February 8, 2012

Merced County settles with employee over hostile work environment scandal

More fallout from a recent hostile work environment scandal in the Merced County Registrar of Voters office is arriving in the form of a $27,035.20 settlement with an employee.

Stacey Cotter, assistant registrar of voters, signed a settlement and release agreement with the county Monday. The agreement originated from an inquiry that revealed several instances of unprofessional behavior in the elections department.

Cotter had been denied a 5 percent merit increase, according to the agreement. The move prompted an investigation that showed Cotter's merit increase may have been improperly withheld because of a hostile work environment.

The investigation detailed foul language, odd behavior and inappropriate actions in the workplace by Karen Adams, who held the title of registrar of voters before it was taken away by the Board of Supervisors after the report came out.

Adams, who is still the county's treasurer/tax collector, said in November that the findings were embellished and the investigation against her was the result of a disgruntled employee who had a pay raise withheld because of poor performance.

But the county's legal team thought a settlement was fair based on the independent investigator's finding -- a report that cost the county about $13,000.

The move allows Cotter and the county to move forward, said Richard Flores, assistant county counsel.

"We thought it was a fair resolution of everything that is out there," he said, adding that the agreement frees the county from future lawsuits or grievances based on Cotter's previous complaints.

Cotter's retroactive merit increase, which totals $4,035.20, will be added to her next paycheck, Flores said. Other sums will be lumped into one check, which probably will be issued within a week.

The rest of the money that makes up the $27,000 payout includes $10,000 to settle allegations relating to Cotter's claims of a hostile work environment, $2,000 for reimbursement of legal fees and $11,000 to settle a grievance claiming she was doing more work than her job description entailed.

Cotter said she was satisfied with the settlement.

"I've worked for the county for 26 years and I have always been treated fairly, and that has not changed," she said. "I thank the county for improving my working environment and I'm confident that we can leave this in the past and move forward."

Barry Bennett, Cotter's attorney, echoed some of Flores' comments, saying the settlement was fair to both sides. Bennett described the settlement as a "modest amount" and said Cotter didn't want to hurt the county, but wanted to get some compensation for what she's been through.

"What she's hoping is now everybody can just move on and leave everybody alone, including her," Bennett said.

The settlement puts Cotter back to where she should be, with a little bit of recognition for the difficulties she's had, he said.

"Obviously, the county is not in a position to give away huge sums of money, and she didn't want it," Bennett said. "It seems like a win-win situation to everybody."

Cotter's base salary, according to 2010 data, is $79,867.20.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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