Report: Commissioner may have created hostile work environment

Robin Fornoff

A private consultant has concluded Curry County Commissioner Dan Stoddard may have created a hostile work environment for county employees in his treatment of County Manager Lance Pyle.

The consultant’s report, obtained Monday by the CNJ through a state Open Records request, notes that while Stoddard’s behavior probably doesn’t rise to the level of being actionable, “Mr. Stoddard’s conduct clearly exposes the County, as well as Mr. Stoddard himself, to potential claims for hostile work environment, is unprofessional, and should be ceased.”

Stoddard said the report was incomplete and it was Pyle, not he, who may have created a hostile work environment.

The report is the result of an investigation conducted by Dina Holcomb of Management Consultants of Albuquerque at the request of County Attorney Stephen Doerr.

The investigation follows what county employees described as a verbal confrontation Sept. 21 between Stoddard and Pyle.

“The confrontation,” according to the report, “was described as loud, and Mr. Stoddard described as standing red-faced in the open doorway of Manager Pyle’s office and speaking in a raised voice. The incident was reported lasting about ten (10) to twenty (20) minutes long.”

Stoddard denied raising his voice. He said he stopped by Pyle’s office to raise concerns about lack of leadership at the jail.

“I don’t yell,” Stoddard said. “That’s not my demeanor.”

The investigation focused on two areas: Whether the confrontation between the two men created a hostile work environment and whether Pyle “yells, belittles, or otherwise treats County employees in a demeaning manner in front of others” to create a hostile work environment.

The report cites another similar incident between the two men earlier in April and Holcomb notes that Stoddard’s “behavior has caused fear and anxiety for some employees when he is physically present in the office.”

Holcomb goes on to note, “In addition, Mr. Stoddard’s behavior displayed towards Manager Pyle in County Commission meetings is inappropriate and serves only to undermine the County Manager’s credibility and negatively reflects on the County as a whole.”

Stoddard said, “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I always conduct myself in a professional manner. You’re only getting part of the story.”

Stoddard said he had asked that every document associated with the investigation be released, but only Holcomb’s summary report was made public.

Stoddard said he has been told by some current and former employees that Pyle’s management style has created a hostile work environment, that Pyle has raised his voice and reprimanded employees in front of others. Stoddard said he had raised those concerns with Pyle and other commissioners in the past.

Stoddard noted that no former employees were interviewed concerning their treatment by Pyle.

“Do I feel like this was a retaliation for things I brought forward?” said Stoddard. “Yes.”

Pyle said he has put the incident with Stoddard behind him and “not allowed it to distract from the pressing matters that Curry County faces.” He said part of his job is disciplining employees when necessary.

“Any action that I have taken is within county policy and has always been for the betterment of Curry County,” said Pyle.

“I can assure you,” said Pyle, “that I will continue to work with the county commission and implement their policies and plans for the best for Curry County.”

Pyle’s executive assistant, Carol Pipes, told the CNJ recently that she was an eyewitness to the Sept. 21 incident and it upset everyone working in the office.

Pipes said Stoddard raised his voice in anger during the confrontation. She also said that Pyle never raised his voice and was having a difficult time trying to get any word into the exchange.

“Lance doesn’t holler,” said Pipes. “He doesn’t scream. He never has.”

Commission Chairman Caleb Chandler noted the report concludes that neither Stoddard nor Pyle had created an actionable hostile work environment and Stoddard’s position is that he did nothing wrong.

“Mr. Stoddard is an elected official,” said Chandler, “and the commission cannot force him to do anything.”

Chandler said he believed if the summary report was going to be released, that all other documents about the investigation should also be released. He said Doerr advised against release of any documents except Holcomb’s report because they involved personnel matters.

Doerr didn’t return phone calls.

“We have not seen all the documents,” Chandler said. “They have not been given to us.

“It’s really hard to make a judgment if you don’t have all the documents available,” said Chandler. “And that’s whether you are a commissioner or a member of the public.”

Chandler said the investigation cost almost $5,000.