Stonington arbitration decision offers insight into McKrell-DiCesare conflict

Stonington — The decision by an arbitrator to overturn the town’s five-day suspension of former highway Supervisor Louis DiCesare II offers details of the conflict he had with his boss, Public Works Director Barbara McKrell.

The March 2 decision by Peter Adomeit includes a memo from McKrell to DiCesare on Jan. 7, 2015, in which she informs him of a disciplinary hearing. That memo contains a detailed list of incidents in 2014 in which McKrell said DiCesare made errors or was guilty of poor communication. The decision also contains DiCesare’s written response to McKrell’s charges.

After the hearing, she suspended DiCesare for five days. Adomeit overturned the suspension because the town prohibited DiCesare from having union representation at the hearing. The town was ordered to pay DiCesare about $1,500 in lost wages and remove the suspension from his record.

In her memo, McKrell wrote that she was holding the disciplinary meeting due to “incidents of insubordination and the unnecessary and additional expenditures incurred by the Town as a result of your poor planning functions as the Town’s Highway Supervisor.”

McKrell wrote that at a meeting in December 2014, DiCesare told her he did not trust her as far as he could throw her.

In his written response, DiCesare admitted he told McKrell he did not trust her, saying he was speaking honestly about how he felt. He said he used no profanity nor made any threats.

In the fall of 2014, McKrell charged that DiCesare, who was told that preparing for the upcoming leaf collection was a priority, instead told an employee to stop working on a leaf vacuum and begin preparing equipment for a forecast snowstorm. In addition, she said he allowed a mechanic to take a vacation day when work needed to be done on leaf and storm equipment, resulting in unnecessary overtime to complete the repairs. DiCesare admitted that he redirected the employee because a storm was forecast.

She charged that in the fall of 2014 DiCesare was responsible for an almost two-month delay in having a contractor restripe Elmridge Road, resulting in a safety concern.

DiCesare wrote in his response that there are multiple emails between him and the contractor trying to schedule the work and deal with weather delays. He said he also was out on medical leave for 10 days during that time.

Also in 2014, McKrell charged that despite DiCesare being told that she would be the only person to approve work by a certain paving contractor, DiCesare hired the contractor for work.

DiCesare wrote that he had no idea what McKrell was referring to as the “alleged incident” that had occurred six months previous and he would need more information to respond.

At a meeting in the fall of 2014 to discuss leaf collection and changes he was making without informing her, McKrell charged that DiCesare was “loud and argumentative” and left in the middle of the meeting.

DiCesare wrote that he walked out of the meeting with McKrell because she was angry and upset with him and their conversation would be heard by nearby clerical staff.

“I felt very uncomfortable and suggested that we continue our discussion once cooler heads prevailed,” he wrote.

McKrell offered projects on Rivercrest Drive ($750), Pawcatuck Avenue ($7,000), Prentice Williams Road ($1,984), Deer Ridge Road ($85,000) and the high school all-purpose field ($500) as examples of projects in which she alleged that DiCesare’s actions resulted in the town incurring additional costs. She said the extra all-purpose field cost was the result of DiCesare not supplying the contractor with the promised equipment. 

McKrell said the extra cost on River Crest Drive was the result of DiCesare failing to have a gas company contractor repair a portion of a trench. But DiCesare said he was acting according to a common practice under previous Public Works Director Joe Bragaw, which he said he never was told was no longer acceptable.

On Prentice Williams Road, McKrell said DiCesare used more asphalt than what was specified without consulting her. The extra paving cost $16,470 in addition to the repairs. But DiCesare said he had walked the road with McKrell and after the patching was done and it was agreed to overlay the entire road, which resulted in more asphalt being used. He said the department foreman was in charge of the work, as he had to go to a meeting with McKrell.

On Pawcatuck Avenue, McKrell said DiCesare failed to have preparatory work done by time the paving contractor showed up and then improperly set the level of catch basins, resulting in the need for additional paving and leveling. DiCesare said he scheduled a crew to do the work and he recalled that he was on vacation that day. He said catch basins were set according to plans by the town engineer and that McKrell had put a foreman in charge of the project, as she had “just about removed” DiCesare from all paving activities at that point.

She also said that on the Deer Ridge Road project, in which DiCesare was assigned to oversee the paving contractor and determine the best use of asphalt to extend the life of the road, the contractor did a poor job, requiring additional repair work by the town. DiCesare said McKrell approved the technique used on the road.

McKrell attached numerous letters, memos, emails and change orders to bolster her case. DiCesare said that he had done the best he could to prepare for the hearing after being denied an extension.

Last month the town released a consultant’s January 2017 report that analyzed town operations and in part was critical of McKrell. The town had refused to release the original report, calling it a draft that was exempt from release. The Day filed an appeal with the state Freedom of Information Commission. After an FOI hearing officer recommended the commission order the town to release the original report, First Selectman Rob Simmons agreed to release it.

When the original report was released, it showed that Simmons had deleted criticism of McKrell in the edited version he released in April 2017.

In the initial report, consultant Keith Chapman said McKrell and two other department heads appeared to struggle in leading their staffs and said their lack of directly related municipal leadership or municipal management experience may have contributed to the difficulties they were encountering.

Chapman wrote that Public Works employees seemed to have taken sides in issues involving employee discipline and acceptance of McKrell. He wrote that she “has a limited background in highway and fleet operations and has been faced with significant employee issues that have divided the Department and to some degree the Town as a whole.” He also wrote that about 25 percent of the Highway Department staff was in conflict with McKrell’s goals for the department, a situation that needed to be rectified.

Last month, though, Simmons said the performance of McKrell and the other department heads had improved since the report was released. He said McKrell had developed and implemented systematic plans for maintenance and replacement of trucks and vehicles, paving of roads, leaf collection and snow removal, and has installed GPS systems in all department vehicles to improve efficiency and safety.

Adomeit is now expected to use the depositions and facts gathered in the case to rule on two other grievances filed on DiCesare’s behalf. DiCesare, who was fired by McKrell in 2015, also has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the town. As of September 2017, the town had spent more than $210,000 on the cases and its insurance company another $51,000. The Day filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the town on Tuesday for an updated accounting of the legal fees.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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