2014-01-17 / Front Page

Workplace Hostility Addressed

By Tom Shevlin

Newport’s city manager has notified the city’s insurance provider of a worrisome environment inside City Hall that she is concerned has become ripe for a hostile workplace complaint.

According to several parties familiar with the situation, City Manager Jane Howington wrote to the Rhode Island Interlocal Trust late last month to inform them of an increasingly toxic dynamic which she believes opens the city up to a lawsuit from one or multiple employees.

The issue is focused around Councilor Michael T. Farley, who has found himself at the center of several contentious exchanges over the last few months.

Farley confirmed last week that he was told a notice was sent “by the city manager in her capacity as the chief executive of the city to the interlocal trust” and that a cursory investigation was taking place. He was not told what might have inspired the action, nor would Howington go into any further detail regarding the contents of the letter.

“I’ve been told that there was a notice filed with the city’s insurer, but I’m not sure what the allegations are, what prompted it, or who it was filed on behalf of,” he said.

In a series of conversations over the last few weeks, several city officials have hinted that there’s been a growing fear behind the scenes that Farley’s recent public frustrations – most of which have been directed toward the city manager – could be a source of concern.

According to Newport Mayor Henry F. Winthrop, he wouldn’t be surprised if a formal hostile workplace complaint is filed, given the levels of apparent animus on the council.

Since he was elected in 2012, Farley has been making waves on a number of fronts, most recently in a blog entry in which he criticized the city administration for sending him a bill for a series of requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

Earlier in October, Farley also found himself the subject of council ire after proposing a resolution to publicly chastise the city manager for what he said was a failure to respond in a timely manner to his requests related to the city’s lease with the Newport Yacht Club. Prior to attempting to withdraw the resolution, Farley had charged Howington with “insubordination” and had sought her public rebuke.

Farley said that while he has been a bulldog at times, he does not feel his actions have been bullying, nor could he think of any member of Howington’s staff that could justify a claim of “hostility.”

Michael Corey, the city’s Director of Human Resources, wouldn’t confirm whether any formal complaints have been filed and declined to comment on the matter as a whole, citing strict confidentiality policies. A spokesperson for the Interlocal Trust also declined to comment on any potential activity.

Farley said that after lengthy discussions with various staff members, he was told that so far no formal complaints have been filed.

Rather, he said, much like the city would do to shield itself should it suspect a potential claim for a slip and fall on city property, Howington’s letter was meant to simply alert the trust of a “possibility of a claim.”

“That’s due diligence,” Farley said, while adding that he’s looking forward to working more constructively with both his fellow councilors and city staff in the new year.

Speaking generally, Howington said that as the city’s chief executive officer, it’s her responsibility to guard the city against any potential claim where one might arise – be it from an injury sustained on the Cliff Walk or a workplace conflict.

Regardless of the details, as the city manager, Howington sees her responsibility as simply guarding against a worst-case scenario.

For his part, Farley has been careful not to put himself in any situations that could be misconstrued, staying away from closed-door meetings with certain staff members and choosing to make his points in public rather than in private conversations or emails.

Typically, the city will engage in a series of internal and external investigations in personnel matters. And if a lawsuit is anticipated, it’s not uncommon for the city’s insurer to take part in that process. Because of the sensitive nature of the current issue, it’s not immediately clear what other information might be made public in the weeks and months ahead.

Farley believes that whatever concerns the administration may have will eventually prove unfounded.

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