TALES THE GROUNDSKEEPERS TELL: The serene Arkansas Capitol grounds belie some unhappiness among former employees.
A change in political administration is always an uncertain time for public employees. But who know the unease extended to the building and grounds crew?
I've mentioned previously and have more details now on some changeover in the days after the election in the people who work on Capitol building and grounds maintenance for Secretary of State Mark Martin
, who was re-elected Nov. 4 to another four-year term.
The next day, Nov. 5, KC Danishmandi
, a $56,259-a-year supervisor who did computer assisted drafting and other duties, was summarily fired, along with Rodney Hawkins
, the $45,853-a-year night building supervisor. Keith Simmons
, a master plumber who took a sick day Nov. 5, was summarily fired Nov. 6 when he returned to work. He made $49,640.
The reports from all were the same — building and grounds chief James Comer
told them their services were no longer needed. He offered no reasons. They were made to turn in badges, phones and radios and escorted from the building.
Two other members of the groundskeeping crew had been fired as well, both earlier in the fall. One was accused of taking equipment, though he says he had only followed a long- approved practice in borrowing a chain hoist. Also Dwight Anderson
, who'd been grounds supervisor but was demoted by Comer, took another job several weeks ago. He said the work environment had become too hostile.
Five firings and one employee who quit under pressure? That's a lot of change. I asked for explanations. Spokesman Laura Labay said, "Per policy, we do not comment on personnel issues. "
None of the records I've obtained under FOI indicated recent problems with the employees. Plumber Simmons had been placed on probation in 2012 when a Capitol security officer reported smelling alcohol on his breath and once was admonished that year for providing help to another Capitol employee without first giving notice to a supervisor. Simmons had worked at the Capitol for 14 years; Danishmandi for 13, and Hawkins for more than five. Hawkins, 61, said he'd talked to a lawyer, but figured he'd have a hard time finding work if he was identified as someone suing over age discrimination.
Most sounded mystified. Simmons' father appeared in a campaign ad for a Democrat, Sen. Mark Pryor,
that was critical of Republican Tom Cotton. Mark Martin is a Republican. But Simmons wasn't ready to say that had any influence in the job changes.
"We know we work for a constitutional officer," Simmons said. "We've never been outspoken for or against anybody. We just try to toe the line and keep our noses to grindstone as far as job concerned."
Danishmandi has a different view. He's not a registered voter and is apolitical, he said. His work dates back to Sharon Priest's tenure. He believes the Martin staff wanted to punish Simmons for his father's ad but fired him and Hawkins as well for cover. "Some people think you have to be a Republican to work at the Capitol," he said.
Danishmandi's duties included keeping records on assigned parking spaces. He confirmed for me what I"d long suspected— one of the first directives he got when the Martin crew took office was to take away a parking place assigned to the Arkansas Times.
We'd been critical of Martin and supported his opponent.
Hawkins, who supervised a night cleaning crew, said he'd invariably received top job evaluations and had never been disciplined. "I'm 61 years old. My prospects of finding new work is going to be pretty tough." Hawkins added that he'd been told when he went to work for the office to be careful what he said to anyone, no matter their station. "I took that advice to heart," he said. "I just tried to make sure everybody was happy."
In the course of several conversations, some differences of opinion were mentioned. Groundskeeper Hawkins said these included, for example, differences on proper mower height and a disagreement stemming from a $40,000 greenhouse the secretary of state's office built and the proper method of irrigating plants. Hawkins contends it costs the state more to grow its own plants and heat the greenhouse than buying plants commercially, but a younger person hired to replace Hawkins thinks otherwise.
Another shared opinion emerged in multiple conversations: Secretary of State Mark Martin
isn't a frequent visitor to his office. All viewed his top assistant, Doug Matayo,
as the functional secretary of state. In four years, I've been unable to get a spoken or written response to a question from Martin or a record of his office attendance.
"Mark Martin is one of the best bosses," Danishmandi said. "He's never there." Otherwise, it's a good old boy system, with friends and relatives treated better than holdover employees, several of the former employees said. One on the crew complained of constant surveillance on video cameras. One claimed Comer was able to monitor Capitol security camera feeds at his home and told workers they were being watched to gauge productivity. I've asked about this but so far don't have a response.