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REPORT: No sufficient evidence for Granite Shoals staff complaint against councilor

An investigation into the actions of Granite Shoals City Councilor Phil Ort toward Assistant City Manager Peggy Smith found insufficient information to substantiate claims that Ort’s treatment of Smith has been motivated by ageism and sexism. Smith is 68 years old. 

Smith formally requested that Ort not contact her directly and to treat her professionally at City Council and other meetings, according to a Complaint Investigation Executive Summery supplied to DailyTrib.com after an open records request. 

The report was written for the city by Sarah C. Sarahan of DeDe Church & Associates LLC and was provided to the entire City Council in executive session at a regular meeting Tuesday, July 13. The study is dated July 8, 2021. No action was taken.

DeDe Church & Associates offers executive coaching, training workshops, and complaint investigations to public and private organizations. 

Witnesses interviewed were Smith, Ort, City Manager Jeff Looney, City Secretary Elaine Simpson, and Finance Director Russell Martin. 

In a summary of the facts, the document states that Smith accused Ort of treating her in “an intimidating, harassing, and bullying manner while he was on the Parks Committee and while he has been on the City Council.” She cited an email he sent on June 8 in which he accused her of lying and being insubordinate and told her he would be asking for her termination. 

Looney, Simpson, and Martin each said they saw no indication that Ort’s actions were motivated by ageism or sexism. They did say that “Ort has not treated Smith in a respectful, professional manner,” according to the document. 

Ort denied the allegations. 

“According to Ort, he treats Looney and Smith ‘equally with suspicion,’” the report reads.  

In Ort’s interview with DeDe Church & Associates, he said he was elected to “end corruption” and a “good ole boy system” in the city that includes Looney and Smith. He accused Smith of lying to him and refusing to provide him with requested information. He also accused her of trying to disconnect a water pipe that brings lake water to his house, where he has fruit trees and a garden. 

The tension between Ort, the council, and city management began before Ort was elected to the position in 2020. As part of the Citizens Group of Granite Shoals, Ort successfully filed a petition to hold a recall election for then-Mayor Carl Brugger and Place 2 Councilor Bruce Jones. The petition drive happened in response to the council voting for a $37,000 pay raise for Looney in August 2020.

Organizers had hoped to get the measure on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot but had to move it to May 2021 because of filing deadlines. In response, Brugger and Jones both resigned, ending the recall. Jones rejoined the council after the November election. He ran unopposed on the ballot. 

Ort was also on that ballot and defeated Will Skinner 327-299, although Skinner was not an actual candidate. Before the election, Skinner was appointed to replace Brugger as mayor when Brugger resigned, but that happened too late in the process to change ballots.

Conflict between Smith and Ort came to a head in June when Ort requested an executive session to review Smith’s refusal to give him a list of streets set to be paved. She said she wanted the discussion to be out in the open, which is her right. The back-and-forth resulted in a lesson for all involved in chain of command. All requests for information from city staff must go through the city manager, everyone was told. 

“We hope this has been laid to rest,” Looney told DailyTrib.com on Thursday, July 15. “We’re expecting unity and harmony between citizens and council and staff. There should be a sense of professionalism and respect for the work that is being done.” 

suzanne@thepicayune.com