Stewart et al. v Commissioners: Complaint, Request for Expedited Hearing, and Motion to Intervene

The details about what took place in the closed session of the Board of Charles County Commissioners on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, have not yet been publicly revealed, with one exception: District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) and District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) requested, and received, approval to seek a judge’s legal opinion on whether Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D), District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D), and District 4 Commissioner Ralph E. Patterson (D) have the authority to vote on terminating the employment contract of County Administrator Mark Belton.

We know this because Bowling and Stewart mention it in their complaint filed in in Charles County Circuit Court on Dec. 30 seeking a court order to stop the other commissioners from proceeding with such a vote:

“On December 13, 2022, the Charles County Board of County Commissioners voted to authorize Plaintiffs to seek, among other things, a declaratory judgment against Defendants to determine a Charles County Commissioner’s authority to vote on certain employment actions concerning Mr. Belton.” (Complaint ❡10)

“Although the Board ended its meeting without taking a vote on Mr. Belton’s contract, the Board agreed that Commissioners Bowling and Stewart would be permitted to seek counsel to file this lawsuit to determine the propriety of Commissioners Coates’s, Collins’s, and Patterson’s anticipated actions and that Mr. Belton would be placed on leave until January 10 2023, pending the outcome of this action.” (Complaint ❡46)

Note that in the first instance, the authorization is described as a “vote,” while in the second it is said that the board “agreed” to the action. TLR sought clarification from a source familiar with the matter and learned that the authorization took the form of unanimous verbal assent. (At present, it is not known what “other things” Bowling and Stewart were also authorized to seek, as mentioned in Complaint ❡10.)

In their complaint, Bowling and Stewart provide more details on the allegations made during the Dec. 13 open session regarding the actions of the unnamed county commissioner that had been barred from taking part in any employment-related actions related to Belton. These details will be examined in roughly chronological order.

2019-2020: HR Complaints and Outside Investigation

The complaint lays out the circumstances leading to an independent investigation by outside counsel in 2020:

“In June 2019, Mr. Belton filed a complaint of racial discrimination with the Charles County Human Resources Department concerning a long-running pattern of mistreatment by one of the Commissioners, including multiple vitriolic oral and written assaults. The Commissioner made no secret of their disdain for, and mistrust of, Mr. Belton because of his race. After the Commissioner learned of Mr. Belton’s complaint, the Commissioner filed a complaint of their own against Mr. Belton.

“As a result of the complaints, the Board, on the advice of the County Attorney, hired Bernadette Sargeant, Esquire, a prominent attorney at the Washington, D.C. law firm Stinson, LLP, to perform an independent investigation.

“Ms. Sargeant interviewed seven individuals, including Mr. Belton and each of the then-sitting Commissioners; reviewed more than 137 documents; and listened to and reviewed a voicemail message and videotape of relevant portions of an open session meeting of the Board in which Mr. Belton and the Commissioner participated.” (Complaint ❡❡25-27)

The final 27-page report — which was submitted along with the complaint as an exhibit but placed under seal because neither the report nor the identity of the commissioner have yet been made public — included the following findings:

“a. Mark Belton’s allegation that he has been subjected to an abuse hostile work environment created by Commissioner [NAME REDACTED] has been substantiated. Belton’s allegation that he has suffered from the effect of [NAME REDACTED]’s having made disparaging and false comments about him to county government employees and county residents and state officials has also been substantiated. As detailed in this report, the information obtained through this investigation that supports these conclusions is overwhelming.

“b. Commissioner [NAME REDACTED]’s allegations that Mark Belton racially discriminates against [them] and against Commissioner Steward [sic] . . .; shows favoritism to the white male Commissioners Rucci and Bowling; and discriminates against African American County employees and residents have not been substantiated. Every other commissioner on the Board of County Commissioners, including Commissioner Stewart, praised Belton’s performance as County Administrator and his working relationship with each of them. Each indicated that they had not seen any evidence of racism in Belton’s approach to county residents or employees. In addition, the information reviewed through this investigation establishes that there were non-racially motivated reasons for actions taken or recommended by Belton. This investigation revealed many examples of direct racial bias and lack of credibility on the part of Commissioner [NAME REDACTED].

“c. There are factors present that increase the county’s potential liability exposure given that [NAME REDACTED]’s infractions were so flagrant and recognized by the Board.

“d. It is reasonable to conclude as a result of this investigation that Commissioner [NAME REDACTED]’s actions have exposed the county to a serious risk of liability and may have exposed [them] individually, and possibly others to civil liability as well.” (Complaint ❡28)

June 9, 2020: Board of County Commissioners Actions

Based on the findings of Sargeant’s investigation the Board of County Commissioners met in closed session on June 9, 2020, and voted 4-1 to take what was termed “Prompt and Remedial Action” against the unnamed commissioner, specifically requiring that the commissioner would be:

“a. “[E]xcluded from having any input in any decision making, performance evaluations contract negotiation or any other employment decisions concerning [Mr. Belton];

“b. Required to ‘communicate policy initiatives and staff requests [to Mr. Belton] through the Commission[] President or Vice President’ and not to Mr. Belton directly; and,

“c. Required to ‘refrain from directing, contacting, emailing or calling [Mr. Belton] directly.'” (Complaint ❡31)

In at least one news report following the Dec. 13 board meetings, it was alleged that the three other commissioners believed the prohibitions expired at the end of the previous Board’s term. However, in their complaint, Bowling and Stewart claim that the action “did not include any temporal limitation or sunset provision” on the restrictions, and that the action’s “plain and unambiguous terms (as well as common sense) dictate that the Prompt and Remedial Action will remain in place for as long as the censured Commissioner who discriminated against and abused Mr. Belton remains on the Board.” (Complaint ❡32)

The question of whether the terms of the Prompt and Remedial Action expired with the end of the previous board’s term is likely to be a key argument for Collins, Coates, and Patterson should the case proceed in court.

In that same June 2020 closed session, the commissioners voted — again, 4-1 — to approve revising the Commissioner’s Rules of Procedures to require the commissioners to abide by the same anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies already in place in the county’s human resources guidelines. Those changes were formally adopted by vote when the commissioners subsequently returned to open session. According to the roll call vote, Coates was the sole vote opposing the adoption, having argued that the commissioners should be allowed more time to review the proposed language and offer changes before voting on it.

Although the minutes of the June 9, 2020, closed session are considered confidential under Maryland law, the complaint does reveal that “Commissioner Coates was the only member of the Board to vote against” the Prompt and Remedial Action. (Complaint ❡33) It should be noted that in the complaint (and in interviews with the press), neither Bowling nor Stewart have said that Coates is the censured commissioner.

Dec. 13, 2022: Attempt to Fire the County Administrator

Lastly, the complaint filed by Bowling and Stewart recaps the events leading to the contentious open and closed sessions on Dec. 13, 2022, at which details about the above events were revealed to the public for the first time. As discussed in the Maryland Independent, less than a day before the meeting — the first meeting of the newly elected board, on which Patterson replaced former Commissioners’ Vice President Bobby Rucci (D) — Collins revised the meeting agenda to include a closed session at which two county employment contracts (those of Belton and County Attorney Wes Adams) would be discussed.

Bowling and Stewart objected to the discussion of Belton’s contract due to the terms of the Prompt and Remedial Action of June 2020, arguing that to do so would “likely expose the County to substantial civil liability for discrimination and retaliation in violation of federal law” — with which Adams concurred. (Complaint ❡❡43-45) The resulting closed session led to the events related at the outset of this article.

In filing their complaint, Bowling and Stewart also filed a separate request for urgency on the part of the court, noting that they expected the three commissioners would likely attempt to try again to vote to fire Belton when they returned from the winter holiday break on January 10, 2023.

Belton Joins as a Plaintiff

Because Belton’s position as county administrator could be affected by the commissioners’ actions as described in the suit, Maryland law prescribes that Belton has the right to join (or, in legal terms, to intervene) in the case. On Monday, Jan. 3, Belton did just that, filing a motion in the case requesting that he be allowed to intervene as a co-plaintiff along with Bowling and Stewart.

Following Belton’s filing, attorneys have filed to represent Collins, Coates, Patterson, and the Board of County Commissioners as an entity. It should be noted that all the attorneys are hired by the plaintiffs and defendants, and are not employed by the county. By law, the county will cover the attorneys’ expenses for all parties.

The Circuit Court docket shows a scheduling conference was planned for this past Friday at 2:30 with the attorneys for all parties involved in the case. In the next post in this series, TLR will review the outcome of that conference when it is posted in the Maryland Electronic Courts database.

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