Two Walton County employees working in different fields filed complaints against County Commission Chair Cecilia Jones in October claiming discrimination and harassment.
Last week, Gary R. Wheeler, a partner in the Jacksonville law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith, & Prophete, which specializes in labor law and was hired by the county, released findings of an investigation he conducted.
Wheeler found Jones innocent of wrongdoing in both cases filed by Assistant County Administrator Dede Hinote and Recreation Manager Brad Alford.
"I am pleased with and gratified by these findings," said Jones.
Attorney Jennifer Sullivan of Destin represented both claimants.
Sullivan said the investigator's reports are not surprising.
"The report contains no facts to support the conclusions and no summaries of witness statements," she said.
Sullivan was not allowed to be present when her clients were interviewed and they were not recorded. Instead, her clients submitted written statements in lieu of interviews.
Sullivan said there were other employees who requested to participate in the investigation, but their names were not listed on the investigator's report.
"Similar to my clients, these employee-witnesses feared participating without some record of their statements, which the investigator would not allow," she said. "This was not the independent investigation as we requested."
Sullivan said her office continues to be contacted by Walton County employees about issues involving the same county officials and employees.
"We are considering all options," said Sullivan.
During the investigation of both, Wheeler interviewed County Administrator Larry Jones, Cecilia Jones, Human Resources Director Ella Mae Walters, Assistant County Administrator Stan Sunday, and Cecilia Jones' assistant, Evelyn Strickland.
Both Hinote and Alford have claimed that Commissioner Jones' husband has followed them in an attempt to intimidate, but Wheeler said those claims were outside the scope of his investigation. Walton County Attorney Sidney Noyes advised Sullivan to direct complaints outside the realm of Board of County Commissioners to other agencies.
Hinote's and Alford's allegations share the common assertion that Commissioner Jones has interfered with day-to-day operations, including injecting herself into employment decisions and directing county personnel to carry out various tasks at her discretion.
Wheeler found that no county policy expressly prohibits County Commissioners from becoming involved in day-to-day operations, but county policy does prohibit commissioners from taking certain personnel actions in regards to employment.
Wheeler found no violation by Jones of any policies. Nor was there any evidence of gender discrimination or harassment, which was alleged by Hinote.
"While there was no indication that Commissioner Jones violated the authority of commissioners' policy, facts were revealed that indicate Jones does sometimes become involved in certain day-to-day personnel matters," he said.
Wheeler's recommendation was for the county to take steps to clarify the role of a commissioner and to discuss best practices.
"The report encourages the county to develop policies to better help commissioners and staff communicate in a more consistent manner. I agree with this recommendation," said Commissioner Jones.
Essentially, the Authority of Commissioners policy prohibits County Commissioners from taking any tangible employment action (such as hiring, terminating, demoting, or promoting).
"Complaints of any nature are taken seriously by the county," said Larry Jones. "In this instance, once presented with the employee complaints, it was important to ensure that they were thoroughly and independently investigated. Now that the investigations are complete and the findings of no wrongdoing have been submitted, we look forward to learning from this process and moving forward, working together for a better Walton County."
Noyes told The Sun that Wheeler's bill is being paid by the county's insurer, FACT.