Arizona Parks Staffers Agonize and Wait for Action on Director Sue Black

Arizona State Parks and Trails Director Sue Black.
Arizona State Parks and Trails Director Sue Black. New Times source
Employees of Arizona Parks have grown increasingly exasperated over Governor Doug Ducey’s refusal to take action against the department’s scandal-ridden director, Sue Black, multiple staffers told Phoenix New Times.

Black has been the subject of at least three investigations concerning treatment of her employees, as reported previously by the Arizona Republic.

The Ducey administration opened a fourth inquiry into Parks this month, one day after Phoenix New Times raised questions about a ranger who appeared to receive special treatment due to a past relationship with Black.

Employees describe an office with low morale, where colleagues speak in hushed tones about embarrassing news stories, and actively search for new jobs. For many, hopes of improved working conditions rest on an upcoming report based on the state’s most comprehensive investigation into the department.

"It’s a horrible waiting game,” said one senior employee.

The investigation in question kicked off in July after an employee reported vulgar graffiti targeting Black in an office bathroom. The probe was expected to wrap up in days, but was expanded into a three-month review of the parks department, in which state officials stationed themselves in the agency's central Phoenix office and invited staffers to bring them information.

Investigators with the Arizona Department of Administration (ADOA) interviewed dozens of staffers from July to September, one former and four current Parks employees told New Times. (All the employees who spoke with New Times requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. No staffer in this piece is quoted more than once.)

ADOA officials who partook in the investigation include deputy director Elizabeth Thorson, human resources director Ginger LaBine, and human resources administrator Fred Burk.

At least two officials from the General Services Department also participated.

Employees interviewed by ADOA raised a number of grievances during that period, they told New Times, including allegations of mistreatment, retaliation, compliance violations, mismanagement of funds, questionable hiring decisions, forced volunteer work, and orders to do work outside their job description.

In recent days, several staffers expressed impatience with what they suspect is an intentional delay of ADOA to publicize its findings.

"Everybody feels cheated,” said one senior employee. The worker added that speaking with ADOA has caused him to face retaliation from Black. "Anyone who brought forward information to [ADOA] are now just a target and are awaiting her wrath.”

Parks employees say some of the information they divulged to ADOA found its way to Black. One manager described an incident in which an employee told ADOA that Black is a “bully.” Black then confronted the employee about the claim, the manager said, leading ADOA officials to counsel the director.

Staffers suspect Ducey wants to avoid bad publicity in the run-up to the November 6 election; they believe any findings from the investigation won’t come out until then.

Recent polls show Ducey comfortably ahead of his Democratic opponent, David Garcia. The gap between the candidates was smaller in the weeks after the August primary.

A spokesperson for ADOA said officials have drafted a report based on the investigation and that it is currently under legal review.

Daniel Ruiz, a spokesperson for Ducey, denied that the report won't be released before the election for political reasons, noting that the investigation of Parks is under review.

ADOA investigators have privately expressed to employees concerns over Black’s management practices, employees say.

One staffer said a human resources investigator told him he had "never seen a more dysfunctional and unprofessional workplace.”

ADOA officials have even spoken with employees about the timing of possible action against Black. An employee said that in the summer, an investigator told him not to expect anything to happen before September, when Arizona hosted a national conference for state parks directors in Sedona.

Ducey has faced criticism for hiring numerous cabinet officials who have either come under investigation or resigned in scandal.

Most infamously, state Department of Economic Security Tim Jeffries was forced to resign in November 2016 after encouraging employees to drink during work, improperly firing staffers, and stockpiling weapons for a new security force over paranoia that terrorists could target his office. Arizona Lottery director Tony Bouie resigned in January 2016 after New Times published allegations that he improperly used a state vehicle. Arizona-Mexico Commission President David Farca resigned following the revelation of a lawsuit and liens that called into question his business acumen. Juvenile Corrections Director Donna Markley left after allegations that she also improperly fired employees.
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh