Investigator: Officials broke chain of command

Robin Fornoff

A private investigator has determined Curry County Commissioner Bobby Sandoval and former Finance Director Mark Lansford each broke chain of command in a dispute over a cost of living pay raise for County Manager Lance Pyle.

Investigator Doug Shawn of Universal Investigation Services in Albuquerque was hired after Lansford filed a grievance Jan. 5 against Sandoval.

Lansford said Sandoval accused him of being insubordinate and said Lansford’s behavior was unacceptable.

Lansford told Shawn that Sandoval used a “confrontational tone” and Lansford “inferred Commissioner Sandoval was attempting to give Mr. Lansford direction as to how to perform his job,” a direct violation of county personnel policy.

Sandoval disputes the allegations and findings.

“I told him (Lansford) that I am saddened to hear that you would go behind … (Pyle’s) back to do something that would adversely affect your boss,” Sandoval said Wednesday. “I don’t know how he would construe that to say I’m ordering you to do something, that I’m mad at you or anything else.”

Details of Shawn’s findings are in a confidential report released by Sandoval. Commissioners considered it in executive session Tuesday but took no action.

At issue is a 2 percent cost of living pay raise commissioners granted all employees, including Pyle.

The raise was approved on Dec. 20. Three weeks later, tempers flared among commissioners over a move by Commissioner Caleb Chandler and Dan Stoddard to rescind Pyle’s raise. The measure failed when a frustrated Chairman Wendell Bostwick voted with Sandoval and Commissioner Frank Blackburn.

According to the report, Lansford contacted County Attorney Stephen Doerr on Jan. 3 and asked if the raise violated the language of Pyle’s contract.

The next day, Sandoval called Lansford and confronted him about contacting Doerr without first notifying Pyle.

Sandoval also asked Lansford if he had been in contact with two other unnamed commissioners about the legality of the raise.

Lansford resigned Feb. 6 but said Wednesday the grievance was not the reason for leaving the county.

Lansford said an opportunity elsewhere surfaced about two to three weeks before he resigned and he got two more offers soon after media reports of his resignation.

Lansford also said he disagreed with Shawn’s conclusions about breaking the chain of command. He said Pyle had given him authority to contact the county attorney on any matter that fell within the scope of his duties as financial director.

Lansford said he filed a grievance and expected only that it would be placed in his file.

“I never expected the county taxpayers would have to pay for another investigation,” Lansford said.

“I was very disappointed and saddened by Mr. Sandoval’s actions,” Lansford said. “I’ve been acquainted with Mr. Sandoval since I was a young man and never have there been any words exchanged or any problem. And so, I was quite frankly shocked by his behavior.”

The investigation cost $1,998.67, according to a bill submitted to the county by Doerr. It is the second in recent months involving disputes between commissioners and county employees.

A secretary in Pyle’s office filed a grievance in September, charging that Stoddard had created a hostile work environment by shouting at Pyle in administrative offices. Stoddard denied shouting at Pyle. That investigation cost an estimated $5,000 and resulted in no action.

The two grievances and costs associated with them have all the commissioners saying it may be time to reconsider the portion of the personnel policy cited in the latest report — section 1, paragraph H. It states only Pyle can oversee and manage employees and commissioners “should refrain from contacting or discussing with County employees issues pertaining to employee’s work, work performance, working conditions or other personnel matters.”

“I personally think that … as a commissioner,” said Bostwick, “if I want to go in and ask about something, I should have a right to do that. I’m not sure our personnel policy even allows me to go into our IT department and say fix my iPad please.”

Stoddard said the provision is new to the personnel policy. It was adopted in December 2010 as an ordinance.

“It’s turned out to be a really costly issue for the county,” said Stoddard. “We’ve spent thousands of dollars on a policy that shouldn’t be.”

Said Sandoval, “I think it’s another $2,000 of wasted money. I think if he (Lansford) had a problem, he could have talked to me. We could have sat and discussed it.”