The highest-ranking official at Gainesville Regional Utilities is the subject of a harassment investigation following a series of emails sent last month to city employees and the city’s human resources director.
GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski and GRU Chief People Officer Cheryl McBride are named in a “complaint of discrimination” obtained by The Sun, where HR Director Eugenia Allen-Mercado says she is being continuously harrassed by both GRU officials.
In the complaint, Allen-Mercado also said she is being retaliated against because of her role in a prior investigationand for supplying public records to investigators that involved McBride. She said Bielarski and McBride have used intimidation and threats that have interfered with her work, caused distress, illness, an unnecessary workload and created a hostile work environment.
The city’s office of Equal Opportunity and city auditor are investigating. Unlike the “Me Too” movement that has generated national headlines and brought down powerful men in politics and media, there is no suggestion of sexual misconduct.
Last week, The Sun made separate requests for emails from GRU and the city’s human resources department. GRU has yet to supply those records.
Bielarski responded to the complaint Monday in an email to The Sun.
“I am confident that the process which the City of Gainesville has in place for these types of issues is fair and equitable,” he wrote. “I don’t want to infringe on that process with any statements which could be construed as trying to influence them or anyone else in the City.”
The complaint was filed Nov. 17, prior to the Dec. 7 city meeting where commissioners debated whether to fire Bielarski. Although no vote was taken, three of the seven commission members expressed a lack of confidence in the general manager. Bielarski is the highest-paid city employee and one of six charter officers who report directly to the commission.
Emails obtained by The Sun show that GRU management has had complaints with the city’s HR department for several months on an array of issues, including hiring and policies, and often feel the utility’s needs are not being met.
That all came to a head on Nov. 17 when Allen-Mercado sent a memo to the city’s managers and department supervisors about pay increases. Bielarski then sent a pair of emails to city commissioners and GRU employees, objecting to the city’s move to give managers and supervisors a $1,590 pay increase instead of merit-based raises.
Bielarski and former GRU Chief Financial Officer Justin Locke said they were unaware of the change before the memo was sent, according to emails. Emails show they missed a key meeting where the subject was discussed among city officials. The topic of raises, however, has been discussed at several other city meetings.
Once Bielarski realized no GRU representative attended the meeting, he turned his focus to HR.
“This is unacceptable Eugenia,” Bielarski wrote. “You must make sure all charters are at that meeting before you ask them to agree to a variation from your own HR policies … This is not right Eugenia and is illustrative of your tenure as the HR Director. My staff has informed me of the numerous missed meetings, unreturned phone calls and virtual inaction on GRU issues. Quite frankly, if your organization was an arm’s length HR service they would be fired.”
The next day Bielarski emailed GRU employees asking for data of missed or canceled meetings and unreturned phone calls to show City Manager Anthony Lyons “what GRU has been up against” since Allen-Mercado was hired. He then told the HR director to rescind her Nov. 17 memo announcing the pay increases.
Bielarski also sent an email asking the city’s risk management director what his medical insurance options would be if commissioners were to fire him.
On Nov. 20, McBride sent Bielarski several documents outlining GRU’s issues with the city’s HR department, with a number of concerns specifically aimed at Allen-Mercado. Bielarski replied “Great.”
That same day, GRU compiled an 11-page report of its complaints about the city’s HR leadership, listing at least three potential solutions: the HR director should report directly to GRU, GRU could outsource its HR work or GRU should get its own HR department.
The attachment says GRU was excluded from the pay increase discussions, that HR doesn’t understand the needs of GRU and that HR gives conflicting guidance to GRU, which has resulted in GRU’s “distrust in HR leadership’s ability to competenly make decisions.”
Several commissioners said the ongoing investigation did not affect their decision to bring up Bielarski’s possible termination, but they await the investigation’s findings.
“Not having seen most of the emails apparently referenced in the investigation I can’t speak directly to them,” Commissioner Harvey Ward wrote in an email to The Sun. “This past Friday Mr. Bielarski and I had a plain-spoken but positive conversation about each of the issues that have been raised, including this complaint and his relationship with HR. I am hopeful that we will be able to work through the problems. I also remain open to new information, as always.”
Issues between the city’s HR department and GRU officials predate the employee-raises conflict and go as far back as July, according to emails.
Emails show that McBride and others have reached out to HR for pay raises for GRU linemen, some of whom have left for better-paying jobs elsewhere. At the Dec. 14 Utility Advisory Board meeting, Bielarski referenced the unresolved issue.
In September when Hurricane Irma was fast approaching the Gainesville area, Allen-Mercado sent city employees a memo about emergency procedures, needed volunteers and payroll. Bielarski responded to her by saying GRU has made its own arrangements with employees and would “appreciate being consulted” prior to other such memos going out.
When it came time for GRU and general government employees to volunteer at shelters, Allen-Mercado reminded Bielarski about the shortage of volunteers. Bielarski said no GRU employees were available to volunteer, because “everyone” was already working.
Contact reporter Andrew Caplan at firstname.lastname@example.org.