Following text message scandal, city initiates probe into workplace environment

Friday, May 31, 2019 - 5:47pm

Ann Arbor City Hall has launched an independent probe to investigate city hall’s overall work environment and its effect upon each department.

Ann Arbor City Hall has launched an independent probe to investigate city hall’s overall work environment and its effect upon each department. Buy this photo
Sarah Kunkel/Daily

Following the resignation of Ann Arbor’s Human Resource Director Robyn Wilkerson, Ann Arbor City Hall has launched an independent probe to investigate City Hall’s overall work environment and its effect upon each department.

On May 1, Wilkerson stepped down amid accusations she sent inappropriate text messages to her city hall coworkers.

Wilkerson was accused of sending inappropriate messages relating to her job at City Hall from 2017-2018. She allegedly sent racist comments about coworkers and joked about bombing city hall and wishing to carry a gun to work.

“I wish I could bring my 9mm, but I would get fired for violating city policy…. Wait…hmmmmm?” Wilkerson wrote in a text message from October 2017.

Other alleged text messages include racially-charged comments about Black Lives Matter protests, the Trump administration and “crazy liberals,” among dozens of others.

“Like she is from the ghetto or trying to be ghetto?” Wilkerson wrote.

According to MLive coverage of a city council meeting May 14, several council members stated the details of the texts have brought attention to potentially larger problems within city hall’s climate.

Councilmember Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, suggested an independent investigation to find out which workers in city hall knew about the controversial messages and what steps were or were not taken to address the issue.

“The things that we’ve been told about this organization, if they’re true, that would actually be cause for us to ask for separation of our city administrator,” Eaton said at the council meeting.

In accordance with Eaton, other council members said the controversy could be grounds to fire City Administrator Howard Lazarus if he knew about the messages and neglected to report the information.

Lazarus has directed Assistant City Administrator John Fournier to bring in an outside attorney to conduct the probe. Fournier also hired a consultant to perform a cultural assessment of the HR department, along with personal interviews with many city employees.

Fournier told MLive the assessment will involve an analysis of the office’s environment, which departmental policies and processes affect it and the traditional norms, values and determinants that influence the overall atmosphere.

Lazarus said he does not have an issue with a department-wide investigation looking at his handling of Wilkerson’s misconduct, as it is the council’s right to exercise its oversight responsibility. At the May 14 meeting, Lazarus assured other council members he acted according to protocol.

“I have no problem with whatever council wants to do because I am 100% confident that I acted in complete good faith in accordance with city policy and did the right thing,” Lazarus said.

When informed of Wilkerson’s text messages on April 5, Lazarus claimed he acted swiftly by removing her from the office and assigning her to paid leave. The next day, he claims, he promptly requested City Attorney Stephen K. Postema hire an additional attorney to review the messages.

The employee Wilkerson allegedly sent the messages to gave Councilmember Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, screenshots of the messages. In turn, Lumm met with Lazarus and other city officials on April 5 with an official report.

In the emails, obtained by MLive under the Freedom of Information Act, Lumm claims Lazarus knew about the inappropriate text messages. Lumm also alleges the employee who gave her the text messages tried to approach Lazarus first.

“I informed you EIGHT days after I received notice from the employee who had also initially contacted you,” Lumm wrote to Lazarus. “I did, as I shared, advise the employee to follow normal City protocol, that this was not my charge, but was told she had no other option, that she reached out to you, but received no audience/interest/support.”

During the May 14 council meeting, arguments by Lumm regarding Lazarus’s conduct continued.

Lazarus repeatedly objected to claims he had let inappropriate behavior continue in city hall. He did agree there was evidence of internal issues but insisted he has worked to improve them.

While the investigations commence, the report’s findings will help guide improvements as the city begins to seek a new HR director, Fournier told MLive.

Lumm then spoke about the importance of HR for the other departments in city hall. She expressed hope that whoever the city chooses to fill Wilkerson’s role will help improve the state of the human resources division as a whole.

“Obviously, how well HR functions or may not function, HR permeates the organization,” Lumm said. “I think it’s critical that we hear from people who have something to offer on how we can improve.”