The director of Tempe's Public Works Department is leaving city employment in the aftermath of a investigation examining the behavior of two of his top employees.
The director of Tempe's Public Works Department is leaving city employment in the aftermath of a investigation examining the behavior of two of his top employees.
Tempe.gov

Tempe Public Works Director Ousted in Ongoing Department Turmoil

The Tempe city manager has removed the director of the Public Works Department after an investigation this summer found two of his top managers violated rules prohibiting "abusive" and disrespectful workplace conduct.

The change at the top of the department follows months of turmoil resulting from the joint diversity-human resources investigation, which Phoenix New Times has detailed in several articles.

Don Bessler will leave his job next week after eight years leading the Tempe Public Works Department. In an email obtained by New Times, Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching wrote to all Public Works employees on Friday to tell them that Bessler will leave city employment effective November 9.

"After a number of discussions with Public Works Director Don Bessler that began back in early September, the City Management team has determined that it is in both the City and Don’s best interests to make a change in leadership," Ching wrote.

Ching encouraged Public Works employees to talk to him or their supervisors if they require any assistance during the transition. He later forwarded the announcement to all Tempe city employees.

In an emailed statement to New Times, Ching would not elaborate on the details behind Bessler's ouster, only saying that the city management team decided to "pursue a different leadership direction for that department."

"It is not the practice of the City of Tempe to provide detailed information to the public on ongoing personnel matters," Ching said. "With city leadership positions, the outcome of a concluded personnel matter is shared for transparency and clarity for our workforce."

In response to questions and public records requests from New Times, in August, Tempe finally revealed the results of a city investigation into the Public Works Department that wrapped up in May.

Led by two employees from Tempe's human resources and diversity departments, the investigation examined the workplace conduct of Tony Miano, the Public Works Department's deputy director for field operations, and Jason Browne, the solid waste manager.

According to the investigative report, employees brought forward complaints against the two men that ranged from inappropriate language and bullying to improper hiring practices and allegations of gender discrimination.

Miano, Public Works employees said, held grudges and could be vindictive when it came to hiring and promotions. He was known as "The Godfather," although Miano denied that he referred to himself using the mob-boss nickname. As for Browne, employees told investigators that he was a foul-mouthed, workplace bully whose intimidating behavior made some people reluctant to show up to work.

The investigation found that Miano and Browne violated rules requiring a "reasonable standard of workplace civility and respect."

The city also concluded that Miano broke another rule by acting "negligently, recklessly, or carelessly" during the hiring process and Browne violated a rule prohibiting dishonest behavior when he did not disclose that he knew a job applicant from prior experience while serving on an interview panel.

Allegations of retaliation and gender discrimination could not be substantiated, the investigators wrote.

In the aftermath of the investigation, the city manager announced that Browne would resign from the department after being placed on leave. Miano's areas of responsibility were reduced, and Tempe appointed a co-manager to oversee a corrective action plan and serve as city hall's "eyes and ears" for at least six months.

Although the timing of the shakeup was obviously significant, Ching did not name specific disciplinary actions for Miano and Browne that resulted from the investigation, citing employee privacy rules.

Some Public Works employees speculated that unlike Browne, Miano was not removed from his position because of his ties to Bessler.

“The feeling that I get is Tony [Miano] got a slap on the wrist because people above him knew what he was doing and allowed it,” one field services employee said at the time, speaking anonymously to avoid reprisals. “And you can’t get rid of Tony without bringing up all that other stuff.”

Public Works has over 400 employees, according to the city. The department is responsible for a huge portfolio of essential city services, including water, transit, streets, parks, and waste management.

Bessler was the subject of an investigation in 2015 when then-Public Works employee Jennifer Adams – now a member of the Tempe City Council – alleged that he discriminated against her because of her gender and sexual orientation, the Arizona Republic reported. An outside law firm found no evidence of discrimination.

Bessler declined to comment through a city spokesperson.

Even before the city manager announced Bessler's departure, there were signs that the city was preparing to remove him from his position.

In an October 19 email obtained by New Times, an aggrieved Tempe employee named Amy Marschel wrote to the mayor and council to express dismay after learning the news of Bessler's upcoming departure. She urged them to investigate the city manager and Rosa Inchuasti, the city's director of strategic management and diversity.

"To my disbelief, I have learned that the rumor about Don Bessler, one of the greatest leaders I have ever known, is true," she wrote. "Don has fallen victim to and has become a target of Andrew [Ching] and Rosa [Inchuasti] and is being forced out of the city."

Marschel is an administrative supervisor in the Public Works Department. In her lengthy email to the city leadership, she called the investigation into Miano and Browne's conduct "completely one-sided" and alleged that solid waste employees conspired to take down the two men in addition to Bessler.

She did not respond to a call seeking comment.

The department has a transition plan in place to account for Bessler's absence. Until November 9, city engineer Marilyn DeRosa will serve as acting Public Works director during any period of time that Bessler is out of the office. After next week, Deputy City Manager Steven Methvin will serve as interim Public Works director, working closely with Ching.

In his statement to New Times, Ching acknowledged the recent turbulence in Public Works. "The department has been through a series of challenging leadership issues in 2018. We have made personnel changes as a result," Ching said.

Moving forward, he and Methvin will be seeking employee input on the future direction of the department.

"I have great faith in the resiliency of our organization and in the commitment of our employees to continue providing service to our community now and in the future," Ching said. "We will only grow stronger in the coming weeks and months."

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