County Defends Behavior Rules
Officials say they will not tolerate harassment.

By Margarita Martin-Hidalgo
The Ledger
margarita.martin-hidalgo@theledger.com

BARTOW -- In the wake of a sexual harassment accusation against Joe Garrison, the mayor of Dundee and an emergency medical technician, Polk County's director of personnel said the county has a zero-tolerance attitude when it comes to serious accusations against county employees.

The accusations against Garrison came from Tiffani Warren, a Polk Community College student who said Garrison made inappropriate sexual comments to her when she spent time at the Emergency Medicial Services station where he works.

Warren, 23, is studying at PCC to become an emergency services technician.

She had to spend time at the station to learn the basic duties of an EMT as part of her course requirements.

Garrison admitted he made inappropriate comments. He was suspended without pay between July 20 and 26, which he said was equivalent to two 24-hour shifts. In all, he missed about $457 in wages.

"The complaint is taken very seriously, it's investigated," said Percy Harden, personnel director for Polk County government.

"It was an unfortunate incident," Harden said of Warren's accusations. "It was brought to our attention, and we dealt with it."

Garrison's boss, Emergency Medical Services Director Raymond Chatlos, also said he has no tolerance for sexual harassment and took care of the problem within 48 hours after Warren reported the incident in mid-July.

Chatlos, who has worked for EMS for 29 years and spent the last two decades as director of the agency, said the incident had been a low point for Garrison and the department.

"It was an embarrassment . . .and I thought it was only right to apologize," Chatlos said.

Chatlos wrote a letter of apology to Warren and called her, but he did not require Garrison to call or write a letter to her.

Chatlos said he didn't want Garrison to have any contact with her.

In the letter, Chatlos said that even though Garrison said his comments were in jest and "meant no harm, it clearly was no excuse nor defense for his actions."

Chatlos assured the student that "this type of behavior from Mr. Garrison will never happen again, either to you or anyone else he comes in contact with."

Warren said in a recent interview she was not going to sue the county.

In a letter to EMS, Warren said Garrison made comments of a sexual nature and repeatedly asked her to go out with him.

"It seemed as though everything that we came across, like TV, music . . .etc, Joe turned it into sexual innuendos. I continued throughout the day to turn down his advances, but nothing seemed to work."

Asked if he thought the punishment had fit the offense, Chatlos said he thought Garrison had been punished appropriately.

"He's been punished pretty severely," said Chatlos, adding that Garrison is a good employee and this was his first offense.

Chatlos said he did not require Garrison to take a course on sexual harassment because he did not think it was necessary.

Garrison's employee evaluations, which date to when he was hired in 1992, show he has been considered a satisfactory employee.

Criticism about his job performance centered on minor issues such as tardiness and using the telephone too often for personal matters, according to documents.

Chatlos said he was sure Garrison had learned his lesson.

The accusations against Garrison were the first sexual harassment complaints the agency has received in about 10 years, Chatlos said. The previous incident at EMS involved a complaint against a male employee by a female employee.

Harden, the personnel director, said a county government employee was fired last year after an investigation into a sexual harassment complaint, but he couldn't remember the name of the employee or the department for which he worked.

The last highly publicized county government complaint came when former County Manager Ray Jackson was accused of harassment by a secretary, Linda Gullet, in the spring of 1995.

Gullet filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. The county settled with Gullet for about $300,000.

Jackson resigned two months after she filed her complaint.

Harden said discipline taken against an employee depends on the nature and severity of the accusation.

For example, an employee who uses an offensive word would not get the same punishment as someone who does something more egregious, such as touching someone inappropriately.

And Harden said that during an investigation into an accusation of misconduct, an employee could be suspended with pay.

However, in the case of a serious accusation, if the claims are validated the employee would be suspended without pay or fired.

"The punishment fits the crime, sort of," Harden said of the county's policy.

"If they (employees) seriously cross the line, they can be terminated," he said.

County employees are provided with the do's and don'ts of proper behavior and the sexual harassment policy when they are hired, Harden said.

All employees are told the policy when they attend their orientation sessions, he said.

There's an orientation session every month, he said.

The county's sexual harassment policy is three pages long. It outlines the definition of sexual harassment, a victim's rights and a list of county officials victims can contact to make their complaint.

The policy defines sexual harassment as follows:

"Sexual harassment consists of unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical acts of a sexual or sex-based nature where (1) submission to the advances is a term or condition of employment, or (2) submission to, or rejection of, the advances is used as the basis of making business decisions, or (3) such conduct interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment."

Such behavior includes making comments, displaying pictures or posters of material that is sexually suggestive or touching an employee in an inappropriate manner.

In addition to the initial orientation session, the county offers a "refresher" course every 12 to 18 months to all employees, but they are not required to attend.

Individual departments within the government may hold workshops more frequently, said Harden, who has been personnel director for seven years.

Harden said several factors are taken into consideration when determining the punishment for someone accused of sexual harassment.

They include the nature of the offense, the severity of it, whether it has affected the working environment and whether the person had been disciplined for such conduct before.

Chatlos, the EMS director, said one of the reasons Garrison had not been punished more harshly was that Garrison had been truthful when confronted with the claim.

"When my employees tell me the truth, I will do everything I can to help them," Chatlos said.

The county's sexual harassment investigations are sometimes handled by its Equal Opportunity Office.

The Equal Opportunity Office is in charge of making sure that the county complies with regulations relating to sexual harassment policies, ensuring that the county complies with federal standards of facilities for disabled employees and conducting investigations involving violations of such policies.

Harden said his office will sometimes hand over investigations to that agency.

Margarita Martin-Hidalgo can be reached at margarita.martinhidalgo@theledger.com or 863401-6967.