City council hears report on discontent in sanitation department

Council members pose for a photo to commemorate the city's centennial.
Winston-Salem City Council met in closed session for about 50 minutes on Monday night to hear a report from top administrators on the findings from an investigation into allegations of misconduct in the sanitation department.

"We do take these issues very seriously, and that's why we have asked for this investigation," Mayor Allen Joines said after council adjourned in public following the closed session. The mayor added that he was limiting his statement to avoid preempting a formal statement to be drafted by City Manager Lee Garrity and City Attorney Angela Carmon on behalf of the city council and released in the coming weeks.

Former and current sanitation employees have raised several issues of concern about the department, including allegations of sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions and disrespectful treatment by citizens who are customers of the department's public services. Most troubling perhaps is an allegation by a sanitation laborer captured on an audio recording that a supervisor forged his signature on a statement.

The supervisor, Darrell Moody, can also be heard on a recording obtained by YES! Weekly, pressuring the laborer, Victor Bethea, to change his statement and threatening to write his own statement in substitution. Both incidents took place during an administrative investigation that ultimately led to the dismissal of a driver named Angelia Byrd who was involved with a confrontation with a resident over whether the resident should be receiving special backyard trash pickup.

The allegations were detailed in an investigative report published by YES! Weekly earlier this month. Garrity, Assistant City Manager Greg Turner and Sanitation Director Johnnie Taylor, along with Carmon, met in closed session with council to answer members' questions.

Joines said the city will have to strike a balance in its statement between providing adequate detail to maintain public confidence and protecting the privacy rights of employees.

"It's a very difficult position that the city is in," he said. "We have to be careful in how that's worded to protect the rights of employees, but we do want to reassure the public that the department is being managed appropriately." 

Addressing council during the public speakers portion of the meeting before council went into closed session, Byrd reminded council members that she had come before them last month with allegations of sexual harassment, forgery and wrongful termination. She asked Joines and the other council members what came of the investigation and whether anything had been done about it.

Joines responded that council would be unable to publicly address many of the allegations because of restrictions on the release of personnel information.

Byrd said after the meeting that she expects to meet with Garrity to receive a report on the findings of the city's internal investigation. 

Related to the personnel problems in the sanitation department, employees have raised questions about possibly abuses in the city's curbside garbage pickup program, which allows residents to receive backyard service simply by filing an application that attests that no one in the household is capable of moving trash to the curb. About 5 percent of households in Winston-Salem receive backyard service in Winston-Salem, compared to about 1 percent in other cities across the state. A citizens budget review committee has recommended that the city require residents to obtain a doctor's note to continue to receive backyard service -- a change that would save taxpayers an estimated $114,000.

"I've been a bit concerned about the large number of exemptions," Joines said on Monday. "I've felt for some time that we should maybe take a look at that issue and perhaps adopt a more formal policy and require more detail in the applications."

He added that he expects staff to make a detailed report to the city council's public works committee on the matter in coming months.

Councilman Dan Besse, who represents the Southwest Ward, has said he supports the current policy, arguing that requiring the elderly and people with disabilities to obtain a doctor's note would subject them to indignity and unwarranted inconvenience.

"Thus far a majority of the Winston-Salem council has come down on the side of the elderly, frail and disabled," he said earlier this month. "That's my vote, and I'm sticking to it."

In other news, the council unanimously approved a resolution in support of legislation filed by NC Rep. Ed Hanes Jr. that would allow county commissions to set aside the most recent tax reappraisal. Constituents in predominantly black neighborhoods on the east side of Winston-Salem have sought relief from the recent round of revaluations, which they contend have artificially diminished the value of their properties.

Council also delayed a vote on change orders to Blythe Construction and HDR Engineering for work on stormwater management and new streets at the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter on the eastern flank of downtown.

Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, who represents the Northwest Ward, said she opposed the change orders because of escalating costs due to unforeseen environmental contamination.

"At some point someone's going to have to explain to me what could have been done to avoid $5.2 million in change orders," she said.

Turner, the assistant city manager, said fly ash and fuel oil were discovered that were likely created by a physical plant and incinerator operated by the city. He said state would require the city to clean up the mess one way or another.

"This is our fly ash and our fuel oil poured on top of it," said Councilman Robert Clark, who represents the West Ward, "and we have to clean it up."

Merschel replied, "This one is hard.... This one just looks bad for taxpayers."

Before council could take a vote, Councilman James Taylor Jr., who represents the Southeast Ward, made a motion for no consideration. The parliamentary procedure results in the matter being placed on the agenda for the next meeting in April. After listening to objections from Merschel, along with Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke and Councilwoman Denise D. Adams, Taylor said he found himself on the fence and surmised that he might be in a position to cast the swing vote on the contract.


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