Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Former clerk: Administrator brought 'toxic' environment

Kelly Ek speaks about Sun Valley controversy

Express Staff Writer

During her three and a half years at Sun Valley City Hall, former City Administrator Sharon Hammer exhibited a "shocking" lack of work ethic and oversaw a "toxic" office environment, according to former City Clerk Kelly Ek.

Hammer was fired on Jan. 19 by the City Council upon recommendation by newly elected Mayor Dewayne Briscoe without publicly stated reasons but following allegations of misconduct on her part by Treasurer Michelle Frostenson. Last week, Hammer brought legal action against the city to get her job back.

Ek resigned on June 8 following settlement of a tort claim against the city that alleged retaliation against her by city officials for reporting aspects of Hammer's administration. Frostenson resigned June 27, also following settlement of a tort claim.

Mayor Dewayne Briscoe said he believes that both women would have prevailed had their cases gone to court.

In an interview, Ek painted a different picture about goings-on at Sun Valley City Hall over the past few years than the one presented by Hammer in her recently filed lawsuit and tort claim. In those documents, Hammer claimed she was the victim of angry, verbal harassment by City Councilman Nils Ribi, and was retaliated against by city officials for exposing that.

Ek disputed that contention and recounted a pattern of alleged misconduct on Hammer's part. Ek said she noticed a "dereliction of duties" by Hammer almost as soon as Hammer arrived to work for the city in June 2008.

"The main issue when she started was that she didn't work," Ek said.

Ek said that during the first six months of her employment, Hammer spent substantial amounts of time in her office studying first for a paramedic exam and then for a bar exam.

"We were dying for a city administrator for a year, and then when we got one, she was consumed with studying for a bar exam," Ek said. "We begged her. We said, 'We need you.' We didn't have anybody to guide us—we were like a rudderless ocean liner."

She said staff members had no venue to report Hammer's allegedly lax work hours because Hammer had forbidden them to talk to then Mayor Wayne Willich—everything needed to go through her.

"It was a very toxic situation," Ek said. "Working for her I was bullied and harassed the entire time."

She also said Hammer presided over a chaotic work environment.

"There was zero internal control going on," Ek said. "She didn't know what anybody's job was—no job evaluations, no goal setting, nothing."

However, she said, Hammer was popular among some employees for the perks they received. She said those included new iPhones, lax accounting of work hours and personal use of city vehicles, including for transportation to work with city-funded gas.

Hammer's 34-page court complaint, filed June 29, cites more than 20 alleged incidents of harassment by Ribi, beginning in early 2009. But Ek claimed many of those incidents were fabricated or exaggerated because Hammer resented Ribi's criticism of her work and to further Willich's re-election prospects. She said Willich considered Ribi his most likely opponent.

"[Ribi] was doing his job as a council member, questioning the financials, questioning the minutes, asking basic questions," Ek said. "[Hammer's] response would be anger to any question about why things weren't being done.


"I personally think she and the mayor had it in for Nils so he wouldn't get re-elected. They were building a case against him for a long time before Michelle Frostenson came forward. They were setting Nils up, in my opinion."

Ek said Ribi was unusually meticulous about the wording of city documents, including the minutes of City Council meetings that she kept. She said that when she once mentioned to Willich that she sometimes felt frustrated by that, he said, "Don't worry, we've got a lot on him."

Ek said it came as "a complete shock" to people at City Hall when Dewayne Briscoe announced that he would run against Willich.

Willich did not return calls seeking comment by press time Tuesday.

Ek said that in 2009, she attended a conference of the Idaho Association of Cities, in which she asked a question about nepotism rules because she was concerned that the city might be in violation. She said Hammer heard about the question and disciplined her, suspending her from educational travel for a year.

"She told a fellow employee that she would have my job for that," Ek said.

Ek said that in October 2011, Hammer offered her six months of severance pay if she would quit. She said Hammer told her that if she refused, "she would get me fired and see that I didn't get unemployment."

In response to Ek's contentions, Hammer's Boise-based attorney, Joy Vega, stated in an email that "Ms. Hammer denies each and every allegation made about her by Kelly Ek. She believes that Ms. Ek has made these false statements for the sole purposes of further destroying Ms. Hammer's personal and professional reputations, and to expose Ms. Hammer to public hatred, contempt, and ridicule."

Ek said that on Nov. 11, she turned over to Ribi and City Attorney Adam King an allegedly incriminating recording of a cell phone conversation between Hammer and another employee. She immediately requested that she be placed on administrative leave until Hammer was no longer working at City Hall. She went back to work in January after Hammer was placed on leave by Mayor Briscoe.

"When I came back to work, people who had been like family members to me wouldn't even talk to me," she said. "It was an impossible situation to work in."

Ek said that on March 16, upon recommendation of a doctor, she asked to be put on medical leave. She believes that permanent health problems she is experiencing are due to her last few years of stressful employment at City Hall.

On April 20, Ek filed a tort claim against the city alleging a violation of the Idaho Protection of Public Employees Act, known as the "whistle-blower" statute. On June 11, the city announced that its insurer, Idaho Counties Risk Management Program, had settled Ek's claim for $65,000 plus attorney fees. Ek said the settlement contained a provision forbidding her from returning to work at the city of Sun Valley.

"I'm basically being punished for coming forward," she said. "Now I'm just moving on with my life. I'm pondering what I'm going to do now. I know I was an excellent city clerk."

Greg Moore:

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