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Columbia County Observer

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Tri County/Florida News

Suwannee Valley Transit Authority (SVTA): Operations Manager Gets 13% Pay Raise

DEO Appeals Referee finds SVTA management created a "hostile work environment." Unemployment claim upheld.

SVTA Williams; Airth; Pra
Chairman Ron Williams listens to a SVTA employee as SVTA Attorney Airth and Director Pra listen. Both Mr. Airth and Ms. Pra, whose backs were to the gallery, intentionally spoke so low as to not be heard.

SUWANNEE COUNTY, FL – On Monday evening, July 8, 2013, the controversial Suwannee Valley Transit Authority (SVTA) Board met for its quarterly meeting. Chaired for as long as anyone can remember by legendary Columbia County Commissioner Ronald Williams, the meeting was as usual, barely publicized. During the meeting it was brought to light that the Operations Director, William Steele, was handpicked and hired without any competitive process; has no resume; only one illegible reference on his job application; and no job history. Mr. Steele was hired on December 20, 2011. Sixteen months later, without the Board's knowledge, Mr. Steele had received pay raises totaling 13%.

William Steele: A controversial figure, contests unemployment

William Steele
William Steele, SVTA Director of Operations, contemplates.

Suwannee Valley Transit Authority Director of Operations, William Steele, the Authority's number two, has become a controversial figure during his time at the SVTA. He freely calls people he doesn't agree with liars and is contentious. Mr. Steele contested the unemployment insurance compensation of an employee who was forced to resign from the Authority because of a charge that he, Steele, created a hostile work environment.

This behavior was encouraged and supported by the SVTA agency head, Gwen Pra, who was hired without a resume or without having to complete an application.

SVTA Personnel Rules and Regulations: Advertisement  All vacancy eligible for original appointment ... will be advertised by use of available news media and State Employment Services... prior to selection. Key positions will be advertised widely.

On October 22, 2012, the finding of fact of the DEO unemployment appeals referee summed up what the Observer and the Local Transportation Disadvantaged Board, as well as the CTD, the state agency in charge of the SVTA had been hearing for sometime: 

Steele "often spoke in demeaning ways."

Finding of Fact:  The claimant worked as a finance specialist for the employer, a government agency, from February 21, 2012, to June 29, 2012. During the course of her employment, the claimant's operations manager [Steele] constantly harassed the claimant. He often cursed and spoke in demeaning ways using words like "damit," "shit," "girls," or "I'll have to check that out" in a reference to a woman wearing a short skirt.

He also undermined the claimant's work efforts by telling her that she failed to provide auditors with requested documents when the auditors themselves stated otherwise. He also sent last minute text messages to the claimant telling her that she was required to come into work some weekends and implied that she would lose her job if she failed to comply.

He gave similarly dismissive responses whenever she mentioned needing some time off due to family medical issues, and on one occasion, he pointed to a stack of job applications and stated that many other people would gladly take her job.

Sometime around May/June 2012, the claimant met with the office administrator [Pra] to discuss the operation manager's behavior and was told that she should just get her resume ready.

On June 29, 2012, the claimant cited the employer's financial difficulties and resigned.

The appeals referee conclusion of law speaks for itself. In relevant part it said:

Florida law states that a claimant who voluntarily left work without good cause or was discharged for misconduct connected with the work will be disqualified from receiving benefits. In voluntary quit cases, the claimant bears the burden to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that s/he quit with good cause; good cause is such cause as "would reasonably  impel the average able-bodied qualified worker to give up his or her employment."

Here, the record shows that the claimant voluntarily quit her job on June 29, 2012 and that she has met the aforementioned burdens. The claimant's testimony establishes that her supervisor created a hostile work environment, and that the employer was unwilling to address the claimant's concerns. Accordingly, it is held that the claimant voluntarily quit with good cause attributable to the employer.

Steele gets pay raise for "exemplary performance" then another

On August 11, 2012, six weeks after the employee was forced to resign, the SVTA Director Gwen Pra gave Mr. Steele a pay raise for "exemplary performance."

Nine months later, Director Pra gave Mr. Steele another pay raise, which she called a "merit increase." Director Pra illegally redacted the comments regarding the raise from the payroll raise form.

On February 11, 2012 Operations Manager Steele was authorized by Director Pra for 14 hours of overtime to "paint offices." His rate of pay: $45.45 an hour.

In March of 2013, a year after Mr. Steele rewrote the Personnel Manual, the SVTA again tried to squelch the unemployment compensation of the employee mentioned above. The Authority was unsuccessful.

SVTA Director and Operations Manager: No resumes

At Monday night's SVTA Board meeting, your reporter mentioned that it was impossible to obtain the resumes of both Ms. Pra and Mr. Steele through a public records request.

Chairman Williams responded, "When Ms. Pra was interviewed along with everyone else, they turned in a resume. We hired Ms. Pra as a board. After it passes that she have the authority to hire who she want to. The Board does not. The board set the policy."

The Observer followed up, "So they didn't advertise for this position, Mr. Steele's position?"

Chairman Williams' response was unintelligible.

Steele's 13% raise: "We're not going to micro manage"

The Observer addressed Mr. Steele's raises, "I notice that Mr. Steele got 13% since he has been here. I was wondering who approves those raises and if this board knows that?"

Chairman Williams addressed the issue, "I don't know whether you call Bill's 12% or whatever that is, is a raise. That rap around by Ms. Pra, which has the ability to do so."

Until this year, Florida State workers hadn't received a raise since 2006.

Columbia County workers haven't received a raise since 2008.

Suwannee County Commissioner and SVTA Board member Phil Oxendine said that Suwannee County workers "haven't received a raise in six years."

Commissioner Oxendine opined about the SVTA. "We hired a manager. We're going to let her manage. We're not going to micro manage it. We just have the criteria."

Correction: The meeting day was corrected to be July 8, 2013

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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