By JAIME STUDD
Recorder News Staff
BROADALBIN -- Following months of allegations by Broadalbin Highway Superintendent Lance Winney that highway department employees are deliberately hindering his ability to do his job, and simultaneously refusing to perform theirs, the four full-time employees at the center of the controversy say they can no longer remain silent about the issue.
Sandy Thompson, Bob Perry, Dan Steele and Leon Foss have a combined 80 years of experience at the town garage, and all say it has become a place of employment that is no longer bearable.
"Every time we open up the paper, we're being accused of being lazy and not doing our jobs," said Thompson. You don't have this many years in not being able to do your job."
The four said the discord began on Winney's very first day in office and has since worsened to the point that accusations and arguments are taking place on nearly a daily basis.
"Everything he's done has been very confrontational," said Thompson. "It's a very hostile work environment."
On Monday, Broadalbin Town Supervisor Joe DiGiacomo agreed with the employees characterization of the contentious atmosphere in the garage.
"I hear from them. I do hear from them. I'm not going to tell you I don't. It's a different style of management," DiGiacomo said.
"I hate to say them being abused the way they are. It's an awful working situation. It is," he later added.
In previous statements, Winney said he believed the employees were deliberately thwarting his authority as a result of their loyalty to former Broadalbin Highway Superintendent Donald Loveless.
The four called that notion ridiculous.
"We haven't put all these years in to lose them," said Steele. "We don't care who we work for, as long as we're treated with respect."
"If a guy treats you a like a normal human being, you're going to be a little nicer to that guy," added Perry.
The conflicts have resulted in several grievances filed by Winney, all of which were subsequently dismissed by DiGiacomo.
"He wrote me up for going to get coffee for everybody when three days earlier he gave me money and sent me for the coffee," said Thompson. "He said he did it just because he could."
Had those grievances advanced beyond DiGiacomo, each one would have cost the town $2,500, they said.
"That's why I try to resolve it when it gets to me because they're so ridiculous," DiGiacomo said. "I don't want to spend $2,500 for nonsense."
The highway department employees also filed a grievance against Winney for using a part-time worker to do a job on a day when the full-time employees were not working -- a violation of their union contract.
All four were subsequently paid for those hours.
"Nothing makes sense with this guy," said Foss. "Every day you go in there, you're accused."
All four agree that the entire matter is rooted in what they called Winney's inability to perform the job adequately.
"He doesn't know his job and he doesn't want to learn it," said Foss. "If you could be there and see how he operates, you'd be amazed."
They cited having to help Winney with activities like payroll and vouchers, the hiring of more part-time employees that necessary, which resulted in the department exceeding its payroll budget and the purchasing of parts at nearly double their value as evidence of Winney's lack of qualifications for the position.
"I know Lance has been in business. Government is totally different than private business. It really is. It takes a lot of getting accustomed to," DiGiacomo said. "I'm hoping he will come around. I honestly think he has to listen to the highway guys on how things are done. They've been there 20 or 30 years, all of them. They know what to do and how to do it."
Winney conceded his lack of experience in the public sector, but insisted the tensions are a direct result of the employees unwillingness to take orders.
"The only reason they say I can't adjust is because they have to change. The people voted me in because they seen the employees doing absolutely nothing. I go in there and say, 'You guys gotta go to work today. Let's not sit at the table until seven o'clock like you used to do,'" Winney said. "It's not me, it's them. I'm just asking them to do their job."
Winney agreed to the characterization of the working atmosphere as "hostile," but said the hostility was coming from the employees and he cited a recent incident with Steele as evidence.
"If you want to talk about hostile environment, I have him (Steele) on recording telling me he wants to take me outside and kiss my ass," Winney said. "They're twisting the truth around is what they're doing."
"I record them every once is a while because I have that right. I have the right to record what goes on there," he added.
Steele said Winney made the initial threat in that incident.
Winney said he keeps the recordings just in case he needs them some day to dispute an accusation.
"There's four of them against me, five if you include the supervisor," Winney said. "It's not easy being one person against five of them."
Ultimately, the employees said, the issue came to a head with the recent loss of the town's contract with Fulton County to plow county roads in the wintertime -- a $76,000 blow to the highway department budget.
The contract was pulled, in part, as a result of a letter Winney wrote to Fulton County Highway Superintendent Mark Yost questioning his employees willingness and ability to fulfill the contract.
The employees said the poor condition of the towns roads last winter was a result of Winney's inability to perform his duties, not theirs.
"He doesn't check the roads. He does everything from his house with a walkie-talkie," said Perry. "That's why the roads were bad last winter."
The four said they are not allowed to take the jobs on themselves, but must wait until they are called out by Winney.
They cited one storm last year in which four accidents occurred. At the time, all four said they were awaiting a phone call, but never got one. Repeated calls to Winney that night, they said, went unreturned.
"We'll be there to do our job when we are called," she added.
Winney disputed the allegation that he was ever unreachable and said the safety of the residents is his number one priority.
"I've never asked them to jeopardize the safety of the tax payers on those roads.," Winney said. "I called them to go out, but if they don't put the salt down, I can't follow four trucks around at once."
All four employees described Winney's treatment of them on a daily basis as "harassment" meant to force them out of their positions.
Thompson cited having been ordered by Winney to weed whack an entire stretch of road instead of using the mower as an example.
"The taxpayers are the big losers in this," Perry said. "We're the laughing stock of Fulton County."
DiGiacomo said he too is concerned about the affect Winney's lack of experience is having on the budget roles.
"He's never called wanting to know anything about the budget. That's our biggest concern, obviously," DiGiacomo said.
Winney said he has a plan to save the town more money this winter than was lost in the county contract.
"Being that we now only have 30 miles of road to plow, we could lay one of them off for the winter and use them as per needed," Winney said.
Laying off a full-time employee would require the approval of the town board.
"I've suggested that to the board with no response," Winney said.
All four employees agree that the situation has deteriorated beyond the point of working it out and say the only solution would be for Winney to resign.
"There's no way to have a working relationship now," said Thompson. "It's frustrating."
Winney said DiGiacomo is the key to resolving the situation.
"What I see is Joe DiGiacomo has got to stop defending them and he's got to let me run the department. He's micro-managing my department is what he's doing," Winney said.
In the meantime, the employees said, they will report for work every morning, just as they have done, as a crew, for more than a decade.
"He's not going to be us," Perry said.