Acosta: "They made it a point to treat you badly"
by David Crowder
Posted on August 25, 2009
Editor's note: Today's story about city Rep. Emma Acosta is the second in a series based on exclusive interviews with Acosta covering aspects of her history and experiences as a city department head that she was prevented from discussing by a five year confidentiality agreement that expired in June.
Behind the confidentiality agreement
Ever since Emma Acosta retired in June 2004, people have wondered what it was that she was sworn by a confidentiality agreement with the city not to discuss, both about herself and top city officials covered by the agreement.
There was a new administration in charge at City Hall that was making changes, and she was, she said, under heavy pressure and criticism. She felt her position as director of the city’s Solid Waste Department and her 29-year career were in danger.
Now the representative for District 3, Acosta is free from the constraints of the five-year confidentiality agreement she signed upon her retirement.
While there were problems in her department, many of which stemmed from inaction by the previous mayor, Ray Caballero, and the new mayor Joe Wardy, the biggest problem, she said, was Wardy’s interest in cleaning house at City Hall.
Wardy stepped forward Monday to defend his actions and to generally refute Acosta’s account of what was happening to her, in her department and at City Hall in the spring of 2004.
Acosta’s complaints are recited in the Equal Employment Opportunity complaint alleging age discrimination that she filed against the city on May 11, 2004 after it became clear, she said, that Wardy and his chief administrative officer, James Martinez wanted her out.
“They were ugly people,” she said. “They were so disrespectful. They made it a point to treat you badly.”
She told of being harassed about the problems at the city’s landfills and by orders Martinez gave her not to take her complaints to members of City Council.
Her EEO complaint states that she was told by Deputy CAO Ed Drusina that she was “not allowed to participate in any public event, e.g. parades, speaking engagements, student tours or any other public or community outreach events.”
According to her complaint, she was also ordered not to “attend any meetings, board meetings or conferences related to the solid waste industry at the local, state or national levels.”
Drusina, she complained, was told by Wardy to occupy her office and oversee her department. And Martinez, she said, was deluging her with email and required that each letter be answered individually.
Martinez and Drusina initially agreed to be interviewed for this story but became unavailable after that and did not respond to repeated messages left with secretaries and on voice mail.
While Acosta was prohibited by the confidentiality agreement she signed from speaking critically about Wardy and members of his administration, Wardy and the people under him were also covered by the two-way agreement.
Coming forward this week, Wardy told a story that is very different from Acosta’s.
She had risen through the ranks at City Hall to become director of the city’s third-largest department, picking up a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in business administration along the way.
Her specialty was financial analysis but, Wardy said that didn’t prepare her to manage a major city department, one now headed by Ellen Smyth, who holds an engineering degree and who has specialized in solid waste management.
The former mayor denies Acosta’s assertions that she was harassed and forced out of her job.
“Ms. Acosta was held to the same standard as every other department head in the city,” said Wardy, who was mayor from 2003 until 2005. ”If they were stewards of public funds, they were expected to be 100 percent accountable for their budgets and the efficient operation of their departments.”
Drusina, the city’s public works director, was indeed told to move into Acosta’s department.
“The Solid Waste Department was not operating properly,” he said. “I asked him to move his office over there so he could look after the affairs of the department.”
Two weeks after Acosta filed her EEO complaint, she had an agreement with the city under which she agreed to retire with a pension of $90,000 a year and signed the confidentiality agreement.
“I really didn’t want to file an EEO claim,” she said. “You don’t want to be continuously filing complaints in your career. You want to say, ‘I’ll deal with this.’
“But I was going crazy. If I got to work at 7 in the morning, Jim Martinez would already have a slew of emails waiting for me. And I had to answer them all. He was playing mind games.
“His secretary would call me and say Jim Martinez wants to see you in 30 minutes, so I would drive from Yarbrough all the way out here, and then he’s not here. So then I’d leave, and I’d get another call when I got back to my office saying Jim Martinez wants to see you after all, so I would drive all the way back to City Hall. And this would happen three or four times a week.
“I would be going back and forth three and four times a day. I was traveling and not getting anything done, and he knew that. Then, he’d say why didn’t you get your things done? They would do stupid little things like that."
In general, she described her situation as terrible.
Acosta: 'Retire or be fired'; Wardy: 'It wasn't a one-way deal'
“In 2004, I was the lowest paid (solid waste) director in the state of Texas, and I had the most responsibility,” she said. “We were the fourth-largest city and most cities had a director for collections and a director for landfills. I was both.”
Smyth, the current director of Acosta’s old department, now called the Environmental Services Department, is making about $130,000 a year, Acosta said her salary was $85,350 in 2003.
Acosta said Smyth has a more expensive sounding department and a larger operation with the addition of environmental inspectors to her department’s duties and staff. In fact, she said, Smyth is probably overloaded at the management level and needs more help or a division of the department.
As the new mayor in 2003, Wardy had made it clear that he wanted a younger faces and a new crew.
“Remember, he got rid of 17 department heads and several attorneys,” Acosta said.
Wardy said he came into office intending to streamline City Hall and defended his administration as the city’s last chief executive officer under the strong mayor form of government.
“I don’t regret anything I have done as mayor … and the citizens are much better off,” he said. “My whole intent was to attack a bloated bureaucracy, and a lot of actions were taken in my two years that culminated in the city voting for a city manager, which is probably the best thing that has ever happened to the city of El Paso.”
Martinez, who was effectively the mayor’s right hand and city manager, became known as Darth Vader at City Hall.
“They started saying, ‘We understand you want to retire,’ ” Acosta said. “I said, no, why would I want to retire? And they’d say, ‘We understand you really are ready to retire.’
“It meant, ‘You are going to retire or get fired.’ They were the ones telling me I was eligible for retirement, and that I had two years of sick leave I could use.
“Well, I did want to retire, eventually, but not then. I was 50 and had a long time to go.”
Again, Acosta’s accounts of those events and Wardy’s are strikingly different.
Wardy flatly denies that Acosta was threatened with dismissal or that she was told, directly or indirectly, that she needed to retire.
“That’s totally untrue, a misrepresentation of the facts,” Wardy said. “She said she would be willing to retire. The lady offered to retire.”
And the confidentiality agreement?
Wardy described it as “a joint idea” in a heated situation that was seen as being in the “best interests of both parties.”
“It wasn’t a one-way deal,” he said. “It was an idea that came up. She didn’t want anyone talking trash about her.”
Asked directly why the confidentiality agreement was part of her retirement settlement, Acosta twice declined to answer the question directly and said simply that she was asked to sign it and keep quiet.
If there were dark secrets about the Wardy administration that the agreement was intended to keep quiet, Acosta didn’t mention them or hint of them.
Acosta, who was 50 at the time, said she gave in to the pressure to retire but was determined to win some of the pension income she stood to lose by being forced to retire five to 15 years yearly.
The solid waste director’s salary would go up every year. In six years with 3 percent annual raises, she said she would have been making almost $101,500 and in 10 years, she would be over $114,000.
“It’s kind of like (assistant city managers) Pat Adauto and Debbie Hamlyn,” she said. “When they retire, they’re probably going to get 100 percent of their salaries.
“At 40 years, you get 100 percent of your salary, so $90,000 is not something that’s that unusual.”
She insisted on a pension of $90,000 a year, and Wardy and Martinez agreed. But in order to get her there, they had to raise Acosta’s salary for her last weeks on the payroll to a level far above the salary ceiling for director of the Solid Waste Department.
Copies of city payroll records show that on May 27, 2004, the city took Acosta from an annual salary of $85,370 to $108,802 so that when her pension was calculated based on her salary and years of service, it worked out to exactly $90,000.
With that settlement, Acosta agreed to drop her EEO complaint and any other complaints that might lead to a lawsuit.
“We negotiated her retirement; she was not forced,” Wardy said. “The raise in salary was an amicable negotiation for her retirement.”
Coming, Pt. 3: Issues in the Solid Waste Department
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