When human resources specialist and University of Montana Business Professor Lynda Brown was asked to investigate a personnel grievance at the Missoula Housing Authority (MHA) she thought the job would be simple and straightforward.
“There was a lot of information,” says Brown with a sigh. “I naively thought I could spend 15 minutes interviewing each employee, but 15 minutes turned into an hour and then an hour turned into two hours.”
After dozens of conversations with MHA and city representatives, hundreds of pages of detailed notes, four weeks and $7,200, Brown finally assembled her report. That document, made public last week, exonerates MHA Executive Director Peter Hance of a variety of unsettling allegations leveled against him. Former MHA client services manager Shannon Parker alleged, among other things, that Hance engaged in deceptive practices, created a hostile and intimidating workplace for his employees, and made offensive remarks about the agency’s homeless and indigent clients. Brown’s eight-page report found no substance to Parker’s claims. In her summary conclusion, Brown wrote: “There are obvious areas where Mr. Hance can improve in his role as a manager and leader, and areas where the [Missoula Housing] Authority can improve specific human resource activities, but I did not find any of the alleged behaviors to be egregious or meriting discipline.”
The areas of improvement outlined were more benign than the initial allegations insinuated. For example, the report recommends that office communications be improved, and sensitivity training is needed for the entire staff.
Hance says he is satisfied with the report’s conclusions. “If you look at the list of people interviewed, it is quite comprehensive,” says Hance. “It’s like the eight men and the elephant parable: One feels the trunk, one feels the tail, one feels the side and so on. We all have a portion of the picture, but the only one who has gotten to put all the documentation together, put all the interviews together, has been Lynda.”
Although Parker’s lawyers have questioned the objectivity of the report, both Hance and Brown agree that neutrality was never an issue.
“There’s not a conflict of interest because the board is the one charged with the investigation,” explains Hance. “It would be a conflict if I had been the one who had raised Lynda’s name, but I didn’t. The board did.”
Brown says her 25 years of experience in the field of human resources and the fact that she didn’t know either of the parties involved speaks to her ability to remain impartial.
None of the current MHA employees interviewed by Brown have expressed skepticism about the report’s findings. Former director of development and communications Sharon O’Hare had filed a grievance against Hance but has since settled with the MHA.
Because O’Hare’s grievance was a personnel matter, her allegations are not part of the public record and her reason for leaving the MHA has been cited as “personal.”
Still, the report hasn’t been an elixir for all of the MHA’s tribulations.
“The report is specifically on the one individual grievance, so it doesn’t cover the broader issues,” says Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas. Among the “broader issues” the mayor refers to are the fact that Hance was disbarred as an attorney in 1992 in New Hampshire and subsequently filed for bankruptcy. When the MHA board interviewed Hance for the position, he never disclosed his disbarment, though in his defense, Hance says that he never presented himself as an attorney.
“Those are areas of concern for me,” Kadas says. “I don’t think that they disqualify him from the position of executive director, but I think that everyone carries their past with them and that’s just part of the bigger equation.”
Kadas has also expressed concern about ongoing issues of trust between the city and MHA.
“There has been some damage done to the relationship and we all need to work together to get it built back up,” he says. “And I will presume that Peter is capable of doing that and I think that we will all move forward in trying to work together.”
While the MHA board doesn’t share the mayor’s reservations about Hance’s past, they do want to improve the frayed relations between the city and the MHA.
“I have no doubt that Peter can do his job,” says MHA Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Orr. “I am hoping that the community and the city will give him the freedom to bring some of the important and exciting ideas that he’s got here to Missoula.”
Orr takes a very difference stance on the issues of his disbarment and bankruptcies.
“Obviously, we we’re concerned about the disbarment,” he says.
“However, we do not believe the disbarment is the result of any criminal or moral fault but had to do with some issues in his personal life.”
Also on the MHA’s horizon is Parker’s Sept. 24 grievance hearing related to her firing by Hance.
The board extended an offer to rehire Parker in the position of client services specialist (a position she held before Hance joined the MHA in late April) under the condition that no prior issues could be grieved. Parker rejected that offer.
The hearing will take place before a three-person panel chosen by both Parker and the MHA board. After hearing testimony from both sides, the panel will make its recommendation about Parker’s future with the MHA.
“An employer is required to satisfy an employee’s grievance procedure before they can file any type of wrongful discharge claim in district court,” says Bob Terrazas, a lawyer for the firm handling Parker’s case.
But Terrazas says the probability is high that there will be litigation because Parker and her lawyers believe that she fired without good cause.
Until then, Parker’s future remains uncertain while Hance’s position appears secure. He says he’s left his disbarment and bankruptcy back in New England and has set himself to his task of running a highly rated housing authority.