Former Public Works employees allege problems


by Adam Walser

Posted on November 3, 2011 at 6:34 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 3 at 6:43 PM

Louisville, Ky. (WHAS11) - WHAS11 News was approached months ago by former Louisville Metro Public Works employees, who claimed they were treated unfairly by management.

A department-wide audit identified several of the same problems alleged by those former employees.

The Louisville Metro Public Works department is one of the largest departments in the city, accounting for one in every $8 the city spends.

The recently released audit ordered by Mayor Greg Fischer uncovered dozens of necessary changes for the department, which some former employees call "the good ol' boys club".

The department is responsible for removing trash, taking care of roads and sidewalks and maintaining hundreds of city buildings.

“This is a department that really affects citizens on so many levels,” said Public Works Spokesperson Lindsay English.

Public Works is Louisville Metro Government’s second largest department, employing 773 people with an annual budget of $88 million.

But some former employees say the department is not being run fairly.

“If you were not in the good ol' boy system, you were fired,” said Greg Trent, a former inspector before he was fired in July.

His supervisor terminated him for incorrectly writing down vacation time as time worked on his time card.

Trent says the issue was an oversight on his part, but not one that should have resulted in his termination.

Trent believes he was really fired because he called the city's anonymous tip line to report misconduct in the department, including an alleged incident in which Trent says he heard two supervisors making a racial slur.

Trent says one of the supervisors he referred to in his complaint was assigned to look into the allegation.

“He was the one who investigated it. Basically, he investigated himself,” Trent said.

Trent says he was told the matter was resolved.

A total of six African American men came to WHAS11 News, alleging unfair treatment and dismissals from Public Works.

Most have filed suits with the EEOC, but none of the lawsuits ended in judgments against the city.

“A lot of these folks who are making these allegations and these gripes had their fate in their own hands and they didn't take the proper actions or make the best choices,” said English.

Ricardo Johnson worked for the landscaping division.

After working a 14 hour day at Light Up Louisville, Johnson was fired for harassment after he says he got into an argument with his supervisor when he refused to empty a trash can.

Johnson says that was the job of the sanitation division, not his.

“He just started yelling at me. Started yelling at me and pointing his radio in my face,” Johnson said of his then-supervisor.

We've learned that his supervisor was fired several months later after testing positive for cocaine.

Johnson's termination, after 12 years of promotions and positive reviews, was upheld.

Former employees also talk about safety issues at the Public Works Department.

In July, the city audit made 95 recommendations for changes within the department.

Mayor Greg Fischer says safety is at the top of that list.

"There can be zero tolerance for unsafe work practices," Fischer said.

Dionde Calloway says he knows all too well about that.

He was working with partner John Hunter hanging a sign along a pedway when Hunter fell out of the bucket truck, hit his head and eventually died.

“No initial harness, any of that, was provided to us,” said Calloway. “We never had any training. When you work at those heights, those elevations some training needs to be happening. That wasn't the case for us.”

The city was fined$ 9,000 by the state for serious violations.

“A lot of people won't step up and speak out about safety. They just go out and do it. A lot of things need to be changed in that department,” said Calloway.

The audit shows injury rates from 3 to 6 times the industry average and workers comps claims totaling more than $2.6 million last year.

“There are 770 workers in the whole department, so everybody has to work towards being as safe as they possibly can,” said English.

“Any fatality is too many, but we really need to focus on is day to day. Somebody hurts a hand, strains a back,” said Public Works Director Ted Pullen when the audit was first released.

The audit indicates employees are often "moved into new positions, or are promoted, without going through the normal posting process."

The audit also cites concerns about nepotism, indicating "three members of one family report to the assistant director."

“They are continually hiring their families, their friends,” said former Public Works employee Keith Ellis.

While employees we talked to said they didn't get second chances, Will Norris has received plenty of them.

Norris' father is former Teamsters leader Denny Norris, who negotiated contracts with city department heads for decades.

Norris' personnel file indicates multiple disciplinary actions for incidents including showing up for work with alcohol on his breath, wrecking city owned trucks into multiple vehicles and even passing out under a desk during work hours.

And despite a felony assault and theft conviction that sent him to prison and more than three dozen other past criminal charges, Norris managed to find employment at Metro Public Works.

While there, he received numerous new write-ups and a recommended firing earlier this year.

But we discovered a letter from Public Works Director Pullen which shows Norris was given yet another chance, stating in the letter that “the union pleaded for mercy to allow Mr. Norris to retain his position."

Records show Norris was fired six weeks later, after a breathalyzer test showed he had been drinking before he showed up for work.

“Whether he was given multiple chances, that was the decision as it moved through,” said English.

After the audit, Mayor Fischer decided to keep Ted Pullen on as head of Public Works; but in an effort to streamline operations, all 150 assistant directors, supervisors and managers had to reapply for their jobs.

“There's no way that the number of supervisors now in place are needed,” said Ellis.

But even as the number of hourly workers at Public Works has decreased, the number of complaints has increased.

From 2001-2006 the IBEW filed a total of six formal grievances involving management.

Since 2007, after Ted Pullen took over, that number skyrocketed to 37.

As for Greg Trent, he's found a new job.

But he wishes things had worked out for him at Public Works.

“I was depending on this job to pay the bills. They don't take any of that into consideration when they just say he's not playing the game get rid of him,” said Trent.