Almanac

News - March 27, 2013

Gymnastics probe findings won't be made public

by Sandy Brundage

The investigation into allegations of a hostile workplace within Menlo Park's gymnastics program will likely take at least one month, but however long it takes, the public will remain in the dark as to the findings.

"I am advised that it will likely be at least one month before the investigation is completed given the number of witnesses to be interviewed," City Attorney Bill McClure said. "The investigative findings are not subject to public disclosure because the investigation relates to confidential personnel matters and is also an attorney-client privileged investigation."

Nikki Hall, the San Francisco-based attorney hired by Menlo Park to conduct the review, has extensive experience representing public sector employers and investigating workplace misconduct, according to her biography. She directed the Almanac's questions to the city attorney.

Menlo Park hired her weeks after a popular gymnastics instructor, Michelle Sutton, was fired and allegations of a toxic workplace environment within the program arose.

City Manager Alex McIntyre had initially said that he had reviewed the circumstances of the firing to his satisfaction. However, his review didn't encompass talking to instructors who said that a gymnastics program supervisor allegedly bullied and harassed staff, including Ms. Sutton.

Ms. Sutton had asked the city's human resources department and union representatives about filing a harassment complaint against supervisor Karen Mihalek the week before she was fired. However, the instructor said she was told that a parent's complaint led to her termination on Feb. 12. The complaint, sent to program management and to the City Council's public email log on Jan. 30, described the instructor as unprofessional in how she had asked the parent to step away during a child-only class.

The Almanac reviewed Ms. Sutton's personnel file at the city and found no documentation of any reprimands or other performance issues. However, Menlo Park isn't legally required to document disciplinary actions for at-will employees such as Ms. Sutton, although many employers do as a safeguard.

Another instructor, Chris Ortez, quit in protest over the firing and later told the city manager and the council that Ms. Mihalek held "none-too-discreet contempt" for Ms. Sutton and reportedly had a history of complaints filed by at least two female staff members "who have been harassed, intimidated, and/or otherwise bullied by her."

Asked why the city hired an independent investigator, Mr. McClure said that information presented to the council by the former instructors triggered the decision, and that that was the first time the city had been made aware of the specific allegations.

Ms. Sutton told the Almanac that the day she was fired, she got a letter from the city's human resources director that acknowledged the city was aware that she had wanted to file a harassment complaint and asked her to call to discuss it.

"Because of my status as an at-will employee, I did not respond to her request. I chose to speak to an attorney first," Ms. Sutton said.

Comments

Posted by parent, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Apr 1, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Ms. Sutton is/was a great instructor. Actually engaged the kids and worked with them, as opposed to some other long-standing instructors that just let the kids run around for most of each session.


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