Managers in Tempe's Public Works Department pushed back after an investigation concluded their "abusive" conduct in the workplace violated personnel rules.EXPAND
Managers in Tempe's Public Works Department pushed back after an investigation concluded their "abusive" conduct in the workplace violated personnel rules.

Embattled Tempe Public Works Managers Blasted Investigation as Biased, One-Sided

In rebuttal statements obtained by Phoenix New Times last week, two Tempe Public Works supervisors blasted an investigation that found them responsible for inappropriate and “abusive” workplace conduct.

The men, in written responses to an internal investigation that New Times recently uncovered, characterized the city’s report substantiating complaints of a hostile work environment as biased and one-sided.

From December to May, Tempe investigated complaints surrounding the workplace conduct of Deputy Director for Field Services Tony Miano – colleagues knew him as “The Godfather” – and Solid Waste Manager Jason Browne.

After records requests from New Times, Tempe revealed that Miano’s areas of responsibility have been reduced to the solid waste division for at least six months; during this period, Miano will work under the supervision of a co-manager. Browne has been placed on leave and will resign effective August 17.

Employees said that Miano could be a swaggering, vindictive manager who seemed to want to hire his "own people." Browne, they said, was a workplace bully who swore and intimidated employees to the point where they did not want to report to work.

Investigators concluded that both men violated multiple personnel rules, including workplace regulations prohibiting “abusive” conduct. For their hiring practices, Browne was hit with an additional rule violation for dishonesty and Miano for negligent and careless behavior.

Miano apologized in the first paragraph of his written response, which he submitted to Tempe Public Works Director Don Bessler. “I am more disappointed in myself than probably anyone else,” Miano wrote.

Yet in the rest of his response, Miano criticized the investigation, describing it a fait accompli.

“I felt that there was a bias as I was believed to be wrong even before the start of the investigation,” Miano wrote. “As I was being questioned, I felt that some questions were biased and presented as statements to my answers, or contradictory remarks were made with the opinion of the investigators.”

He lamented that the final report was riddled with what he called biased comments, hearsay, and opinions masquerading as facts.

Although employees in Public Works referred to Miano as “The Godfather,” Miano said that he did not refer to himself by the mob-boss nickname and in any case, he felt the nickname was meant to be affectionate.

Employees had told investigators that according to Miano, he wanted to be “feared” as a manager, an allegation that he disputed in his response. “Of course, I don’t want to be feared: I want to be respected,” Miano wrote.

Miano explained that he made the remark in a lengthy private meeting and said that his comment as reported was “presented as a damaging soundbite.” He expressed concerns about employees eavesdropping on private office conversations and then turning their recollections into “a misrepresentation of the facts.”

And in response to allegations of bullying conduct, Miano said that he has “only raised the pitch of my voice twice as the Deputy Director,” once when an employee “was being blatantly insubordinate” and another when an employee was yelling at him.

“In both cases there were witnesses, and being firm is not being a bully and as a manager … I cannot support insubordination,” Miano wrote.

Likewise, Browne condemned the investigation in the second sentence of his rebuttal. “After reviewing the document in its entirety, I feel compelled to say that the report seems very one sided,” Browne wrote.

In his two-page, single-spaced written response, Browne said that the city finding him guilty of “abusive” conduct is a “harsh statement that does not accurately portray my character or actions.”

“I understand and have acknowledged that my language may have been offensive to certain individuals, however there was never any malicious intent,” Browne wrote.

He claimed that accusations in the report could have been rebutted if investigators had interviewed other employees or relied on Browne’s complete responses to their questions.

When faced with allegations that he was dismissive, bullying, and arrogant toward women, in his response Browne attacked the IT employee who brought forward a complaint, raising vague accusations about her “dishonesty and false representation.”

Browne also said that he was never “informed of or questioned on” complaints related to gender discrimination during his interview.

The city could not substantiate a finding of gender discrimination for either Miano or Browne, but the report acknowledged as a concern that “women in other areas have raised issues with Jason Browne’s treatment of them.” In their view, Browne's behavior was related to their gender.

Even before the investigation ended, Browne showed a willingness to push back on the inquiry.

He submitted a separate written response on April 16, following his interview with investigators, and included a number of documents and emails that he felt bolstered his case in light of “false accusations.”

New Times has learned that Tanya Chavez, an employee in Tempe's Community Services Department, has been appointed to serve as Miano’s co-manager. Chavez is the vice president of the Tempe Supervisors Association, and Monday was her first day as Miano's co-manager.

In an email, Tempe spokesperson Nikki Ripley wrote that Chavez will handle the department's daily tasks along with Miano and will also work to implement a corrective action plan.

“Tanya will be monitoring for improvements and will keep the City Manager, Assistant City Manager and Public Works Director updated about progress,” Ripley wrote.

Chavez will be tasked with overseeing a department that has experienced other workplace investigations in the recent past. (In his statement, Miano noted that the department’s previous solid waste manager also resigned in response to a complaint made through the city’s anonymous Safe Haven process.)

The department was wracked by a multiyear discrimination investigation and lawsuit in the early 2000s that eventually ended in a $2.4 million judgment awarded to nine Hispanic employees in 2005.

Miano and Browne did not respond to requests for comment. New Times obtained their written statements responding to the investigation on August 8 through a public records request, which the city finally released one day after New Times published the investigative report.

Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching and Bessler repeatedly declined to comment through a spokesperson because the investigation relates to personnel.

As part of a corrective action plan, the city will bring in a professional facilitator to rebuild trust and morale in the department and the city’s internal audit office will examine the solid waste division.

Jackie Awosika, the president of the nonsupervisory public employee union in Tempe, is optimistic that the situation in Public Works can improve. In an interview last week, Awosika said that employees have spoken up about “bad actors” in the department, and the city appears to be listening.

“This has been going on for a while and it’s a shame that it took all of this to get everyone’s attention,” Awosika said. “Nobody comes to work to be belittled or screamed at or felt abused, and so I believe the city is doing the right thing now, or at least moving in the right direction.”

Others aren’t so sure.

According to an employee in the field services division who requested anonymity, the department has serious accountability issues. Miano may have received a lighter punishment because of close ties to his superiors, the employee suggested last week.

“The feeling that I get is Tony got a slap on the wrist because people above him knew what he was doing and allowed it,” he said. “And you can’t get rid of Tony without bringing up all that other stuff.”

Morale has been low in Public Works for the past few years, the employee said, in part because of “buddy-buddy” hiring practices that overlook the most-qualified candidates.

“Everybody is unhappy and wanting to leave,” he said.

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