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Children’s Trust of Alachua County fires Executive Director, appoints the employee who made the complaint against him as Acting Executive Director

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At a March 4 Emergency Meeting of the board of the Children’s Trust of Alachua County (CTAC), the board fired Executive Director Colin Murphy after discussing an investigative report that found that “his behavior, comments and actions are inappropriate and unprofessional for a workplace setting.” Of the ten members of the board (not including Murphy), three joined by Zoom and were unable to vote, and former School Superintendent Carlee Simon, who has since been removed from the board, was absent, leaving six voting members.

“Risky” conversations

The report they considered stemmed from an employee complaint about an incident on February 18, 2022. The employee, Kristy Goldwire, Director of Programs, alleged that Murphy had told her he wanted to have a “risky” conversation with her after having had a “risky” conversation with another employee, Nicole Odum. Goldwire told the investigator, Katie Howard of James Moore & Co. (CTAC’s Human Resources consultant), that Murphy had told her she “could have done more than she did when it came to his evaluation and that she should have influenced her staff to rate him higher.” She also said Murphy had told her it was her responsibility to “fix” the relationship between him and her team. She said she told Murphy that recent surveys showed that her team did not feel respected by him and that the workplace felt “negative” because of his “yelling.”

Goldwire also said she and Murphy discussed the weekly reports that are completed by employees to indicate how they feel about their workload. As Goldwire understood the system, red indicated “overwhelmed/drowning,” yellow indicated “busy but manageable,” and green indicated “very light workload.” She usually selected yellow and said she felt that meant she was “managing,” but she said Murphy asked her to “maintain a green status” because he “felt her continuing to [select yellow] reflected badly on him to the [board].” Goldwire reported that she was “confused and angry” following the meeting.

Howard also interviewed Odum, who reported that she’d had a “meltdown” in Murphy’s office in January and that Murphy wanted to “follow up on how she was doing.” Odum said she “personally felt as though Colin was upset with her and that she was not meeting his expectations,” adding that “these uncomfortable and self-doubting feelings have subsided as she has gotten to know Mr. Murphy over the past year.” She said she had learned that “when Mr. Murphy is elevated about a situation, he is not ‘yelling at you’ he is ‘yelling at the event.'”

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Howard also interviewed Board Chair Maggie Labarta, who “acknowledged Mr. Murphy’s behavior and how it is perceived by individuals he interacts with. She has witnessed his abrupt reactions and raised voice,” but “she has never witnessed him doing anything blatantly inappropriate.” In the interview, Labarta noted that “she has seen a pattern of behaviors that need to be addressed and adjusted.”

Howard wrote that in her interview with Murphy, he told her he “felt like he had ‘taken a beating’ from the board since the evaluation, specifically by Ken Cornell.” He said he did not recall using the word “fix” with Goldwire and said he “does not yell, instead he may raise his voice.” He said he felt that CTAC was “split” between his team and Goldwire’s team, “and it is not cohesive.”

Howard’s conclusions

Howard’s observations went well outside the information reported from the interviews, concluding that “while Mr. Murphy may not have malicious intent when it comes to communication and managing the staff, he lacks self-awareness and an understanding that his behavior, comments and actions are inappropriate and unprofessional for a workplace setting. It is my opinion that he does not take criticism well which may lead him to make irrational decisions in stressful situations.” However, she did not give any examples of “irrational decisions.” She also wrote that he had a “knee jerk” reaction to being placed on administrative leave, referencing a letter that Murphy sent County Attorney Bob Swain, in which Murphy asked specific questions about the board’s authority and policies for placing him on administrative leave; in the letter, he referred to and quoted CTAC policies.

As one example, Murphy said the letter placing him on administrative leave said it was “On behalf of the CTAC Board,” but that he was not aware of any board meeting at which any such vote was taken. He also referenced a board policy stating that investigations of the Executive Director “shall” be outsourced to a third party, which did not happen. Murphy pointed out that CTAC’s policies do not mention “administrative leave” anywhere. Murphy said that under his contract, he had duties, and that he intended to show up to work the next day. Swain responded, “Attempts to proceed as you have outlined below will become part of the record for good or ill… I would suggest this is not a good tactic.”

“Not clearly in the policies”

Swain told the board during the Emergency Meeting that one reason that meeting was called was that “we did not feel comfortable having him on administrative leave for a long period of time on the authority of just the three of us,” apparently referring to himself, Labarta, and Howard, and confirming Murphy’s assertion that the board never voted to put him on administrative leave. Swain also acknowledged that the situation was not “clearly in the policies” but that there was “inherent risk in allowing the status quo to exist in the workplace.”

Swain said the board could opt to launch a formal outside investigation with Murphy remaining on administrative leave, but that the internal investigation under discussion followed the County’s Human Resources policies (although CTAC, as an independent special taxing district, is Murphy’s employer, not the County). Swain said other options would be to “advise people to do a better job and get along together” or to consider termination or “any other ideas the board might have.” Swain said a vote to terminate would require a majority of the serving members (not the members present), or five votes, since he was not counting Simon as a member.

Board discussion

Murphy then had a chance to speak, listing his accomplishments over his two years of employment. He said that if the board believed it was better for him to step aside, he “respectfully” asked the board to negotiate a separation agreement with his attorney.

Member Ken Cornell said he had no desire to terminate Murphy for cause but that the situation was “a distraction,” so he was ready to make a motion to negotiate a separation agreement once the board had concluded its discussion.

Member Tina Certain said the report was “disturbing” to her because she had “worked in a hostile environment, and I would not want to be part of perpetuating that in our organization.”

Member Lee Pinkoson said he didn’t think the interaction was handled appropriately, but he would prefer to try to repair the situation.

Member Nancy Hardt said she had “absolutely no interest” in terminating the contract. Her suggestion was to hire a coach for Murphy, “someone to say, ‘Well, maybe it would be better to try it this way or try it that way.'” She suggested that maybe Goldwire would also like a coach.

Member Cheryl Twombley said she saw this as “more of a personality-driven issue than a capability issue” and that Murphy had accomplished a lot, but if Goldwire didn’t feel it was “salvageable,” the board had a “responsibility to figure out how we move forward.”

Certain said she had spoken to a former employee who had been fired for performance issues and that the board may be “putting too much on employees.” She said it takes “a lot of courage for people to complain” and that she was concerned that in the future, if the board asked Murphy to fix something, he would “put the squeeze on an employee to fix something, when he’s the [Executive Director]… I don’t feel comfortable about going forward.”

Cornell, reading out loud the conclusions in the report (the opinion of the investigator) said he couldn’t “unread” it and that he could not “support another try.” He moved to authorize the chair to negotiate a mutually-acceptable separation agreement consistent with Murphy’s contract. The motion passed, 5-1, with only Hardt in dissent. The decision will come back to the board for ratification at their meeting on March 14.

Acting Executive Director

Labarta announced that Goldwire would be the Acting Executive Director, and Swain said they needed a motion on that, so Certain made the motion.

In a brief discussion on the motion, Hardt said, “I’m a little uncomfortable with that… it doesn’t make any sense that an employee can complain about their boss and then become the boss? I don’t get that.” Labarta responded that Goldwire held the second-highest-level position in the organization. The vote on that motion was also 5-1, with Hardt in dissent.

“I thank the Board for the opportunity”

In response to a request for comment, Murphy sent us the following statement: ““It has been an honor working on behalf of the children in our community these past two years. My skills were perfectly suited for building the Children’s Trust to be a high-performing organization for years to come. I thank the Board for the opportunity and wish them well as they search for a new leader.”

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