Guest Post By Bob Pugh
The Prince William County Board of Supervisors will soon select a new County Executive. It is believed widely and confirmed off-the-record by some Supervisors that Assistant County Executive, Melissa Peacor, is the leading candidate for the job. I oppose this choice strongly. The County’s new chief executive should be someone from outside current senior management who can act independently from existing pressures, alliances and conflicts of interest.
Prince William County senior management under the watch of former County Executive Craig Gerhart and Ms. Peacor:
- Failed completely to provide adequate oversight and internal control as evidenced by the criminal indictments in the bid-rigging scandals in OIT, and ongoing sexual/gender harassment and discrimination scandals in various parts of the County government;
- Protects members of senior staff and covers up their misconduct despite overwhelming evidence of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior; and
- Suffers from documented conflicts of interest that impair its ability to serve all the citizens of Prince William County in a fair and unbiased manner.
I believe that selecting someone who is entrenched in the current management structure will only perpetuate these problems. Prince William County needs as its next County Executive an independent, experienced professional with a strong record of ethical conduct and serving the interests of their entire community. Only a person with such independence of leadership can have any chance of correcting the problems that have been created over the past several years.
I have observed the Prince William County Government first-hand for over a decade. From 1999 to 2003 I served as a Senior Financial Analyst in the County’s Finance Department. Since that time I have been an independent small business owner and community volunteer in many roles, including serving on Supervisors’ budget committees. Moreover, a member of my own family was one of the women affected by the Planning Office sexual harassment/discrimination scandals. The issue of County Government leadership thus touches very closely to home.
Much has been said about the existence of tapes of Ms. Peacor. My family member filed a grievance against Ray Utz and took her case to the County Executive hearing level of the employee grievance process. After that hearing she found better employment elsewhere. The County does not allow grievances to continue after the complainant leaves. We have the audio tapes of that hearing against Ray Utz at which Ms. Peacor presided. I have shared those tapes with both Greg and “Just the Facts.”
Our attorney advised us beforehand that the County’s employee grievance process is a sham designed to protect senior staff but that we needed to go through its steps to be able to pursue outside legal action later if we so chose. He could not have been more correct. So many women from the Planning Office wanted to be witnesses against Ray Utz that the attorney had to select only the three he thought would be most effective. Ms. Peacor presided more as a prosecutor against the victim and her witnesses than as an independent, impartial judge. She consistently defended Utz and went so far as to excuse his behavior toward women in the Long-Range Planning Office as understandable because he was going through a divorce. As predicted, Ms. Peacor ruled against the victim and in favor of senior management (Ray Utz and Steve Griffin).
These tapes last about four hours. Several people have expressed an interest in hearing them in order to form their own opinion. I would be glad to welcome people to my office for a complete hearing of the tapes. I can offer a comfortable seat and all of the freshly-ground Starbucks coffee you care to drink. If anyone is interested, please contact Greg, who will pass on serious inquiries to me. The only caveat is that I will protect the identity and privacy of the witnesses who are heard on the tapes.
Ray Utz continues to retaliate against the women who complained about his conduct, and he enjoys to this day the protection of senior management. Another of the Planning Office women told us that a firm had decided to hire her contingent on a reference check. Their human resources office (HR) contacted Ray Utz. Prince William County’s HR policy states clearly that former supervisors are not allowed to make statements that reflect on a former employee’s performance. Nonetheless, Utz made negative statements about her. A member of the firm’s HR staff told her off the record that Utz’ comments were the only reason she did not get the job.
Upon learning of this incident, my family member hired a professional reference checking firm. They contacted Utz and not only did he speak disparagingly about her, he indicated his awareness and understanding of Prince William County’s HR policy and told the interviewer that he did not want his remarks on the record. The reference checking company documented his statements as a basis for possible future legal action.
We wrote to Cleil Fitzwater, Prince William County’s HR Director, County Attorney Angela Lemmon Horan, and BOCS Chair Corey Stewart providing that document on November 23, 2009. None responded. On December 8, 2009, we called Mr. Fitzwater, who did not take the call but wrote back on December 9, 2009. His letter is linked here. The County has taken no action of which we are aware, and the tone of Mr. Fitzwater’s letter indicates to me that they intend to take no substantive action.
Please note that Prince William County’s HR office is part of the Office of Executive Management where Ms. Peacor is currently employed. Either she condones this sort of HR practice or is unaware of it. If she is unaware of the County’s HR practices we have another problem of poor oversight and lack of internal controls that allowed the OIT big-rigging scandal to take place.
Another case of which I am aware also involved a County Executive level grievance hearing at which Ms. Peacor presided. She acted again as prosecutor toward the victim and protected senior staff. In this case, the County fired the woman, who had been an employee in the Public Works Department. Among other abuses she suffered, she was mocked and ridiculed in her office because she had to wear a wig while undergoing chemo treatment for breast cancer. We may be able to make the tapes of that hearing available also.
County senior management’s blunder in this case was to oppose her receiving unemployment benefits after firing her. This move required an independent, impartial hearing with the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC). Senior County management was not able to manipulate and control the outcome of the VEC process as they do their own employee grievance process. Despite senior County management’s having wasted hundreds of hours of taxpayer-funded staff time from Prince William County’s HR Office, County Attorney’s Office, and Office of Executive Management, VEC’s ruling exonerated this woman and said that the pattern of misconduct that the County alleged did not exist.
Another of the Planning Office women (we’re up to three now here, and there are many others) left the County Government and one year ago wrote a lengthy, detailed memo to HR and the EEO office describing her view of the problems in that office, and the conflicts of interest between Planning Director Steve Griffin and local land-use attorneys. That memo has appeared on blogs in the past and Greg is providing a link here.
This memo is lengthy but please read it and form your own opinion as to its credibility. I know this woman well and believe her accounts of her experiences in the Planning Office. We spoke with her at Christmas, nearly a year after she wrote the memo, and no one from the County government has even responded to her, much less take any action.
Melissa Peacor is either discounting and ignoring these complaints and those from many other women all recounting similar experiences or she believes that this sort of conduct on the part of members of the County’s senior staff should be excused. Decide for yourself.
Competence is another concern. I worked with Ms. Peacor for over four years and do not believe she has the intellectual acumen to handle the County Executive job. Suffice it to say that I would find it more rewarding to make a futile attempt to teach algebra to my cats than to try again to explain proffer calculation methodologies to Melissa Peacor.
When working for the Prince William County Government, my view of Ms. Peacor’s management style, shared by many others, was that of a micromanager who demands to have her way regardless of the informed input of others. I recall occasions when she barged unannounced into meetings Finance Director Chris Martino was holding with his staff. She made statements and demands many of us considered nonsensical. Mr. Martino is one of the few genuinely intelligent people in senior management. I dread the day that Ms. Peacor might have the authority to usurp fully the responsibility for County financial decision-making from him.
The conflicts of interest, mismanagement, incompetence, scandals, and protection of senior staff misconduct in the Prince William County Government are clear to me. Prince William County was poorly led for many years by Craig Gerhart and his contingent of cronies. The County must have new blood in its leadership that can rebuild the effectiveness, ethics, competency and transparency of its senior government leadership.
If any members of the Board of County Supervisors vote for the status quo and the “bad old way” in which the County does business now, the citizens need to rally around candidates in 2011 who will bring the change and new direction we need. I see the choice of the new County Executive as a key test for our incumbent Supervisors. I’ll be working in 2011 to create a BOCS that will take Prince William County into the future and finally leave management by cronyism and backroom deals in the past, and hope that everyone else will join that effort.
Bob Pugh is a former Prince William County Government employee, a local independent small-business owner and community volunteer.
The opinions expressed here are solely the views of the author, and not representative of the position of any organization, political party, doughnut shop, knitting guild, or waste recycling facility, but may be correctly attributed to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. If anything in the above article has offended you, please click here to receive an immediate apology.