Crowd expected to pack meeting to support Stonington highway department employee

Stonington — A large group of residents is expected to attend Wednesday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting to speak in support of veteran highway department employee Daniel Oliverio, who could be the subject of disciplinary action by Public Works Director Barbara McKrell.

Details about why Oliverio, who also serves as the town’s tree warden and is the vice chairman of the Beautification Committee, could be disciplined have not been made public. Both Oliverio, who has filed a workplace complaint against McKrell, and First Selectman Rob Simmons declined to discuss the details of the complaint on Tuesday because it is a personnel matter under investigation by town Labor Attorney Meredith Diette.

Over the past two weeks, pledges of “I Stand with Dan” have appeared on the Stonington Community Forum and newly formed Pawcatuck Community Forum Facebook pages. But no details about the allegations have appeared on the forums, prompting some posters to ask what is going on. A petition also is being circulated in support of Oliverio.

Simmons said Tuesday that Oliverio has not been suspended or disciplined by McKrell.

While the issue is not on the agenda for Wednesday’s selectmen’s meeting at 7 p.m. at the police station, Simmons said anyone can comment on issues and ask questions during the public comment sessions at the beginning and end of the meeting.

But Simmons pointed out the board will not discuss any personnel matter at the meeting. He said town policy is not to discuss unresolved personnel matters at a public meeting.

But with what he called inaccurate information about the issue being posted on social media sites, Simmons said he would offer some basic information about the process the town will follow.

He said that on April 10, he received a four-page email from Oliverio that detailed a workplace complaint against his supervisor, McKrell.

In part because any future union grievance filed by Oliverio could come back to Simmons for a ruling, Simmons said he forwarded the complaint to Diette for legal advice and a recommendation about how to proceed.

By law, he said the town has to investigate Oliverio’s complaint in a timely manner. He said human resources best practices suggest the investigation be handled by outside counsel, such as the labor attorney.

Simmons said on April 18 he received a follow-up email from Oliverio asking for a response to the April 10 complaint. Simmons said he told Oliverio he had sent the complaint to Diette to investigate because it dealt with his position as a Highway Department employee, a union job, and not his work as the town’s tree warden, which is a non-union position appointed by Simmons. He said Diette interviewed Oliverio on Monday.

“I believe in an orderly process of government in which a matter of this sort is managed by law and in accordance with well-established rules, regulations and best practices,” Simmons said.

He said he would release Oliverio’s complaint when the investigation is complete.

The Oliverio controversy is the latest for McKrell and the Highway Department. An arbitrator recently overturned an earlier suspension of fired Highway Department supervisor Louis DiCesare II, who had filed a grievance because he was denied union representation at a hearing with McKrell. The town faces two more grievances and a federal lawsuit filed by DiCesare. Through mid-February, the town had spent $265,000 in legal fees on the cases and its insurance company another $76,000.

In 2016, a highway employee, with two previous incidents of threatening fellow employees, was charged with assaulting a landscaper while on the job. The state’s attorney’s office decided not to prosecute Tim Keena and the landscaper. The town suspended Keena for five days and made him attend anger management courses. Last year he was promoted to highway foreman, earning him a $7,000-a-year raise.

Last year, the town released a consultant’s report on the operations of the town after The Day had filed a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission for not releasing the report.

The consultant named McKrell as one of three “struggling” department heads and said that about 25 percent of highway staff were in conflict with her goals for the department.

Simmons has said he disagreed with some of the consultant’s comments and since has praised McKrell for developing and implementing systematic plans for the maintenance and replacement of trucks and equipment, paving of roads, leaf collection and snow removal and installing GPS systems in all department vehicles to improve safety and efficiency, all things which had not been done in the past.

In 2015, the town upheld a complaint McKrell filed against former Selectman Mike Spellman, charging he harassed her with questions about pesticides used on the high school athletic fields because she was a woman.

In 2014, a high school athletic field had to be closed for 18 months after work done by a contractor left it unusable. Before the town hired the firm, the firm had walked off jobs in two other Connecticut communities, leaving fields unusable.

McKrell said the town had to hire the firm because it was the low bidder. State law, though, allowed the town to reject the bid if it were in the best interest of the town.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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