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June 13, 2013

Ousted Union Leader Defends Himself as Charges Fly

UPDATED below with more comment from VSEA board members.


The ousted executive director of Vermont's state workers union said Thursday afternoon he was blindsided by an unjust firing and plans to fight his dismissal.

As Seven Days reported earlier in the day, Vermont State Employees Association executive director Mark Mitchell was terminated late Wednesday after a vote by the 5200-member union's board of trustees. Mitchell says he was informed of the decision at the end of a day-long board meeting held in executive session and was neither informed of the grounds for his dismissal nor given a chance to defend himself.

"There was no discussion, no warning, no due process, no cause," Mitchell said. "I was never allowed into the meeting to discuss what any of the concerns might be."

Precisely why Mitchell was fired remains unclear, though an email written Thursday by the union's general counsel and provided by a third party to Seven Days alleges that Mitchell "knowingly allowed the organization to violate numerous laws, exposing VSEA to liability."

The email, drafted by general counsel Michael Casey and addressed to the union's board of trustees, was written in response to Seven Days' Thursday morning story about the matter. In the email, Casey castigates board president John Reese for speaking with the paper and requests permission from the board to publicly refute Reese's statements.

Reese, a close ally of Mitchell's, had characterized the executive director's firing as "crazy" and "entirely unfair," and said Mitchell would be "vindicated."

In his email to the board, Casey says he was "extremely disappointed and concerned" that Reese had violated a board agreement to refrain from commenting publicly and "mischaracterizing" the matter. Here's an excerpt from Casey's email:

Based on John [Reese]’s behavior, I firmly believe we need to develop a response strategy that addresses Reese’s misstatements and detrimental behavior. Normally I would coordinate this response with the President, but since he is acting completely contrary to the Board’s agreement, I am asking for permission to communicate with the press immediately.  

The accurate response to the press will be that Mark Mitchell was dismissed because the Board of Trustees, after extensive review of information and discussion, concluded that he knowingly allowed the organization to violate numerous laws, exposing VSEA to liability.   

After examining the information, the Board of Trustees acted immediately and decisively to remove him from his position. VSEA holds its employees to the highest standards and will not tolerate what appear to be clear and willful violations of the law that were withheld from the Board of Trustees. VSEA is working to immediately remedy those transgressions.

Mitchell denies the allegations, saying he "didn't do anything wrong."

As Casey sought to speak out on the matter, Mitchell and his allies characterized Casey and associate counsel Abigail Winters as having spearheaded the ouster. Neither returned calls seeking comment.

According to Mitchell and several others who declined to speak on the record, Casey and Winters called for the executive session at the start of Wednesday's meeting and subsequently outlined a series of charges against the ED. At the end of the meeting, Mitchell was called in and asked by a board member to resign. When he refused to do so, he was terminated.

"There are some questions as to whether proper procedure was followed — whether this was the appropriate action to take given the circumstances," Reese said. "The board one minute learned some allegations and the next minute voted to get rid of the guy. There was no investigation outside of the allegations."

VSEA board treasurer Sheila Manchester Coniff, who says she voted against firing Mitchell, defended the former executive director Thursday, calling his dismissal "a blow to our union."

(Seven Days inaccurately reported the vote as 9-6 earlier. In fact, it was 10-6.)

"This was designed to cut the union off at the head," Coniff said. "Mark Mitchell was hired by the union to take us in a new direction. He has done that ably. He has brought us to a new place and helped us start becoming a different union. It's tragic."

Mitchell's allies say his ouster was orchestrated by union staff members who disagreed with his vision to strengthen the union and empower its members. Calling Mitchell a "charismatic, dynamic leader," Vermont AFL-CIO president Ben Johnson credited him with "the most successful legislative session in recent history."

"It sounds like basically a palace coup by some disaffected staff attorneys that shanghaied a board meeting and rammed through a lot of really wild accusations," Johnson said.

But others familiar with VSEA internal politics say Mitchell's aggressive style has alienated people inside and outside the union — including Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration and other state political leaders. Shumlin declined to comment Thursday.

"It's a small state. Cooperation is what gets things done," said retired VSEA boad president Bob Hooper. "When the first thing you do is offend the governor and go downhill from there, things aren't going to be happening the way you'd like."

As Seven Days reported last October, six of the union's 19 staff members departed during a five-week period last fall. Four of those employees told Seven Days at the time that their departures were prompted at least in part by disagreements with Mitchell, who they said was causing irreparable harm to the organization.

Wednesday's firing may not be the end of the story. Mitchell's supporters say they're planning to revisit his dismissal at an emergency board meeting called for next Monday, during which they hope to reinstate him.

"I don't believe this is the last debate around whether I stay or go," Mitchell said. 

Asked whether he would take legal action if he is unable to change the board's mind, Mitchell said he hoped not to, but did not rule it out.

"I certainly don't want to do that. I've put my heart and soul into the VSEA and the last thing I want to do is take members' resources," he said. "But the board of [trustees] has left me in a difficult situation, and I just hope this will be resolved other than by lawsuit. I love the union. I don't want to harm the union."

UPDATED Friday, June 14 at 1:33 p.m.

Several more VSEA board members weighed in on the matter Friday, two days after Mitchell's firing, in statements provided to Seven Days.

In one camp, board members Tracey Harrington, Tom Hango and Bob Stone — all of whom voted to terminate Mitchell’s employment — defended staff attorneys Michael Casey and Abigail Winters for showing “incredible courage” in bringing their allegations to the board. 

They said that after spending a day “reviewing the evidence,” a majority of the board found “there was no way that Mr. Mitchell could continue leading this organization, particularly as we’re a labor union.”

“When a union discovers what it considers to be ‘clear and willful violations of the law’ by the person entrusted to lead it, you don’t wait to remove them — you act immediately,” they wrote. “And that’s what the Board did.”

In the opposite camp, board member Rachael Fields wrote that she voted against Mitchell’s termination because she found him to be “a competent leader.” Fields echoed board president John Reese’s contention that Mitchell would be “vindicated in the end.”

Fields also wrote that Casey’s leaked email “was in direct violation of our association’s bylaws.”

Here’s the full statement from Harrington, Hango and Stone:

The VSEA attorneys had a legal and ethical obligation per statute to come forward and make the Board of Trustees aware of what they considered clear and "willful violations of the law" by Mr. Mitchell. They showed incredible courage by doing so. The Board spent an entire day in executive session reviewing the evidence. By the time we were finished, the vast majority of us concluded that there was no way that Mr. Mitchell could continue leading this organization, particularly as we’re a labor union. We owed it to our membership, and to our staff, to terminate Mr. Mitchell’s employment immediately. President Reese is saying that the timing is bad. That doesn’t pass the straight face test. When a union discovers what it considers to be clear and "willful violations of the law" by the person entrusted to lead it, you don’t wait to remove them – you act immediately. And that’s what the Board did.

It’s unfortunate that certain members of our Board have chosen to go to the press and continue this destructive pattern rather than lead through integrity. We need to correct the wrongs that have been perpetrated against our members and staff. Dragging our organization, our members, and our staff through this ordeal in a very public way is not the answer and it's incredibly shameful.  

And here’s the statement from Fields:

My name is Rachael Fields. I am a Board of Trustee Member for the Vermont State Employee's Association. I wish to address some of the items in your articles concerning the termination of Mark Mitchell. Firstly, I want to say that I adamantly voted against Mr. Mitchell's termination and that I fully believe that Mr. Mitchell has been a competent director for our organization.

The email request from Mike Casey to the Board of Trustees was in direct violation of our association’s bylaws and after I reminded Mr.Casey and all of the trustees of that violation, someone distributed the untrue statement to you. VSEA represents Vermont State employees, we work hard everyday to provide services to Vermonters and we will work equally as hard to resolve this internal matter. I too feel that Mr. Mitchell will be vindicated in the end. With Mr.Mitchell serving as our Director, we have grown both in strength and in numbers and we will continue to grow. The majority of staff at VSEA work everyday to fight for our rights and to better our working conditions. They are invaluable and we will work swiftly and surely to ensure this matter gets resolved so that we can continue in our mission.

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