Disabilities board chief under fire

PERKINS TWP. Cathy Wise sits in the back row, quietly crying. There are 20 or so
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

 

PERKINS TWP.

Cathy Wise sits in the back row, quietly crying.

There are 20 or so employees and visitors sitting in on this Erie County Board of Developmental Disabilities meeting. It’s a gloomy Thursday evening in October.    

“I don’t even know what I did,” Wise says, blotting tears with a tissue. “They won’t tell me. Nobody will tell me.”

Six of the seven board members show up for the meeting this night. Inside the Galloway Road building, they hammer through the agenda, adjourn to executive session for 75 minutes, then return to finish the meeting. Board president Eric Kibler asks if there are comments from the public.

Wise has a comment. A question, actually.

She begs the board to tell her why Gerald Plassenthal, the agency’s superintendent, suspended her from her job as human resources manager. All she received was an e-mail from Plassenthal 10 days earlier, which read, “I am hereby placing you on paid administrative leave until the personnel committee makes a decision.”   

At the least, Wise says she’d like to know what she did. At most, she wants to know if she still has a job.  

“We’ll get back to you,” Kibler says. Wise asks again.  “We’ll get back to you,” Plassenthal says.

The other board members parrot Kibler and Plassenthal and appear to be unmoved by Wise’s pleas.

They grab their folders and march single file to another executive session, to discuss pending litigation. They talk about that a lot these days — pending litigation, legal issues, attorney fees, employee discipline.

Wise leaves the meeting dumbfounded. She looks exhausted. Her coworkers scoff, infuriated at the board’s response. One employee says, “This is what we’ve been dealing with.” 

Complaints about Plassenthal

There are problems these days at the Erie County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

It likely started late last year when an anonymous letter criticizing Plassenthal’s management style was sent to the agency’s board.

Then-board president Thomas Borton — who was on the board in 2004 when Plassenthal was hired to fill the $89,500 superintendent’s position — started asking around to see if the allegations carried any weight.

Borton said he spent months gauging employees’ concerns in private, trying to understand the friction between Plassenthal and the workers.

By late March, Borton’s discoveries prompted him to call county commissioners at least four times in the days leading up to a March 27 agency board meeting. He told commissioners he was gearing up to place Plassenthal on administrative leave. Commissioner Tom Ferrell attended the March 27 meeting at Borton’s request.

“I think the people there just didn’t like Jerry’s management style,” Ferrell said recently, recalling the meeting.

The March 27 meeting lasted more than three hours. The board spent two hours fielding employees’ complaints about Plassenthal. 

The meeting minutes show nearly 60 people attended, but the minutes reduce the complaints to a single line: “Numerous visitors to the board meeting made public comment(s) regarding their dissatisfaction with the current superintendent.”

There was one other notable occurrence at the meeting. Borton abruptly resigned from his position on the board.

Hours after the March 27 meeting, board vice president Eric Kibler showed up at Borton’s home in Berlin Heights to discuss the turn of events.

According to an Erie County Sheriff’s report, Borton called deputies at 10:50 p.m. to report a trespasser. It was Kibler.

The deputy’s report said Kibler cursed and yelled at Borton at his home that night, leaving only after Borton called deputies. 

Borton said recently he decided to resign from the board that night because the other board members wouldn’t approve a motion to suspend Plassenthal. 

“The board sat there and refused to make a motion to place the superintendent on paid administrative leave pending an investigation,” Borton said. “They also refused to answer any questions. They just sat there.”

Fear of reprisal

The agency’s employees declined to talk openly about the problems at the board, saying they feared they could become victims of reprisal.

They said they don’t want to end up like Cathy Wise — without a job.

Still, the employees have already divulged the cause of the turmoil. In March and April, they submitted signed letters to the board.

Obtained in a public records request and posted at sanduskyregister.com, the letters — all but one written by female employees —offer a candid look at how workers say they’re treated at the agency.

Read some of the letters above.

The letters describe a superintendent who resorts to intimidation and threats to deal with his staff. They accuse Plassenthal of temper tantrums, fostering an atmosphere of hostility and fear, and resorting to behavior such as yelling, pounding his hands on the table, knocking chairs over during meetings and telling employees to “sit down, shut up and listen.”  

Wise authored one of those letters.

“Jerry comes into an office, closes the door, rolls his eyes, gnashing his teeth and is seething mad,” Wise wrote. “Jerry has even gotten so angry that he shakes his fist and he almost jumps off the ground.”

Borton said he tried to tell other board members about Plassenthal, whose behavior employees boiled down to one word: Bullying. 

Asked about the allegations, Plassenthal said workers sometimes can’t readily accept change.

Plassenthal’s conflicts in Erie County aren’t his first in a workplace.

Plassenthal’s history

To be sure, public records aren’t always public. Before he came to Erie County, Plassenthal spent about two decades at the Ohio Department of Youth Services, where he oversaw developmentally disabled and mentally challenged youth prisoners.

There are no disciplinary records in Plassenthal’s youth services personnel file. The agency removes and destroys such records after 24 months.

It was a similar story at the Union County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, where Plassenthal worked from March 1984 to 1987 as superintendent, a $32,000 job. That agency, too, removes disciplinary files after a few years.

Minutes from the Union County agency’s board meetings, however, show Plassenthal was asked to resign in 1987, six months before his contract expired.

The minutes don’t explain the board’s decision to oust Plassenthal, but then-board president Carroll Ormeroid, 75, remembers the events as if they occurred yesterday.

Ormeroid said it was 1986 when he started investigating complaints from employees who claimed Plassenthal bullied them.

“I had a lot of respect for the teachers in that system,” he said. “It’s a challenge to deal with the handicapped day in and day out. You need a lot of support from your leadership to make the day go as well as it possibly can.”

Ormeroid said employees almost unanimously said Plassenthal was prone to temper tantrums, yelling, shouting and intimidation.

“It’s not fair to the staff to have to be in duress day in and day out,” he said.

Eventually, Ormeroid said he convinced his fellow board members to end Plassenthal’s contract. They asked him to leave six months early, paying out the remainder of his contract.

Ormeroid said the real cost of that battle wasn’t just legal fees — it was the man hours spent dealing with the problem.  

When asked for comment about these and other accusations against him, Plassenthal said he didn’t have time to talk about them.

The Cost of Chaos

Concrete numbers flesh out the cost of the chaos.

Since Plassenthal started as superintendent in 2004, the board has fielded seven unfair labor practices filings, more than a dozen grievances from union employees and various written complaints from non-union workers.

The agency is now a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Double S Industries.

Since the summer of 2007, Plassenthal’s agency has shelled out about $140,000 to attorneys, including $122,000 to former Erie County assistant prosecutor Terry Griffith, who retired in 2006 to work for Milan attorney Vickie Ruffing.

About 70 percent of the agency’s $7.8 million annual budget is funded through a county tax levy.

In an effort to smooth tensions at the Erie County Board of Developmental Disabilities, the agency’s board also hired a conflict manager. The cost? Nearly $60,000. 

But don’t think the potential problems stop there.

Wise also hired an attorney to fight her Oct. 5 suspension and likely termination. Plassenthal still won’t say why Wise is suspended.

Plassenthal declined several opportunities to comment for this story.

His contract expires in March. The board must provide 90 days notice on whether or not they’ll renew it. That would make Thursday’s board meeting the final meeting before that deadline.