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Suwannee Valley Transit Authority Grievance Committee Meets: Complaints Upheld (Part I)

Rider's Representative Retaliated Against

Rider's Representative L.J. Johnson (back toward camera) presents his case to the Grievance Committee. (left to right) Alana McKay, Butch Kitchens, Bucky Nash, Sandra Collins, Mat Pearson

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – On Wednesday, September 25th, the first Grievance Committee meeting of the Suwannee Valley Transit Authority was held in Lake City. Numerous grievances were filed against the Transit Authority by Rider Representative L. J. Johnson. The grievances included charges of foul and abusive language by the Operations Director, William Steele; changing Mr. Johnson's appointment without permission; and violating HIPPA regulations which caused Mr. Johnson to have to re-file for a new Medicaid ID number. In what appeared to be a blatant act of retaliation, as the meeting drew to a close, the Suwannee Valley Transit Authority terminated Mr. Johnson's Medicaid nonemergency transportation services effective 15 days from September 25th.

Foul and Abusive Language: no way to make a grievance

Mr. Johnson's first grievance concerned a charge of foul and abusive language by Operations Director William Steele toward Mr. Johnson on September 24, 2012, at his home. The SVTA ignored Mr. Johnson's complaint and grievance.

In a memo dated May 30, 2013, Steve Holmes, the Executive Director of the Florida Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged (CTD) said that the Suwannee Valley transit Authority "denied Mr. Johnson the opportunity to have his grievance heard through a formal grievance process."

Mr. Johnson filed a second grievance on November 29, 2012. Executive Director Holmes said the Suwannee Valley Transit Authority did not acknowledge receiving his complaint.

The Suwannee Valley transit Authority (SVTA) was required to have a Rider's Guide in Place detailing how a rider was to make a complaint. They didn't have one.

The SVTA had also refused to keep complaint forms on its buses.

The CTD requested that Mr. Johnson be given a fair hearing.

The CTD's request led to Mr. Johnson's grievance hearing.

The Grievance Form

According to LJ Johnson, "Because the SVTA did not provide a Grievance Form or any aid and assistance, the North Florida Regional Planning Council assisted me by providing the form." During the discussion it was pointed out that this form had no place that showed the date of the grievance. The SVTA was directed to include a place on the "Grievance Form" for a date.

The Complaint

A complaint was directed against Operations Manager, William Steele.

Mr. Steele was previously cited by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity as having "often spoken in demeaning ways" and creating a "hostile work environment."

Mr. Steele was also heard using foul language after a local Transportation Disadvantaged Board meeting.

L.J. Johnson's witness, Judy Todd, told the committee, "I did hear Mr. Steele curse at Mr. Johnson." Attorney Kit Carson is seated.

Mr. Johnson said he wanted the truth to be out.

Regarding the event on September 24, 2012, Mr. Johnson's witness, Judy Todd said she was out walking her dog "and I just happened to overhear the problems he was havin ... I just don't feel that a person in his position [Steele] has the right to talk to any customer in that way... I did hear Mr. Steel curse at Mr. Johnson on the phone."


The Steele defense

Mr. Steele asked the Committee, "I'd like to be advised of what is the exact specific law, regulation, or contractual agreement that Suwannee Valley supposedly violated. It sounds like to me that at this point that somebody's upset the way they was talked to. I don't know that that's a violation of any state law, regulation, or contractual agreement."

Commissioner Nash's Grievance Committee showed up without any legal representation.

While the grievance was clearly filed against Mr. Steele, Commissioner Nash allowed Mr. Steele to call SVTA employees to stand up and tell their stories of interacting with Mr. Johnson. They said Mr. Johnson was difficult, abusive, and that no one wanted to deal with him.

It was not clear what this had to do with Mr. Johnson's claims of being abused by Mr. Steele.

Operations Director William Steele reviews his paperwork.

One of Mr. Steele's witnesses testified regarding various issues of alleged rudeness and difficulty concerning Mr. Johnson.

Grievance Committee member Ralph Kitchens asked the witness if he worked for either the SVTA or the transport company during the time when the alleged incidences he explained occurred. The witness said he didn't.

The Suwannee Valley Transit Authority is required to maintain a Rider's Guide which explains the complaint and the grievance process.

When the issue of the lack of a Rider's Guide was brought up, Mr. Steele told the committee, "For the past five years, based on the evaluations that the LCB [Local Coordinating Board] had done; based on five years' worth of minutes, there was never an issue about a Rider's Guide."

Florida Medicaid representative and Grievance Committee member Alana McKay pointed out that the SVTA guide did not meet the requirements of the CTD template and recommended changes.

"Operating on their own agenda"

Florida Medicaid, a division of the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) has had serious issues and reservations regarding the management of the SVTA since the team of Gwendolyn Pra and her Operations Manager, Bill Steele, took over the management of the SVTA.

In May of 2013, some of their documented issues were: Medicaid recipient complaints were at the highest level ever in the history of the SVTA and there were six complaints to the Governor's Office and Legislators' Offices.
Florida Medicaid found that the SVTA was terminating rider's transportation services without following Medicaid policy after the steps were outlined and discussed.
Florida Medicaid discussed with the SVTA in September of 2011 the need for a Rider's Guide.
Suwannee Valley Transit Authority was told by both Florida Medicaid and the Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged that it was improper for them to contact medical provider specialists, but they continued to do so.
Florida Medicaid also pointed out that the SVTA failed to respond to grievances within the designated time.
Finally, Florida Medicaid found that the SVTA failed to respond to the Board's annual performance evaluation findings and recommendations in the time designated.
Florida Medicaid concluded, "It appears that the SVTA is operating on their own agenda."

The Grievance Committee recommended that Mr. Johnson's allegations of verbal abuse by William Steele be turned over to the SVTA Board of Directors.

This is the same Board of Directors that looked the other way as Executive Director Pra and her Operations Manager Steele accumulated over 3,000 hours of comp time and continues to have meetings that nobody knows about.


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

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