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February 12, 2013

Before South Burlington, Sandy Miller Was Fired from Geneva, N.Y. — and Ordered Into Sensitivity Training


A small city by the lake was facing a budget crisis, so it hired Sandy Miller as manager to clean up the mess. Miller came with a deep understanding of fiscal issues, but over time city employees complained about his behavior, describing him as "arrogant," "rude," "vicious" and "intimidating."

In Miller's performance evaluation, City Councilor Greco gave the manager a "very poor rating" for the way he deals with people but was willing to overlook the lack of people skills because "he is doing a good job as city manager."

We're talking about South Burlington, right? Where Miller was recently fired as city manager for his "aggressive" behavior?

Nope. It was Geneva, N.Y., in 1999, where Miller was also terminated as city manager. The councilor wasn't Rosanne Greco of South Burlington. It was John Greco, one of dozens of Geneva officials interviewed for an exhaustive fact-finding report that investigated complaints lodged against Miller by the head of the city's Human Rights Commission.

Seven Days obtained a copy of the 89-page report authored by Gerald L. Paley, who was hired as special counsel to examine the complaints against Miller. Though Paley concluded that Miller's behavior toward associates was not sexist or racist, as alleged, his report raised serious questions about Miller's behavior toward coworkers and ordered him to undergo formal sensitivity training "with the goal of improving his interpersonal skills."

Paley also concluded that Miller retalitated against the head of the Human Rights Commission, a black woman with whom he had a long-running feud, by rejecting her for a city job on questionable grounds.

The South Burlington City Council voted unanimously to terminate Miller's contract last week, citing citizen complaints about his "aggressive and confrontational style." Because he was fired without cause, Miller will receive a severance pay equivalent to one year's salary: $117,500, plus benefits.

SandyMiller3He received a similar severance after Geneva's city council terminated him in 2000, according to Geneva comptroller Ed George. In 2000, Geneva voters elected a new mayor and city council, George said in a phone interview, and their first official act was to fire Miller. "He was very hard to get along with," George recalled.

Geneva launched the Paley investigation after Human Rights Commission executive director Karen Baer accused Miller and other city officials of engaging in sexist, racist and retaliatory behavior in dealing with her.

Baer complained that Miller made offensive comments that reduced her to tears during a meeting, and sought to undermine her work advocating for Geneva's small minority community. The fact finder determined there was insufficient evidence that Miller's actions were motivated by gender or race.

But he found plenty of evidence that Miller offended city workers with his brusque demeanor. Don Cass, a former city police officer and city councilor, said Miller could be "vicious and somewhat intimidating." David Carlson, a consultant for the city, said Miller was tough to deal with, blunt and to the point. Geneva City Clerk Margaret Cass said Miller demeans people and is insensitive.

A Hispanic city employee, who was once Miller's assistant, told Paley that when she mentioned to Miller she had joined an organization, Miller remarked, "They even let wetbacks in now?"

Reached by phone Tuesday, Miller admitted to the wetback comment. "I did use that word on one occasion, yes," he said. "It was, in fact, a mistake and I apologized to her for that."

But Miller dismissed the other complaints as mostly coming from "disgruntled former employees or people who had been passed over for promotion."

"I've never claimed to be anything but assertive and direct and some people take that differently than others," he said, "especially if they don't get what they want. Or especially if they're poor performers."

One remark in the report came from a former boss. The city manager in Ogdensburg, N.Y., where Miller worked in city government prior to Geneva, told Paley that he counseled Miller because "on occasion Miller could come across in a very authoritarian way."

"One thing that happens when you're a CEO: You have a lot of tough decisions to make and people are going to be unhappy with some of them along the way," Miller explained Tuesday. "And they're not necessarily going to take those decisions on face value. They're going to somehow see them as directed at them personally and there are judgment decisions to be made every day."

In her complaint, Baer attributed numerous offensive remarks to Miller — none of which was substantiated in the fact finder's report. In just one instance, a former chair of the Geneva Human Rights Commission told Baer that during a birthday celebration at city hall, Miller got a piece of cake and offered it to her. After refusing the cake twice, the report states, the woman said Miller shoved the cake toward her and said, "Eat the damn cake!"

Miller claimed that Baer demanded additional city funding for the Human Rights Commission and said "basically, if I didn't give them additional funding, she would take some undisclosed action. Then out of the blue came this wild accusation."

The Geneva investigator did conclude that Miller had retaliated against Baer by not hiring her for a city job as fair housing officer. Miller said he rejected Baer because she wasn't a good "team player," but the fact finder determined that was not a valid reason, given the nature of the job.

Reached by phone, Baer declined to comment about the events of 13 years ago. "I'm not interested in revisiting that whole issue," she said. "When he left, we moved on and did some great things here at the Human Rights Commission. It wasn't so easygoing when Mr. Miller was here."

Miller said the Geneva report and his recent firing in South Burlington don't reflect all that he has accomplished over his 30-year career, which included a stint as president of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. In Geneva, he said he lured a $120 million company, Guardian Industries, to town, built a waterfront hotel on Seneca Lake and "completely revitalized downtown."

In South Burlington, Miller said he inherited a "fiscal nightmare" — a $6 million deficit and an $8 million pension problem — and renegotiated city employee benefits to save the city more than $1 million. He also said there were no grievances during his two-year tenure. "Does that sound like the type of management that you're talking about?" he asked.

Surprisingly, South Burlington officials said they were not aware of Miller's rocky past in New York before hiring him, though Miller said he had informed the former city council chair of it. Sandy Dooley, the only current city councilor who was on the body when it hired Miller, said, "As far as I know, no one knew about the Geneva situation. We did a lot of reference checking."

Dooley said she and another councilor met with a town employee in Milton, where Miller was employed prior to South Burlington. The Milton Selectboard voted to terminate Miller's contract in 2009. "I would say we knew about the Milton situation and we knew as a result of that there was some risk," Dooley said. "But our process led us to conclude that the positives considerably outweighed the negatives."

Screenshots of Sandy Miller courtesy of Channel 17

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