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Palm Coast Councilman Calls for Task Force to Address Public Abuse of Government Workers

| June 4, 2015

council palm coast mcguire

Council member Bill McGuire has little patience for rudeness. (© FlaglerLive)

If some customers who rudely address city employees were to speak likewise to his wife or daughter, Palm Coast City Council member Bill McGuire says, “I’d probably be in jail.”

At McGuire’s urging, the city is putting together a task force to come up with a plan to better protect government employees from what he says has become routine abuse in person, by phone, by email, and out on the streets where government workers often interact with residents.

City Manager Jim Landon is equally eager to address the matter. “This society seems to think it’s OK, at least a portion of it, to abuse a very large employment base, and that is government employees,” he said.

Landon will lead the task force, which will at last count, according to McGuire, include Barbara Grossman, the city’s code enforcement manager, Bill Reischmann, the city attorney, Virginia Smith, the city clerk, and Mark Carman, the sheriff’s commander of the Palm Coast precinct. McGuire may sit on the panel if asked, he said. If not, he’ll follow its proceedings closely regardless.

The incident that led McGuire finally to ask for action on the matter involves 66-year-old Palm Coast resident Lorenzo Fields, who’s had issues with his water service at 4 Bay Road and who, judging from a sheriff’s office incident report, has difficulties addressing others, women especially, without being sexist and using some of the vilest, sexually-explicit obscenities in the language. Fields could not be reached Thursday: the phone number he provided the sheriff’s office for the incident report was disconnected.

McGuire personally witnessed one of Fields’s outburst. But there have reportedly been several.

Some months ago, the incident report states, a water line ruptured beneath his house while he was away. The rupture damaged his house and led to a large water bill. Since a property owner owns anything beyond the water meter and toward the property, the city was not liable for the ruptured pipe nor, for that matter, for the cost of the lost water. Fields demanded that the city compensate him for the large water bill. The city agreed to reduce the bill to $200, and later to $50. Fields refused to pay. Eventually, as is the practice with non-payment for city services, the city turned off the meter.

Fields then parked his truck on top of the water meter in hopes of denying it access to city employees. It may not have been an issue had the water meter not been paired with that of another, active address. But it was. Fields also called the county administrator’s office, even though the county has no jurisdiction of the matter, and told county officials that he would dump a load of gravel on the meter to keep city workers from reading it. In another conversation with county officials, he said that “someone is going to get hurt soon,” according to the report. (On May 27 a city employee, with a sheriff’s escort, was able to access the meter unhampered. Fields was not at the house.)

Fields repeatedly called utility department employees, harassing them, being obscene, making threats, and leveling sexually obscene insults at women who work there. (See the report for the language he used.) He told one employee to call her boss, Richard Adams, and proffer an obscene proposition to him, too. On May 27 around noon, with Fields being disruptive in person at city offices, sheriff’s deputies warned him to stop harassing city employees. On June 1, Fields appeared before the county commission and said he’d sue the city, though by then he’d paid his bill and water service was restored.

Fields’s behavior is the one that “broke the camel’s back,” McGuire said, but it was by no means isolated. He said eight to 10 times a month, authorities are called to city offices to address disruptive customers. (The Fields report at the Sheriff’s Office was a rare instance of a documented such encounter: similar reports are very rare.)

“In the last three or four days I’ve been in contact with some of our city employees and I’ve observed some behavior that bothered me greatly,” McGuire told the council on Tuesday. “Our employees that deal with the public directly are being abused. They’re not being treated well at all. They’re subject to verbal abuse, profanity. I don’t want to get into a lot of detail, but I guess what I’m saying especially in a month when we’re supposed to be celebrating civility, I was taken aback and the more I got into it, the more I found that this is a day to day thing.”

In an interview Thursday, McGuire said the abuse “runs the gamut anywhere from code enforcement to their billing to obtaining a permit. People usually when people come in to place a complaint they’re already angry when they walk in the door, and our staff in place tries to calm them done a bit. But often times it goes to where they have to summon for help.”

McGuire wasn’t sure what a task force could determine as effective means of preventing abuse, but one starting point could be clear signs that tell visitors to city offices that abuse would not be tolerated. Another possibility: better training for city employees on how to deal with abusive customers. McGuire likes especially what he described as a “no-fly list” that Grossman, the code enforcement manager, keeps: on it are the names of people who have been abusive of her office, and with whom she will not interact, McGuire said.

Then there’s the legal question of how far the city can take its authority not to take abuse, in a public office. That’s why Reischmann, the city attorney, will be sitting at task force meetings.

“We don’t hire people with the intent of putting them in a combat zone,” McGuire said. “We should do a good job for the citizens but doing a good job for the citizens doesn’t accommodate being a punching bag for them to vent their spleen.” Employee training meanwhile he said, is all slanted one way: “We teach them how to be nice and give positive body language and all that sort of things to the citizens, but we don’t give them any training on what to do if they become abused.”

McGuire said there are no intentions to develop a siege mentality at the new city hall, nor will there be an armed guard at the door. But “diplomatically and in a spirit of cooperation,” he wants protective measures.

“With the new city hall I think is where it would make a lot of sense to take a look at our operations and making sure it’s addressed there,” Landon said. “But it’s not just at city hall. It’s utilities, it’s out on the street, where you have construction crews and maintenance people, etc., and sometimes the abuse they take.”

McGuire concedes that a generally anti-government attitude on ideological TV shows and in social media—not to mention online comment sections, where anonymity amplifies viler attitudes—has contributed to the more permissively insulting posturing against government workers on an everyday basis.

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31 Responses for “Palm Coast Councilman Calls for Task Force to Address Public Abuse of Government Workers”

  1. Anonymous says:

    We need a task force to tell us whether a portion of the public is rude and demeaning to people? Of course there is. What is the point of this? What action could they possibly take? People seem to forget that occassionally it is appropriate to hang up on someone, tell them they need to leave your office, call the police if they don’t and are causing a disturbance, or occassionally tell them their complaint has no merrit and invite them to consult an attorney if they don’t agree. What next, do we start a task force to investigate if there are members of the public who cut people off while driving.

  2. NortonSmitty says:

    If you’re serious, you should get an inner-city Meter Maid to train the employees. Nobody on the planet takes more daily abuse or handles it so well.

  3. Karen Buchanan says:

    I used my name so I’m not anonymous. When this task force gets together & comes up with some great ideas could they please share it with restaurant owners, store owners, construction companies, law offices and every other type of business that deals with rude people all day? My experience with governmental employees is that no one dealing with the public has any decision making ability and they cannot take responsibility unless someone at the top tells them exactly what they can do. Some are very nice & helpful but I have worked with dozens that are just plain rude to the public & not allowed to fix anything unless they talk to six of their superiors. In situations like this, the Sheriff’s office needs to be called & it was. Done. Really, a task force? I guess happenings in Palm Coast are a little slow this week.

  4. groot says:

    I have to wonder why Mr Fields was not arrested? Sometimes having the patience of Job in these matters is the wrong them to do. If he’s doing this to city employees, I can only imagine what he does to his own family, friends and associates. I worked over 35 years in government, over 20 was in direct services, so I know what folks do and from what has been related, Fields took it to a new level. I will say this in my limited contact with city staff, some have been fine, others, especially animal control need some serious customer training. There are some in the city who seem to think some top city executives have power along the lines of well, Hitler. They do not. They’e all accountable and they’re all human just like you and I and deserve respect.

  5. tulip says:

    It will be very interesting to see what the panel comes up with on this unique idea of a task force for bad behavior.

  6. alp says:

    Problems with irate citizens can sometimes escalate. In my own experience I have seen a coworker shot dead by an angry citizen and when working in a courthouse an angry citizen shot an attorney dead because he didn’t agree with a judge’s decision. After my colleague was killed, we all got hidden red buttons to summon immediate law enforcement assistance. But rudeness? What is rude in one part of the country, is just everyday discourse in another part of the country.

  7. snapperhead says:

    This is kind of amusing coming from McGuire. As the councilman for my district I emailed him about an issue in my neighborhood to which he never responded. And comparing the “abuse” to a combat zone is just a tad melodramatic

    • Anonymous says:

      Mr. Snapperhead: I apologise if I didn’t respond to you. I have reviewed my e mail and phone messages for the last four months and can find no communication from you . Please resend and I’ll do my best to respond. Thank-you

  8. Old firefighter says:

    This is just another way for the city of Palm Coast to waste my tax money.

  9. City Worker says:

    Could be a good idea. As a City worker out in the field on numerous occasions we have been verbally bashed, cussed at, one time even threatened that they will get their gun, some have been pushed over grass in their front yard. Come on sod. Being a lil upset and wanting to know the facts. That’s tolerable we can talk like civil adults. Most come out the gates ready to go to war!
    Maybe something good can come of this. At least have some kind of report to keep others within the city that have to deal with this person aware of the history and they won’t be blindsided.

  10. Brad W says:

    I think this is a great idea, but it needs to be approached from both sides. Not only might there need to be the “training” and development from the employee side, but the question needs to be asked why are people so angry? I personally agree that, yes, many people are just nuts and that’s the way they are. I managed in high volume retail settings for over 15 years . . . I get it. But it’s always important to ask yourself as an organization what did we d o to contribute to the situation and then address those items (if any). A public relations campaign focused on what the City does for the citizens has potential to reach further than exciting residents and piggy-backs onto the current promotions of attracting new residents and even businesses.

    The other thing I think contributes to this lately is that ever-growing negativity surrounding “government” and this is especially true locally. With groups and individuals like the Tea Party, the Ronald Regans, our former SOE Kimberle Weeks, Steven Nobile, etc. constantly spreading and working to continue to escalate negative attitudes towards the City and government as a whole has helped bring us to where we are today in many ways. So I think City officials need to step up more and stand up to these groups and individuals calling them out for the silliness they are much like the op-ed piece Mayor Netts recently had published in the Observer addressing Steven Nobile and his political game junk about Charter Reviews.

  11. johnqpublic says:

    What is the point of coming up with a task force I mean really what a waste no matter what you do if the city government is gonna run this town like an hoa the way they do people are going to be that way in some form or another instead why don’t they look into the employees that are out there in public and make some changes from that avenue or better yet make some changes in the policies and so called codes and lighten up on them just a little bit seriously some people work full time and don’t get the lawn done right away or god forbid someone has and small driveway and parks their car just to the side of it to make room for company so they park on their own grass for a short time I mean come on get off the high snob horse yall are on and nd get over it the more that big brother pushes the more the people will resist and rebel against them

  12. Anonymous says:

    We need a task force to see why the city employees enforce code rules selectively.

  13. Michael says:

    Well first, they should have a manners class taught to the code enforcement dept., starting with their top manager, these people are so power struck they believe they are above the law. How many civil complaints have they had over the years, no one deserves to be belittled. This is why people do not like nor trust politicians and government, a task force, really. Just deal with it like every other business out there, retail, restaurants and so on. When things get out of hand you call the police, now you want to form a task force, then you will need to hire a consultant and do a study. See my point here, you are wasting time and money for something we already have a solution too, the police.
    Stop thinking like a politician and start thinking like a leader, a solver of problems, and a cost cutter. If anyone gets out of control what are you going to be able to do besides call the police. Therefore, the solution was a simple one and no time or money was spent. You are making it seem as government employees are more important or valuable than any other business that has to deal with the public.

    • Dan I says:

      I totally agree…I myself have witnessed FIRST HAND how some of Palm Coasts “employees’ have handled situations that were very unprofessional. I go in all smiles almost always, and get NO greeting, NO HI, May I help you? Just a NEXT….they snapped and either ignored my requests or simply didn’t want to hear it. COLD and Mean was their demeanor. And this was by more than one on different occasions. I now do all I can via online. This has happened many times. Code?? WOW, talk about a nasty attitude…had an American Flag on back of my vehicle…guy came into my business and said “take it off immediately sir or you will be fined $5000 a DAY…I said WHAT!!!!???!!??. I went ballistic on him and told him to get out of my store or I would call the police…and told him to send his boss to tell me that to my face….since when is it illegal to show the American flag on a vehicle THAT I OWN, and sitting on MY property????? I called him and the county a bunch of Nazi policers…and never come back to my place.
      Time and time again, I have had insulting remarks made by government employees….and one had the nerve to tell me…”YOU WILL NEVER get that permit sir as long as I am sitting here at this desk….”….her boss was out that day and she had no idea of what the rules for concerning the permit I sought, and I told her she was mistaken, to read up on the rules, but she insisted she knew them…came back next week, walked past her to bosses office, got it signed off on, walked out and she gave me a “drop dead and go to hell ” look…..Palm Coast has folks in positions they should not…..I know from experience and personal encounters….and YES….we see THOSE nasty jerks over the ones who go in smiling, feeling good, glad to have a job and do their best to serve the palm coast public. Its the nasty ones who need to be turned over a lap and spanked with a paddle!!! I sincerely regret building my retirement home of $350,000 in a town so misran by inept old people who want NO change, and what they DO want is NOT in the best interests of the towns folk but their own…..

    • JenS says:

      Police cost money.

    • Shell says:

      Second all of that. Code Enforcement are rude, full stop.

      First incident – when we moved to PC in 2011 I came ahead of my family to get us set up and rented a house in the B section. There was a CE notice on the garage door to cut the grass when I went with the agent to look at the house. We made the deal, I knew would be cutting the grass within a few days, I took the notice. Moved my stuff in next day. The day after that I came out of the house at mid-morning to find another notice on the door. My truck was in the driveway. I had been awake since daylight. The CE didn’t do me the simple courtesy of knocking or ringing the bell and handing me the notice, just left it for me to find. “Fix this, serf.”, seems to be the operative attitude.

      Second incident – One stopped by the same house about two years later as we were preparing to move to our new home because a complaint had been received about trash beside the house. My children were outside, the CE man told them why he was there, and one of the older ones told him I was home and came inside to get me. In the less-than-a-minute it took me to get outside he had stuck a notice on my garage door rather than wait and hand it to me, again evincing a complete lack of courtesy.

      The attitude may well be universal. Fifteen years ago the CE in my parents’ home county outside Atlanta left a notice for them to “Pull weeds off house”. When my mother informed them that those “weeds” were English Ivy she was told, “This isn’t England.” Words fail me.

  14. YankeeExPat says:

    “Politeness [is] a sign of dignity, not subservience.”
    ― Theodore Roosevelt

  15. Are you serious? says:

    This entire sequence begs the question, “Why are these people so upset with government officials?” doesn’t it??? Maybe the rude and obscene volume would decrease if we had more competent government officials. i am not saying there aren’t people who will be rude and obnoxious regardless, but think about the volume of people upset with you and ask.. is it something I am doing??? Local government employees would never abuse their positions and antagonize… would they?

  16. R.U. kidding says:

    Sounds great as long as my tax money is not going to pay for this if you want to pay for your own pocket or more power to you

  17. groot says:

    This is an internal matter for city staff. The city needs to standardize how they respond to irate citizens and how city staff responds to inquires from citizens. Fields was obviously a worst case scenario. The city needs to standardize when to hang up, when to call the sheriff and how to defuse problem people. The city also needs to respond to citizen inquiries within a set amount of time. The state policy is respond to all inquiries within 48 hours. Palm Coast city staff responds if and when they feel like it. The Fields incident shows that the city does not have a standardized procedure for dealing with problem residents. The situation went on way too long and was allowed to escalate. I see the Fields problem as not only a person with some serious issues but also, a failure on the part of city staff. Yes, the city needs a task force but they cannot control the public. The city can control how city staff responds and what actions they take in a timely and professional manner.

  18. Flagler resident says:

    Funny, I was a deputy for this county for years and took verbal abuse a lot more than any of them. However, I was told suck it up you work in government. Plus look at law enforcement now, getting threats and harm against them from the public, but I hear no one crying for them. So all I got to say is if you can’t handle it maybe you need to be looking for another job.

  19. Jim W says:

    Welcome to the “great” Northeast, I mean Palm Coast. Not all but most of the old northerners bring their crappy attitudes with them. Ruining this small county.

    • MarieS says:

      Really? That guy just.sounds crazy.
      I beg to differ. Just because southerners put a little sugar on their passive agressive behavior doesn’t mean @!(#!
      I find most.southerners are rude when they beat around the Bush instead of saying what they mean. Southerners stab you in the back after.smiling in your face.
      Northerners tell you just like it is …the first time.

  20. shark says:

    What ever happened to freedom of speech?????????????

  21. MarieS says:

    I read this after having a sleepless night….
    Why? Because the Sheriff Dept refuses to share crime in our neighborhoods with the neighborhood. Why wasn’t a break in and a car theft reported on the blog, in the paper or in your reports that you publish daily.?we just had a prowler Sat.night. you don’t think the neighbors.need to know?
    You should have a task force that alerts the public’ when there is crime in their neighborhood.

    Re: city employees
    They’re not exactly warm.and.fuzzy when them with a.problem. I. Fact generally it’s the opposite.

  22. My Daily Rant says:

    Its good he was able to mention one person, we all know this goes on but it goes on for both sides.Goverment officals should never for get the fact that we tax payers pay their saleries now I know they pay taxes also but we don’t make our living off them also we get to pay for their great retirement.At a meeting once Miss Holland said to me she thinks that I just don’t like Palm Coast or Flagler County my reply was its not that I don’t like Palm Coast or Flagler County Its that I don’t like what Politicians have done to it.Remember how beautiful it was here 15 years ago.

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