Tempe Investigation Finds 'Abusive' Conduct by Managers in Public Works

An investigation found that two top officials in Tempe's Public Works Department violated personnel rules. A deputy director has been demoted and a manager is resigning, effective August 17.
An investigation found that two top officials in Tempe's Public Works Department violated personnel rules. A deputy director has been demoted and a manager is resigning, effective August 17.
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An investigation into Tempe’s Public Works Department found that two top employees violated personnel rules prohibiting “abusive” workplace conduct.

Phoenix New Times first reported the investigation in an article on Monday morning, and later obtained the final report detailing the behavior of Deputy Director for Field Operations Tony Miano and Solid Waste Manager Jason Browne.

When interviewed by investigators, employees characterized the two men as aggressive managers who routinely used inappropriate language and bullied colleagues.

Investigators corroborated the allegations, concluding that Miano and Browne created an inappropriate and stressful work environment. However, the report could not substantiate other complaints against the two men alleging retaliation and gender discrimination.

Employees knew Miano as “The Godfather." He reportedly took no issue with the moniker and joked about the mafia-inspired nickname. But staff in his division told investigators that as deputy director, Miano harbored grudges, cursed, and preferred that his underlings “feared” him.

As for Browne, his bullying behavior caused such discomfort for employees that some didn't want to show up to work, according to the report. He admitted to investigators that he used inappropriate and abusive language.

The men violated personnel rules prohibiting conduct that is "abusive in attitude, language, behavior, or conduct toward another employee" and that "does not meet a reasonable standard of workplace civility and respect in his or her interactions with other employees."

Investigators also found that Browne violated a personnel rule prohibiting dishonest behavior. While serving on an interview panel, Browne failed to disclose that he knew a job applicant from his previous work and education experience.

Miano is being demoted but will keep his job, albeit under the supervision of a new co-manager appointed by Tempe. Browne will resign his job on August 17 after spending the next two weeks on leave.

On Friday, Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching emailed Public Works employees to inform them of the decisions regarding Miano and Browne. However, he didn’t explicitly tie the city’s actions to the investigation, citing employee privacy rules.

Public Works employees had grown frustrated with the city’s silence and inaction ever since the investigation concluded in May.

According to the report, beginning in July 2017, several Public Works employees in the field services division came forward with concerns about an unprofessional work environment and policy violations related to hiring, retaliation, and gender and age discrimination.

As a result, in December Tempe initiated a wide-ranging investigation. Ginny Belousek, the city’s diversity manager, and Jon O’Connor, deputy internal services director for human resources, conducted the inquiry in which a total of 24 public works employees were interviewed confidentially.

New Times obtained the final report dated May 22 through records obtained under state public records law, although the 17-page document was heavily redacted to hide the names of employees who spoke to investigators.

Employees described Miano as a demanding boss with a vindictive streak when it came to hiring and promotion in his division. And although some noted Miano’s positive attributes as a manager, the report concluded that Miano’s behavior “is a significant concern for a Deputy Director and needs to be addressed.”

At the very least, Miano “undermines his leadership and calls into question the decisions he makes, or is a part of making, by the comments he makes that are unnecessary and inappropriate,” the report states.

Miano was hired as the solid waste manager in January 2013, and then promoted to deputy director for field operations in February 2016, according to the report. As deputy director, Miano is responsible for overseeing solid waste, fleet services, and parks.

Several employees referenced Miano’s strong ties to the local branch of a national professional organization, the Solid Waste Association of North America, or SWANA. The report says that Miano has served as president of the local organization three times.

“Within the Solid Waste industry in Arizona he is apparently known as ‘the Godfather’ and some employees noted that he jokes about that title,” the report states.

Miano told investigators that he does not refer to himself as the Godfather, but other employees and SWANA members do, “as an affectionate nickname.”

“He said he does not see anything wrong with it,” the report states.

A female employee raised an allegation of Miano’s “abusive and confrontational behavior” with the diversity office in April.

The report says that her concerns need to be addressed separately, but noted that “the behavior reported is consistent with other concerns raised by Solid Waste employees regarding Tony Miano’s management style and approach.”

Investigators found that there is not evidence to sustain an allegation of retaliation regarding Miano’s behavior during the recruitment process, after further review by the human resources department.

The report calls Miano’s comments about an unnamed employee who left Solid Waste “inappropriate,” but says there is no evidence to support the claim that he retaliated against her.

However, Miano's recruiting and promoting strategies left employees feeling like Miano harbored grudges. It seemed like he wanted to bring in "his own people," even if it meant ignoring the city's recruitment policies or hiring outside of the department.

And although investigators said that Miano had not broken hiring or recruitment policies, they agreed that Miano's comments left a bad impression.

They determined that Miano violated a city rule by acting "negligently, recklessly, or carelessly" during the hiring process – Miano's habit of making comments to suggest he had a specific person in mind for a position broke the rule, the report found. Miano made these remarks during the hiring process or before the job opening was even advertised, the report found.

According to the report, SWANA members have allegedly said that "they have the job in Tempe – they just have to go through the formalities," suggesting that Miano's close ties to the organization may have led him to favor certain SWANA candidates.

Investigators also flagged an August 2017 incident when Miano requested that a union representative leave the room during the hiring discussion for the solid waste manager candidate. Union involvement is consistent with Tempe's hiring practices, investigators said.

As for Browne, employees heard him consistently swear and use inappropriate language after he was hired as solid waste manager in October 2017, according to the report.

Browne reportedly used the “f-bomb,” and was once overheard yelling, “When are they going to stop busting my balls?” But his alleged inappropriate conduct went beyond salty language, according to the report.

Employees relayed several accounts of Browne’s bullying behavior, with one individual describing Browne as an “intimidating and abrasive" boss who talked down to everyone.

According to the report, one employee said that during a meeting with Browne, Browne and another individual both made “disparaging remarks regarding the Bible, Catholicism, and [told] inappropriate stories about their wives.” The employee found their comments “very offensive,” but he didn't raise his concerns with Browne directly because “he feared that it would result in more bullying.”

In February 2018, the employee was promoted to a job outside of the solid waste division.

In another example, Browne allegedly called an employee “a nickel [and] diming mother-f’er” when the employee requested flexible work hours after coming in early for an employee breakfast. Browne told investigators the comment was meant to be lighthearted.

Two solid waste inspectors said they felt bullied by Browne about schedule changes, and Browne reportedly described the inspectors by saying that “those dumb mother f’ers are too stupid to come up with a good argument.” He denied making the comment.

Like Miano, impropriety during the hiring process earned Browne another rule violation in addition to the charge of "abusive" conduct.

The incident happened when someone tipped off the city diversity office that based on information from LinkedIn, Browne and a newly hired employee had previously worked and gone to school together. A Facebook post from 2011 "clearly indicated they knew each other.”

Investigators found no evidence that Browne informed human resources or the interview panel that he knew the candidate, even though Browne was a candidate-rater on the panel.

Although human resources determined that the winning candidate was appropriate for the position based on his experience, panel members are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest related to their knowledge of an applicant.

Browne told investigators that he did not see this as a conflict.

The report notes that several employees from other city departments, on their own initiative, told Tempe officials about related concerns with Browne.

The report’s authors saved their strongest words for Browne, which may partly explain why he is resigning from city employment, unlike Miano.

Investigators wrote that Browne “seems to be unaware of the concerns he created by his behavior,” and called his treatment of an unnamed employee “inappropriate and unacceptable.”

Some pending matters remain after the investigation.

The field services division will implement a corrective action plan that will include employee-manager dialogue, a new structure for collaborative decision-making, and an audit of the solid waste division, according to Ching's email last week to Public Works.

In a new review related to Browne's case, officials will examine starting and current pay rates for three female employees in order to “ensure that there are no ‘equal pay’ discrepancies.”

City officials haven't explained why they didn't recognize problems sooner, and why they were silent on the investigation's outcome more than two months after it ended. Miano, Browne, and Ching did not respond to requests for comment.

Even as the city was reviewing his conduct, Miano seemed to bristle at Tempe calling him and his co-workers for interviews, according to employees quoted in the report. When questioned about these alleged remarks disparaging the investigation, Miano denied making them.

On the day of Miano’s interview with investigators, he reportedly told an employee that he was about to get his "medicine," and gestured to certain offices, remarking, “those crybabies turned me in." He added that his bosses are supposed to be backing him up, though "we'll see how that goes," the report says.

Another employee quoted him as saying, "more shit is being piled on ... There are a bunch of crybabies who went to HR to complain about me.”

Employees told investigators that they're concerned the environment in the solid waste division is “being condoned from the top."

According to the report, employees fear that Public Works Director Don Bessler supports Miano and may retaliate if Miano leaves.

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