Seaton
Seaton

The executive director of an agency formed to investigate allegations of discrimination in York City was placed on paid administrative leave Monday after a closed-door executive session called to discuss personnel issues.

Stephanie Seaton, a 12-year employee of the Human Relations Commission, will continue to receive a paycheck but will not report to work, effective immediately.

There are numerous reasons that an employee can be placed on administrative leave, said Thomas Ray, the city's deputy business administrator for human resources. Ray and city Solicitor Mark Elion attended the commission's executive session.

But reasons for the move were not specified at the public portion of Monday's meeting, a sometimes tense and emotional collision of competing viewpoints that ended with an unexplained visit from two police officers. No one, including the officers, seemed to know who'd called them.

After the meeting, Commissioner Ralph Serpe said the commission's decision to place Seaton on leave is related to its ongoing concerns about the accuracy of Seaton's monthly case reports and the length some cases stay on the docket.

"We have been asking for clarification of case work for some time," Serpe said.

Commissioner Victor Brown said there are "severe inconsistencies" in Seaton's monthly reports.

Speaking from the podium before the vote, Seaton defended her work, saying she's done the job with integrity despite significant cutbacks to funding and resources. During the past three years, Seaton said, her access to city resources - cellphone, parking pass, computer software - has been unreliable.

She said she's been served multiple times with layoff notices and even an eviction notice when the commission's office was moved from One MarketWay West to the county administrative building.

Seaton said the commission is being dismantled "piece by piece."

"Nobody's asking the right questions," she said.

Seaton also reiterated earlier statements that commissioners are unresponsive to her attempts at communication. Before Monday's meeting, Seaton said, she sent emails requesting feedback on the agenda and her plan to give a presentation about the complaint process.

"I got no response," she said.

Tension within the commission bubbed to the surface Nov. 8 at a special meeting called by the commission's personnel committee to consider an independent audit of work conducted by the two-person investigative staff. Serpe said commissioners have been asking questions about Seaton's reports for more than a year.

In recommending the audit, committee members cited their perception that cases seem to move slowly through the agency. Several commissioners said monthly reports reflect that some cases have remained open for years.

However, at the Nov. 8 meeting, a motion to seek such an audit failed by a 3-3 vote. Instead, commissioners passed a motion supporting members' self-directed education on the agency's internal workings.

Then, on Monday, the commission voted to hire an outside attorney to conduct an investigation of the accuracy of case reports and the status of all cases dating back three years. That vote - and the vote to place Seaton on leave - were unanimous.

One of the commission's seven remaining members did not attend Monday's meeting. Absent was acting Chairwoman Dolores Abreu. The commission's ordinance calls for 11 members, but several members have recently resigned.

Commissioners are appointed by Mayor Kim Bracey.

Asked what changed between Nov. 8 and Monday, Serpe pointed to the case status report submitted by Seaton to the commission this month. Parts of the report - including the number of new complaints and those awaiting determination - were left blank.

The commission received the report Monday and called an emergency executive session because of it, Serpe said.

Seaton explained during the meeting that she intentionally submitted an incomplete report because she and Johanna Ramirez, the commission's administrative intake support specialist, were working to address commissioners' concerns. Seaton said she did not want to submit anything inaccurate.

As they did on Nov. 8, Seaton and several members of the public defended her work.

Local attorney and NAACP President Sandra Thompson questioned the commission's commitment to transparency.

"It seems as though good faith is lacking," she said. "You had that issue addressed. You had an answer."

Thompson also reiterated comments she made Nov. 8 that the state's Human Relations Commission or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - not an attorney - are best qualified to judge another commission's work.

"You won't be getting opinions to protect the public from a corporate attorney," she said.

Asked why the commission opted for an attorney, Serpe said, "We felt it was important that we bring in an outside expert who does not have a previous connection" to the commission.

Serpe said the commission will convene a committee to recommend an attorney "as quickly as possible."

There was no public discussion of what an external review could cost.

Seaton will remain on administrative leave "during the investigation," Serpe said.

In the meantime, he said, Ramirez will continue to accept new complaints. When appropriate, complaints will be forwarded to the state HRC or federal offices, he said.

Serpe said the city will continue to handle allegations of discrimination related to sexual orientation - a category included in the city's ordinance but not covered by state or federal anti-discrimination statutes.

- Erin James may also be reached at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.