Sheriff’s Ex-PIO Files Sex Discrimination Grievance Over 35% Pay Cut and Demotion
FlaglerLive | March 7, 2013
Months after he was elected sheriff for the first time in November 2000, Jim Manfre appointed Debra Johnson his public information officer. She’d been a reporter at the News-Journal until then, covering the cop beat–and Manfre’s election campaign. Manfre also hired Bob Weber, a deputy who rose to the rank of lieutenant in subsequent years. Johnson stayed on as PIO when Manfre lost to Don Fleming. So did Weber.
The day he took office for the second time on Jan. 8, Manfre demoted Johnson, cut her pay 35 percent–from $63,000 to $41,000–and installed Weber as the new PIO, with Johnson as his assistant, though she was still performing duties she’d performed previously. Weber was told of the assignment literally a few hours before Manfre announced it to media in a news conference the day before he took office. Weber’s pay hasn’t changed: was paid $77,000 a year before and after the assignment.
Johnson has now filed a grievance with Robert Crouse, the sheriff’s office’s new human resources director, alleging sex discrimination and a violation of her civil rights. It is one of several actions by current or former employees the sheriff’s office is contending with since Manfre took over and aggressively took on employees, policies, practices and mindsets to remake the agency in his–and in Undersheriff Rick Staly’s–image. Just yesterday morning (March 6), Manfre summoned David O’Brien, a 29-year employee of the agency whom Manfre had named his chief deputy during his first tenure, and fired him.
Johnson’s grievance is indicative of a growing backlash against the sheriff’s Patton-like frontal assault on the old regime, but it also underscores the dearth of women in the sheriff’s top management team. Aside from Becky Quintieri, the jail director–who has also been under pressure to fall in line with the new sheriff’s style–seven other top positions are held by men.
“The male employee is not qualified for the position,” Johnson wrote Crouse on Feb. 6, referring to Weber. “He has a law enforcement background, but he has no on-the-job training in public information duties nor does he have a formal education in mass communications, public relations or any related field as compared to my 12 and a half years in this position; my 22-plus years as a newspaper reporter and my Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communications-Journalism. The demotion and salary reduction was based on sex discrimination.”
Johnson asks to be immediately reinstated to her former position, and to have her salary reinstated at its former level, with back pay. “I understand that the administration is desirous to have a sworn law enforcement officer as a spokesman and as such I will continue to work with your deputy in all dealings with the media.”
Johnson, who has been on personal leave unrelated to the grievance for the past two weeks, could not be reached Thursday. She returns to work Monday.
Weber was present during a Jan. 7 news conference the sheriff held to inform media about impending changes at the sheriff’s office the next day. Asked during that conference if he’d done public information before, or was conversant with public record laws, Weber candidly said no, and the sheriff’s attorney, Sid Nowell, intervened to say that he would be conversant with public record law issues. On Thursday, Weber said he’d been taken aback by the question and the setting during that news conference, only because he’d been made aware of his new duties so soon before that and had not even had a chance to discuss the assignment at length with Manfre. Weber said that while he may not have held the title of public information officer before, he’d frequently had the opportunity to speak on law enforcement issues in various settings, and had a solid education behind him.
“I appreciate Debra for her professionalism and thank her for working with me in my new role as Public Information Officer for the Sheriff’s Office,” he’d written moments earlier Thursday in an email. Weber has a BA and MA in criminal justice from John Jay College, and is an FBI National Academy graduate. He started his police career in New York state, coming to Florida in 1996, and working 12 years as a deputy at the sheriff’s office in the patrol division and in other assignments.
“The reason why I brought Bob in,” Manfre had said in January, is that “we need to provide a better job in the agency of providing you information in a timely matter. So between Lt. Weber and Debbie Johnson, it will be covered 24 hours, seven days a week. It may not necessarily be Bob doing that, but between the two of them, they will. The thinking also is that I’ve always felt, and I was trained, that it was important to have a uniformed officer as part of the public information stream. The public wants to see, obviously, information flow, but it’s also important to have a uniformed officer who understands the actions of the patrol deputies, so they can better explain what’s going on. I think we’ve grown in the agency. By the way, I was the one who created the public information position. There wasn’t one prior to me taking office in 2001. I think Debbie has taken it to the level that she could. I think that by adding Bob, Lt. Weber to it, we are bringing it to where it needs to be, where you have 24-hour coverage and a law enforcement perspective.”
Public information officers typically handle all press inquiries–both as a buffer between media and official personnel and a channel through which an agency more uniformly presents its public face. They also provide information directly to the public, and usually handle all public-record requests. As such, PIOs in any agency can be both obstacles and conduits to information. Depending on their skills and the level of trust they enjoy from their supervisor, they help shape the image of an agency. Manfre is more self-conscious about his image than Fleming was, to the point of retaining a public relations firm for his transition. Pay and title aside, it’s not quite clear what discerns Johnson’s job from Weber’s.
“Since the reassignment,” Johnson writes in her grievance, “I have been performing the same duties as prior to Jan. 8 with less pay. I write the agency press releases, but send them out under the name of the deputy. I have worked on-call and on a holiday without receiving compensation for the additional hours. This appears to be in violation of the federal Equal Pay Act.”
Johnson goes on to differentiate the complaint from the performance of her duties, saying she has a good working relationship with the agency, with Weber and Staly. “The demotion and salary reduction,” she concludes, “have not been allowed to affect my job performance because I am a professional. I am dedicated to the service of this agency and our community, but I also seek fair treatment and compensation.”