In light of a rejected plan to bolster security at the Haines Borough Administration Building, Borough Manager Bill Seward is proposing a gentler alternative. The Workplace Violence Program outlines a prevention strategy within the borough. But, before the policy could be introduced, the borough was informed of a formal complaint from to the state regarding violence in the borough building.
The complaint was filed on July 13 to the Alaska Occupational Safety and Health branch of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. It came from an unnamed borough employee, and simply read that the complaint was about several instances of workplace violence. The grievance is short and vague, and it doesn’t give any specifics except that the reported “violence” was a result of visitors harassing and intimidating borough employees. Seward says he’s taking steps to address the situation.
“Since our workplace violence program is currently non-existent, I wanted to start out with baby steps – crawl, walk, run,” Seward says. “So, we’re in the crawl phase. What I’m going to do, is keep it very short and simple, so we can at least get it on the street as quickly as possible.”
Following the release of the policy, Seward says employees will go through training on how to handle disgruntled people and deescalate tense and potentially dangerous situations.
Earlier this month at an assembly meeting, the assembly blocked an idea hatched by Seward to revamp the administration building’s front entrance, making it more difficult for people to freely enter offices in the back. In his response to the state’s safety and health division, Seward wrote that he proposed modifying the lobby of the admin building to slow down upset guests. But, he wrote, the assembly “expressed a desire to maintain the status quo of very open, public access to employees at the Borough Administration Building.” Here’s Seward:
“I’m hopeful to receive a response, but I’m confident that as long as we can demonstrate that we’re moving forward, that we’re making progress, we should be OK. Again, I inherited this issue.”
Deborah Kelly is the director of the Division of Labor Standards and Safety for the Alaska Department of Labor. She says currently there is no OSHA standard that addresses workplace violence, though the agency recognizes it is a big problem. But, there is the general duty clause that states employers must provide a workplace free of recognized hazards. Those hazards can be people, Kelly says. But …
“There has to be enough indication of a widespread problem between employees and clients, or employees and other employees to establish a threshold to cite that general duty clause,” she says.
Kelly says the inquiry from the Haines Borough employee is ongoing, so she couldn’t comment on it specifically.
An incident in late June was one factor that brought the issue of workplace safety to the surface. In the afternoon of June 29, residents Paul Nelson and Sue Waterhouse went into the borough building to speak with a now-former borough planning technician, Tracy Cui, about a project they have publicly opposed – the harbor expansion. Nelson says the interaction with Cui was civil. He recorded the conversation, and says at one point they asked Cui if she felt threatened.
“And Tracy said ‘No, no. I’m fine.’ And that’s all on tape,” Nelson says.
But, later that evening, Nelson was summoned out of a public meeting about the harbor by then-acting-police-chief Josh Dryden, and served a verbal trespass. Waterhouse was given the verbal trespass order earlier. According to Nelson’s lawyer, Dryden received a text saying that Nelson and Waterhouse were harassing and threatening Cui.
“I don’t know how it went from Tracy, to Bill (Seward), to Julie (Cozzi), to the police…” Nelson says. “We have requested the record for that and they won’t provide. They said we’ll have to subpoena it.”
Waterhouse and Nelson say their rights were violated and they are humiliated. They hired a lawyer, who, in a letter to the borough, asks for a formal apology and reimbursement of legal fees. Nelson says those fees are up to around $4,000. He says they’ll sue if the borough doesn’t meet their requests. Here’s Nelson reading from the letter at Tuesday’s assembly meeting.
“The no-trespass instruction is arbitrary and capricious, in violation of due process and equal protection. The constitution generally forbids exclusions from a forum generally open to the public.”
Seward says he will confer with the borough’s attorney and may request an executive session at the next assembly meeting to discuss the case. He says he won’t speculate if the formal complaint to the state was specifically about that June incident with Nelson and Waterhouse.
Nelson says as far as he knows, the trespass order against him is still in effect, preventing him from entering the borough building. He says he had to wait outside when he went there the day after the incident with Cui to pay his sales tax.
“They don’t want people to be able to feel like they can walk in there and say ‘Hey, why did you break the law?’ That’s what upset them, I believe,” Nelson says.
Seward says the trespass order expired less than two days after it was issued.
At the end of Tuesday’s assembly meeting, Nelson spoke for a second time. He urged the assembly to take the letter from his lawyer seriously. He says, the borough should know by now that he won’t back down.