Parks adopts zero-tolerance policies

Any Ashland Parks and Recreation Department worker who steals public property, borrows public property or engages in other illegal activity on the job will be fired, and any employee who knows of such actions but doesn't report it to parks managers will be fired, according to new zero-tolerance policies adopted by the Parks Commission Tuesday.

The commission unanimously adopted the policies during a special meeting called after three workers were accused of thefts in the past three months. One was fired, one resigned and one is on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a disciplinary process. A fourth worker who police said witnessed at least one theft remains on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.

The commission told Parks Director Don Robertson to notify all employees of the zero-tolerance policies within a month. After all employees are notified, the policies will go into effect.

The employee handbook previously said that an employee "may" be terminated for the transgressions, but the new policies state that an employee "will" be terminated.

"I believe that events bring us to this point," Commissioner Rick Landt said. "It was 'may' in the handbook and that didn't have an effect. 'Will' states very forcefully the Parks Commission's determination to end the practice that has been occurring with employees."

Stealing parks funds, equipment and supplies is, of course, illegal, but the Ashland Municipal Code also bars all city of Ashland employees from using public property for their own personal use if the property is not available to the public. That means that borrowing equipment and supplies is illegal as well.

On Tuesday, commissioners also unanimously adopted a statement to the public that they had taken action to adopt policies to help the parks director restore public trust in the department.

The statement also said, "We acknowledge and value the outstanding work of the many trustworthy, hard-working Parks and Recreation Department employees whose honesty and reputations have been questioned as a result of the recent allegations and arrests."

Parks receptionist Becky Bianco was arrested Jan. 4 for allegedly funneling $43,390 in parks funds into her financial accounts over a two-year period. She is on paid leave pending the outcome of a disciplinary process.

Bianco has said she did not steal the funds but is instead the victim of identity theft.

Parks technician Harold Ross Straub was fired in December for allegedly stealing at least $2,000 in parks equipment and supplies and city of Ashland gas during the previous six months.

Straub has said he was only borrowing parks equipment and took gas as compensation for personal use of his pickup at work.

Parks technician Steve Lawrence resigned in December after police found about $200 worth of parks equipment at his home. He has not returned phone calls for comment.

Straub's work partner, Shane Peabody, is on paid leave while an investigation continues. A police detective who staked out the Parks Department's Oak Knoll Public Golf Course said Peabody was present and saw Straub pour gas from city containers into Straub's personal truck, according to a search warrant affidavit.

On Dec. 27, a dozen parks workers sent a petition to the Parks Commission and department managers stating their support for Peabody and asking that he be reinstated.

The workers said Peabody had been in a "difficult position," and they said they applauded any efforts to improve communication between employees and managers when it comes to reporting problems.

Some former and current parks workers previously told the Daily Tidings and police they feared reprisals from accused workers if they reported their suspicions.

Robertson said on Tuesday that he will try to preserve the confidentiality of parks workers who report their suspicions, but that if a case leads to a criminal investigation, their names will become part of public police records.

The Parks Commission unanimously directed Robertson to prepare draft revisions to the employee handbook, including a section on whistleblower protections, for consideration and possible adoption by the commission at a March 28 meeting. "I want to change the culture so that people can come in and talk to me and not feel intimidated about speaking out," Robertson said.

Meanwhile, the department is recruiting for two parks maintenance workers to replace Straub and Lawrence.

The pay is $11.23 to $15.29 per hour and includes benefits such as family health insurance. Workers pay 5 percent toward the cost of the health insurance. They also can participate in the Public Employees Retirement System and get paid vacation, sick and holiday time.

A criminal background check will be conducted on anyone selected for a parks maintenance worker slot. Applications are due by 4 p.m. on Jan. 28. For more information, visit www.ashland.or.us, call the parks office at 541-488-5340 or visit the office at 340 S. Pioneer St. in upper Lithia Park.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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