were out to get him – presumably in retaliation for the firing of Harv Howard, the filing of the EEOC grievance, the documentation of safety incidents, his labor organizing efforts – fell a bit flat.

    If I was forced to agree on a consolidated narrative it would go something like this…

    Bigelow was a good worker. He applied for a position he was well qualified for (by 17 years experience in Burlington), a position his boss endorsed him for, a position he lost due to some wackiness in the review process.

    The Town agreed that there was some kind of problem (which the public doesn’t know the details of), they had done another CAI investigation to deal with it but, at the end of the day, still decided to hire a less qualified applicant for the position.

    At this point Bigelow files an EEOC complaint and, here’s were I speculate, starts to show his disappointment. I could well understand his disappointment – he did his 2+ years as a collector waiting for a position to open up yet got less than nothing for his patience. To the degree he showed that disappointment – made him show irritation over other issues – we don’t know specifically but I’m convinced that he was upset and showed it a few times. Who wouldn’t understand that?

    As you well put it, the “he said/she said” aspect of this case makes it difficult to tease out the truth.

    From what was said, what was documented, what was logically established last night,I don’t believe his actions justified his termination but, rather, some level of lesser intervention – corrective action review, lateral movement (if possible), counseling, placement on another route and separation from Clark, etc.

    Finally, this does appear to have been an extraordinary turn of events starting with Bigelow’s application for the driver position. As a former manager, I found myself asking numerous times last night, “Why didn’t management do X?” Both Mr. Norris, the new HR head acknowledge some management deficits – if I was on Council, I would expect Town Manager Stancil to explain what corrective actions he was taking to make sure we don’t have a similar chain of failures take place again.

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