City Hall

Tempe Public Works Department Roiled by Investigation Into Hostile Work Environment

Tempe's Public Works Department, which handles city operations like waste management and transportation, was under a cloud of a hostile work environment investigation ever since last winter.
Tempe's Public Works Department, which handles city operations like waste management and transportation, was under a cloud of a hostile work environment investigation ever since last winter.
click to enlarge Tempe's Public Works Department, which handles city operations like waste management and transportation, was under a cloud of a hostile work environment investigation ever since last winter. - TEMPE.GOV
Tempe's Public Works Department, which handles city operations like waste management and transportation, was under a cloud of a hostile work environment investigation ever since last winter.
An investigation rattled Tempe's Public Works Department after employees complained of a hostile work environment.

A deputy director of the department, Tony Miano, allegedly ran his division like a "mob operation" and referred to himself as "The Godfather."

In anticipation of the investigative report’s public release this week, Miano has been demoted, and another Public Works employee is leaving the department under a cloud. The behavior of both men led to complaints from employees.

On Friday, Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching emailed Public Works employees to tell them that Miano will be relegated to a reduced leadership role under the watchful eye of a city-appointed monitor for the near future. Meanwhile, Jason Browne, a solid waste services manager, is leaving the department effective August 17, and will be on leave until then.

As deputy director for field operations, Miano oversees solid waste, among other responsibilities. For the near term, he will focus primarily on the solid waste division alongside a co-manager from a Tempe city office outside of Public Works, according to Ching.

This co-manager will serve as city hall's “eyes and ears" in the field services division for at least six months, according to Ching's statement, "or until we are satisfied that the division is fully functioning and aligned with Tempe's mission and values."

Tempe Deputy City Manager Steven Methvin and Public Works Director Don Bessler co-signed the letter.

But prior to this disclosure, Public Works employees had grumbled at perceived foot-dragging by City Hall in response to allegations of a hostile work environment. Public Works employees saw no public actions or statements from City Hall, even after the investigation concluded in May.

The investigation targeted Miano and Browne, according to the union that represents non-supervisory public employees in Tempe.

United Arizona Employee Association President Jackie Awosika said that after the Public Works Department fielded several complaints about Miano and Browne, officials with the city’s human resources and diversity offices reviewed the conduct of the two men beginning last winter.

Employees told Awosika that the men insulted employees, used profane language, and made vindictive decisions about personnel matters, she said. Miano referred to himself as “The Godfather,” Awosika said.

“It was a culmination of things that had been happening over time. Profanity – things like ‘busting my balls’ – and just calling an employee stupid,” Awosika said last week.

Last week, Phoenix New Times submitted records requests for the report and other documents related to the investigation. A spokesperson for the city suggested that the report would be made available shortly.

Adding to the whispers and confusion, a Public Works employee recently attempted to alert Tempe leaders to the situation within the department.

Christopher “Sam” Wonderling, a solid waste operator with 12 years of experience in Public Works, told council members in a July 26 email that a faction within the Public Works department resembles “a mob operation.”

Multiple layers of personnel problems are plaguing Public Works, Wonderling said in an interview on Thursday.

“There’s a lot of nepotism, there’s a lot of questionable hiring practices, there’s some retaliation, and there’s some discrimination,” Wonderling said.

Although Wonderling declined to comment in detail about the behavior of Miano and Browne, he expressed confidence in the ability of city leaders to deliver a just outcome. “I want things resolved, but I don’t want to be a wrecking ball,” Wonderling said.

In his email to the solid waste workgroup, Ching apologized to employees who were affected by the “cloud of stress and uneasiness caused by the sense of a lack of closure” after the investigation ended.

“When there is a choice between doing something quickly, or doing it well, I will always err on the side of doing it well, because it means we can all have confidence in the outcomes and a more real sense of closure,” Ching wrote.

But he also said that employee privacy rules prevent them from disclosing specific disciplinary actions they've taken already.

“I can assure you that appropriate disciplinary actions have been taken pursuant to the report,” Ching wrote. He went on to inform the department of Browne’s departure and Miano’s new reduced role, suggesting that the men were disciplined as a result of the investigation.

For the city manager to say that Miano's overseer will stay on until the field services division is “fully functioning" stands out – a pretty harsh assessment of Public Works.

Under the co-manager, Miano's division will have to implement a corrective action plan.

Elements of the plan include dialogue with the employees who have raised concerns; an audit of the department by the city’s Internal Audit Office; a new system to ensure workers can participate in decision-making on department policies (for example, vacation schedules and absenteeism); and the hiring of an outside facilitator to rebuild morale among employees.

Awosika said that she received so many complaints from employees about their treatment in Public Works that she raised the issue with the city’s Internal Services Department. Union members have come to her asking for help with how they’re treated, Awosika said, but they're not alone – supervisors also have approached her to relay concerns about the situation.

“You don’t get this many complaints – it’s like smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke,” Awosika said. “Something’s amiss. Something’s not right.”

Employees filed complaints with through the anonymous Safe Haven process, Awosika explained, which allows employees to raise concerns with human resources outside of the chain of command.

Officials from Tempe’s diversity and human resources departments interviewed approximately 25 employees during the investigation, Awosika said. They also interviewed her and Wonderling.

Wonderling emailed the city’s Council Communicator system on July 26 to urge city officials to embark on their own fact-finding effort. New Times obtained his statement through a records request.

He wrote that an array of issues within Public Works spurred on the investigation, including nepotism, a pay gap for women working within the department, retaliation, questionable hiring practices, and different standards for management compared to lower-level employees.

Wonderling called out Miano by name in his email and mentioned his mafia-inspired nickname.

“Probably the most alarming issue is Tony Miano considering himself the ‘God Father’ of trash and operating a Section within the City of Tempe as a crew or outfit which duplicates a mob operation, where employees are targeted for discipline and held back from advancement,” Wonderling wrote.

He claimed that Miano refuses to rehire employees who leave the department for family circumstances or personal reasons. Miano’s signature phrase is, “Go be successful somewhere else,” Wonderling told the council members in his email.

“We have waited for any [outcome] to be presented to those that have been affected by their treatment but there has been nothing. Silence week after week,” Wonderling wrote. “The issues continue to happen and there seems to be no ending.”

Awosika echoed Wonderling’s comments about Miano. She said that according to Public Works employees, Miano would make dismissive comments about certain applicants during the department's hiring process, making comments like, “She can apply, but I’ll never hire her.”

“Never gave a second thought to the number of people who were in the room when he said it,” Awosika added.

Prior to the email from city officials announcing his departure, Browne declined to comment when asked about the investigation on Friday. “I can’t speak to it at this time,” Browne said when reached by phone.

Miano did not respond to requests for comment.

Tempe City Council members Robin Arredondo-Savage and Jennifer Adams are scheduled to meet with public employees represented by UAEA and the Tempe Supervisors Association on August 10, according to Awosika.

The two council members declined to comment for this article, according to a city spokesperson.

When Awosika spoke with Ching about the investigation, he suggested that the outcome of the investigation would be a corrective action plan, she said.

That struck Awosika as a buzzword meaning more training for the problematic individuals. But from her point of view, a corrective action plan would be an insufficient response to the issues in the department.

“I don’t think training fixes personality flaws,” Awosika said.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty