Crowd turns out to support Stonington highway employee

Daniel Oliverio, center right, reacts to a public comment during a Board of Selectmen meeting on Wednesday, April 24, 2018, at the Stonington Police Department. Oliverio, the town's tree warden and vice chairman of the Beautification Committee, could be the subject of disciplinary action by Public Works Director Barbara McKrell. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Daniel Oliverio, center right, reacts to a public comment during a Board of Selectmen meeting on Wednesday, April 24, 2018, at the Stonington Police Department. Oliverio, the town's tree warden and vice chairman of the Beautification Committee, could be the subject of disciplinary action by Public Works Director Barbara McKrell. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Stonington — More than 75 people, including fired Highway Department supervisor Louis DiCesare II and his family, packed the police station meeting room Wednesday night to tell the Board of Selectmen they support highway employee Daniel Oliverio, who has complained about being targeted for discipline by Public Works Director Barbara McKrell.

Many speakers praised the dedication, friendly attitude and hard work of Oliverio, who announced at the meeting he was resigning as town tree warden, while others urged the selectmen to take action against McKrell.

"It’s unconscionable this young man has to go through what my brother and his family has had to,” DiCesare’s sister Celeste told the selectmen. “Here we are again with a situation with the Department of Public Works in which an individual is being targeted.”

McKrell fired DiCesare in 2015, alleging he was insubordinate and his actions cost the town money. DiCesare has denied the allegations. He has filed three union grievances and a federal lawsuit against the town. An arbiter has ruled against the town in the first grievance because McKrell denied DiCesare union representation at his hearing, and ordered the town to pay him for a five-day suspension. The town has spent $265,000 so far defending the cases.

“The DiCesare family stands with Dan,” added DiCesare’s other sister, Michelle. “We don’t want (highway employees) to go through the same pain, suffering and uncertainty of going to work and not knowing if there is a target on your back. Right now there is a target on Dan’s back.”

She challenged First Selectman Rob Simmons to solve the problem and if he can’t, to resign and let someone who can come forward.

Few details of the controversy have been made public, as both the town and Oliverio have declined to discuss them because it is a personnel issue. Simmons has said he received an email from Oliverio this month detailing “a workplace complaint” against McKrell. That complaint is now being investigated by town Labor Attorney Meredith Diette. Simmons also referred to a second investigation Wednesday in which McKrell is investigating Oliverio.

Some of those who spoke Wednesday night referred to Oliverio being the subject of possible discipline for performing some of his duties as the town’s volunteer tree warden while working for the highway department and then being retaliated against by McKrell after he sent the email to Simmons. Another speaker said Oliverio was reprimanded by McKrell for insubordination after taking a personal day so he could attend a tree warden course that he paid for himself.

Oliverio told the selectmen he was humbled by the support Wednesday night but said he could not continue on as tree warden if he has to worry about it causing trouble with his job. McKrell did not attend the meeting.

Former First Selectman Donald Maranell told the selectmen that he, too, “stands with Dan.”

Maranell, who served as first selectman from 1995 to 2001, said he has been silent on management issues for 17 years out of respect for the Board of Selectmen, “but enough is enough.”

“It now seems that management by discipline, unfair work assignment, harassment by the threat of discipline or ‘trumped up’ charges is the norm,” he said. “The number of grievances being generated from the Highway Department is an indication of trouble in the present management’s way to deal with human resources issues. We are headed down a road we have traveled before. This road is paved with unfair treatment, the ignoring of labor rights, retaliation for informing management of concerns and punishment based on who you are, who you're friends with and who you support politically.”

Maranell said that if McKrell is retaliating against Oliverio for sending an email to Simmons complaining about her treatment of him, the action against McKrell “needs to be swift and severe.”

Chris Donahue of Pawcatuck, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run for state representative from the 43rd District this fall, told the selectmen he understands there is procedure that needs to be followed but said the public is concerned about fairness and how employees are being treated. He asked the selectmen “to ensure Oliverio is treated fairly and to take action so the public has confidence that employees are being treated fairly and their union rights respected.”

Simmons, Selectman John Prue and Selectwoman Kate Rotella all praised Oliverio for his hard work and dedication to the town.

“I know Dan. I’m happy to see this show of support for him,” Prue said. “If there’s a problem in the Highway Department, I’ll bet it’s not with Dan Oliverio. We need to find out if there is something there that’s not working and there is an indication there is. We owe it to the taxpayers and the residents.”

“What I’m hearing tonight is very concerning,” Rotella added.

Simmons said he did not know Oliverio would announce his tree warden resignation Wednesday night and said he hopes he does not carry through with submitting a formal letter of resignation. Simmons said he took $500 out of his own salary in the upcoming budget so there could be a stipend for the tree warden.

“That’s how much I believe in Dan Oliverio,” he said.

Simmons said he would respond to all the questions raised by residents at the meeting in writing and would release the results of the investigation into Oliverio’s complaint when it is completed.

j.wojtas@theday.com

Members of the public crowd a Board of Selectmen meeting in support of Daniel Oliverio on Wednesday, April 24, 2018, at the Stonington Police Department. Oliverio, the town's tree warden and vice chairman of the Beautification Committee, could be the subject of disciplinary action by Public Works Director Barbara McKrell. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Members of the public crowd a Board of Selectmen meeting in support of Daniel Oliverio on Wednesday, April 24, 2018, at the Stonington Police Department. Oliverio, the town's tree warden and vice chairman of the Beautification Committee, could be the subject of disciplinary action by Public Works Director Barbara McKrell. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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