Menlo Park hires investigator to review gymnastics program | March 20, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - March 20, 2013

Menlo Park hires investigator to review gymnastics program

by Sandy Brundage

Menlo Park has hired an independent investigator to review the city's gymnastics program, multiple sources told the Almanac on March 15.

City Manager Alex McIntyre did not answer questions from the Almanac about the reasons for hiring an investigator. The move comes weeks after a popular gymnastics instructor, Michelle Sutton, was fired and allegations of a toxic workplace environment within the program arose.

Mr. McIntyre had previously said in a letter to the community that he had reviewed the circumstances of the firing to his satisfaction. However, his review didn't include talking to instructors who said that a manager within the gymnastics program allegedly bullied and harassed staff, including Ms. Sutton.

Six days before she was fired, Ms. Sutton had asked the city's human resources department and union representatives about filing a harassment complaint against her supervisor, Karen Mihalek.

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, described her as unprofessional in how she had asked the parent to step away during a child-only class.

The Almanac's review of Ms. Sutton's personnel file at the city found no documentation of any reprimands or other performance issues — only a note about a pay raise awarded in 2009.

Although Menlo Park isn't legally required to document disciplinary actions for at-will employees such as Ms. Sutton, many employers do so as a safeguard.

Gymnastics 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."

Had Mr. McIntyre's review included speaking to staff who had witnessed this behavior, Mr. Ortez wrote in his email, "maybe then I'd feel that you'd actually exercised the due diligence that you purported to using in your letter to the concerned parents."

Mr. Ortez told the Almanac that he loved and respected both Ms. Mihalek, whom he considered a second mother, and Ms. Sutton, who serves as godmother to his youngest child.

The city directed questions regarding the allegations to the human resources director, who said she could not comment on personnel matters.

Ms. Sutton told the Almanac that she had been informed about the independent investigation, but had not yet been contacted.

Before the city hired an outside investigator, several Menlo Park council members made inquiries of their own after outraged parents demanded Ms. Sutton's reinstatement.

"It pleases me to finally say, after spending so many hours on this issue, that for the time being I have no further comment," said Councilman Ray Mueller.


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