Probe found ‘insufficient evidence’ Aiken city managers discriminated against director

April 25, 2019 GMT

A state-level investigation into claims that Aiken City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh and former City Manager John Klimm discriminated against an African American woman during her employment with the city turned up “insufficient evidence” of wrongdoing, according to documents provided to the Aiken Standard.

The S.C. Human Affairs Commission last year investigated allegations of race-, gender- and religion-based discrimination brought by Michelle Shepherd Jones, the city’s previous public works director.

A December 2018 letter from Martin Samuels, a Human Affairs Commission investigator, to Jones states the discrimination probe was closed and found no solid proof the state’s human affairs laws were violated.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in early February sided with the Human Affairs Commission investigation, issuing a dismissal and a right-to-sue notice – the latter being standard practice given the ruling.

Jones, represented by attorney Joseph Dickey Jr., sued the city, Bedenbaugh and Klimm in late March. Jones claims the hostile environment, which she says got worse when Klimm left, culminated in her wrongful termination. She’s seeking actual damages, punitive damages and reimbursement, among other things.

Jones – a former state transportation department employee – was hired in October 2016 to oversee a newly consolidated Public Works Department. She was terminated April 3, 2018, one day after being asked to resign, per the lawsuit.

While she worked for the city, Jones’ top salary was $114,899.20. She also had city benefits and a yearly $7,200 vehicle allowance.

Jones, a Seventh-day Adventist, was among the highest paid city employees at the time, according to an October 2018 document signed by Fred A. Williams, who is representing the city.

“Many white male employees who worked at the city of Aiken far longer than Ms. Jones were paid considerably less than she was during her employment,” Williams wrote.

“The city of Aiken hired Ms. Jones … with full knowledge of her race, sex and religion,” he later wrote.

Jones reported to Klimm and then to Bedenbaugh – white men – upon Klimm’s abrupt leave.

Jones’ lawsuit lays out 10 formal causes for action. Issues alleged include the furtive monitoring of her emails, purposeful attempts to undermine her authority and retaliation after she made her concerns known.

The discrimination started Nov. 4, 2017 and was pervasive thereafter, according to Jones’ charge of discrimination, which was filed with the Human Affairs Commission. The Aiken Standard was provided that document. The attached affidavit – Jones’ – is strikingly similar to the foundation laid in the March lawsuit.

In two successive dispatches to the Human Affairs Commission, Williams defended the city’s actions, battled back claims of spying, and argued Jones was terminated not because of discrimination but because she was, basically, inept.

“Ms. Jones was terminated because she was unable to perform the duties of public services director to the city’s satisfaction,” Williams wrote, later listing a handful of perceived shortcomings.

“Ms. Jones was treated differently because her performance of her duties was different from previous public works directors,” he continued.

A handful of people informally complained to Aiken officials about morale under Jones’ banner, according to Williams. Among those who complained is Tim Coakley, per one dispatch.

Coakley was named the interim public services director after Jones’ departure and the ensuing split of the Public Works Department. Williams stated Coakley had a “great deal of experience” and that both race and gender played no part in the decision.

Nola Grant, Aiken’s former human resources director, accused Klimm of discrimination, as well. The EEOC and the Human Affairs Commission in that case found a lack of evidence that the state’s laws had been breached.

Grant is an African American woman. Jones acknowledged Grant’s accusations in her lawsuit.