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Suspension ‘waste’ of Sioux City taxpayer money

LawSuspension 'waste' of Sioux City taxpayer money

SIOUX CITY — Semehar Ghebrekidan said her name has been “drug through the mud” since the City of Sioux City placed her on paid administrative leave in February, pending the outcome of an investigation. 

Ghebrekidan, Sioux City’s first community inclusion liaison, is accused of violating multiple city work rules and administrative policies, as well as sections of Iowa Code. The allegations include sharing portions of a confidential investigation report with outside individuals, attempting to log into City Manager Bob Padmore’s International City/County Management Association account and representing herself as a city official on a private consulting business’ website.

She has been ordered to remain at home during her assigned work hours to ensure she is available to Padmore, who is her supervisor, and investigators.

Ghebrekidan told The Journal she hasn’t been doing any work over the last 11 weeks, since her city-issued equipment and accounts were confiscated by city staff on Feb. 21. Although Ghebrekidan said the situation with her employer has caused her to “suffer in silence,” she said she doesn’t want to voluntarily quit her job. 

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“I’m not going to sit down and roll over. I have a baby coming,” said Ghebrekidan, who is expecting a son with her husband. “I hope the one thing that comes out of this is he knows that I was a strong lady and I was standing up for principle and myself and our family name.”

Semehar Ghebrekidan presents evidence as she responds to accusations made about her leading to her suspension from her role as community inclu…

Ghebrekidan, a 30-year-old whose parents came to the United States from Ethiopia as refugees and settled in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was hired by the city in 2021 to oversee the Inclusive Sioux City Advisory Committee. The committee provides guidance to the Sioux City Council on matters relating to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“The reason I think I’m in trouble right now with them is because I filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office for fraud,” Ghebrekidan said, claiming city funds are being misused. Ghebrekidan, who is not a department head, also submitted a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Ghebrekidan wrote in her EEOC filing, which has a submission date of Feb. 13, she has faced “multiple types of issues,” including discrimination, retaliation, defamation and a hostile workplace environment.

“Despite my repeated attempts to bring attention to the harassment, discrimination and retaliation I have faced, the responses from our management have been inadequate, allowing the toxic environment to persist,” she wrote. 

When asked to respond to Ghebrekidan’s allegations, City Attorney Nicole DuBois wrote in an email, “The City does not discriminate against its employees based on protected class, and is consistent with its policies and procedures under applicable law in addressing alleged employee misconduct and internal complaints. The City does not comment on confidential internal employment matters.”

‘Waste of taxpayer money’

The afternoon of Feb. 21, Ghebrekidan said Amber Hegarty, assistant city attorney, and Assistant City Manager Mike Collett walked into her office and handed her an internal memo informing her she was being suspended with pay pending the completion of an investigation concerning “violations of city work rules.”

Ghebrekidan said they confiscated her work-issued phone, computer and credit card. Since that day, she said she hasn’t had access to her city email account or her office. Ghebrekidan said Anne Westra, the city’s communications and public engagement specialist, has been maintaining the “City of Sioux City: Diversity” Facebook page.

“I’ve been at home now 11 weeks as of tomorrow, and I haven’t worked this entire time. I’m not allowed to represent the City of Sioux City,” Ghebrekidan said Tuesday. “There have been multiple people who say to the public, ‘Oh, she’s working from home.’ I do not have access to anything work-related, aside from Facebook, and I don’t post on there.”

Semehar Ghebrekidan presents evidence as she responds to accusations made about her leading to her suspension from her role as community inclu…

The internal memo, which was obtained by The Journal, stated that during Ghebrekidan’s paid suspension, her residence essentially serves as her “assigned work area” and her “hours of work” will be 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday with a 30-minute unpaid lunch.

Ghebrekidan’s suspension is in effect until she is notified by her supervisor to return to work, according to the memo.

Ghebrekidan said she is “literally incarcerated or on house arrest” because she is not allowed to leave her home during those hours without her employer’s authorization. She said she believes the city is using this “tactic” to try to get her to quit her job. If she would leave her house during the time frame the memo stated she needs to be there, Ghebrekidan assumes she would be fired.

“I’m being paid to do nothing at my house, which is weird. It’s just a waste of taxpayer money,” she said. “Especially since I could be working from home, at least. But they’re not even allowing me to do that.”

Ghebrekidan said she expects to be terminated at an upcoming pre-disciplinary hearing, which was initially slated for May 9. As of Thursday, Ghebrekidan said the hearing had not been rescheduled. She is seeking an accommodation to appear remotely, rather than in person, due to her high-risk pregnancy. She said she has diabetes and hypertension.

“I think a lot of the things that are in that hearing is due to negligent supervising by Bob Padmore. I have recordings of 90% of my meetings with Bob. Every meeting I ask the same question, ‘Anything to improve upon, anything I should be doing less of?’ He always told me I was great and good and everything was good,” she said. “It’s very confusing to come three years out of my first-time meeting with him to be in this space now.”

Accusations against Ghebrekidan 

Ghebrekidan provided The Journal with a May 6 internal memo from Collett, which lays out the city’s reasons for considering disciplinary action against her, including “possible suspension/termination.”

When asked who initiated the investigation, Ghebrekidan named Padmore, Sioux City Human Rights Commission Executive Director Karen Mackey and Human Resources Director Janelle Bertrand.

“First, I am neither part of nor can I discuss any personnel matters involving the City which may be pending at this time,” Mackey wrote in an email to The Journal. “Secondly, I will be carefully reviewing the allegations made by Ms. Ghebrekidan and I will be taking appropriate legal measures to address the patently false and defamatory statements directed at me personally by Ms. Ghebrekidan verbally and in the written statements that she has been widely and intentionally circulating within the community.”

The memo stated that on or about Feb. 7 to 9, Ghebrekidan allegedly “exceeded the scope” of her employment authority, training and knowledge by assisting potential Iowa Civil Rights complainants with preparing Iowa Civil Rights Commission documents for “a matter arising in the State of South Dakota.” The document also stated Ghebrekidan has been accused of obtaining personnel records from a private business in South Dakota with a release bearing the city manager’s stamped address information without the city manager’s permission or authority.

Semehar Ghebrekidan responds to accusations made about her leading to her suspension from her role as community inclusion liaison for the City…

Ghebrekidan told The Journal the complainants are from Sioux City. They said they were afraid of their boss and asked her to get their personnel files from the North Sioux City company. She said she went to the business, provided a release form and was given the records. Ghebrekidan noted she also helped the complainants create a timeline of events, which she said she did for others 20 times before. 

“They said that was a liability thing. Well, I didn’t know that. I apologize. Please write me up if I did something wrong in that regard and do some training with me on what I’m allowed and not allowed to do anymore, because I’ve done this 20 times, just not the personnel file I have not done,” she said.

Ghebrekidan refutes allegations

Ghebrekidan is part of IDEA Diverse Business Solutions, a private business, according to the memo.

The business’ website contains language alleged to be in violation of Iowa Code 68B.2A, which covers prohibited outside employment activities — conflicts of interest: “She is the first ever Eritrean & Ethiopian-American city official in the Midwest. Her work as the first Community Inclusion Liaison at the City of Sioux City include, identifying structural & institutional barriers to social equity barriers and developing solutions. She has also created numerous programs, initiatives and social change movements that have been replicated throughout SD and IA.”

Ghebrekidan described IDEA Diverse Business Solutions as her “consulting side gig,” which she said the city was aware of and “approved.”

“Them saying that is weird. And, really, it’s just a word thing. They wanted me to use ‘government employee’ instead of ‘government official.’ I think of myself as a government official, and that’s just maybe a language barrier thing,” she said. “I am one of the only people in my community — Eritrean, Ethiopian — who work in government in the Midwest. That’s true.” 

The memo stated Ghebrekidan has also been accused of representing herself in an official capacity as the inclusion liaison for the city with employees at Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC) when inquiring about security concerns related to a friend who was employed at the college and sharing portions of a confidential investigation report prepared by Melissa Schilling, an attorney hired by the city, with individuals associated with WITCC. 

Ghebrekidan said she was on her lunch break and wasn’t representing the city when she spoke with WITCC security.

“They said, ‘Well, you tried to use your power as a city person to go into the security office and get footage.’ I have never done that,” she said. 

Semehar Ghebrekidan responds to accusations made about her leading to her suspension from her role as community inclusion liaison for the City…

Ghebrekidan is accused of attempting to log into Padmore’s International City/County Management Association (ICMA) account to “apply for an award without his authorization” and placing a Blink camera in her office at City Hall without Padmore’s permission, a potential violation of Iowa Code 727.8.

“The camera has been operating on the City of Sioux City Wi-Fi system continuously for a period of months potentially recording individuals without their permission and within range to record confidential communications of the Sioux City Police Department,” the memo stated. 

Ghebrekidan declined to comment on the allegation involving the Blink camera. As far as the claim involving Padmore’s ICMA account, Ghebrekidan denied breaking into it. She explained that Padmore gave her his account information not long after she was hired so she could get the member rate to attend a racial equity conference. She said Padmore told her she could still use his account for “reading and things like that.” 

“It doesn’t make any sense to me, and taking that and perverting it and making it like, ‘Oh, she broke into my account to get the city an award.’ It wasn’t even a bank account or something like that. I would get that. It’s not that,” Ghebrekidan said.

Documentation Ghebrekidan provided to investigators also indicated she made recordings of legal advice being provided to city employees by the city attorney on at least two occasions. She also recorded an assistant city attorney, according to the memo.

An additional employee complaint was filed against Ghebrekidan, alleging she “engaged in harassing conduct towards Human Resources” and “inappropriately shared confidential information regarding employee accommodations.” Those allegations were “dismissed as unfounded,” according to the memo.

Conflict between Ghebrekidan and Mackey 

Ghebrekidan said issues with Mackey, who has been in her position with the city since 2004, first arose on June 2, 2021, when Mackey asked her if she participated in protests. Ghebrekidan said she found the conversation “weird” and asked Padmore if protesting was in her job description. She said he told her it wasn’t.

Padmore reports to the City Council, while Mackey reports to the Sioux City Human Rights Commission. Padmore does not have authority over Mackey. 

“And so, from that point forward, Bob had advised me to keep (my) distance from her,” Ghebrekidan said of Mackey, whom she has accused of harassment, defamation, “reverse ageism” and having “her hand” in her suspension. 

Karen Mackey, executive director of the Sioux City Human Rights Commission, is shown in the commission’s offices at City Hall in 2022.

In fact, some of Ghebrekidan’s allegations against Mackey prompted an investigation, which was also conducted by Schilling. Ghebrekidan provided The Journal with a copy of Schilling’s executive investigation summary, which is dated Oct. 2, 2023.

The document noted there are “significant issues between Ms. Ghebrekidan and the Human Rights Commission.” The investigator placed blame on both Ghebrekidan and Mackey for “those issues.”

During a Feb. 4, 2023 budget session, the City Council raised concerns about Ghebrekidan and the Human Rights Commission duplicating programming. In effort to encourage communication and collaboration, Padmore requested a meeting with Ghebrekidan and Mackey on Feb. 8. Ghebrekidan provided The Journal with a 52-minute audio recording of that meeting.

The investigator found it “unclear” whether Mackey’s comments alone about Ghebrekidan being young, which she made throughout Ghebrekidan’s employment, created an offensive environment. 

“Nevertheless, the investigator finds that the comments violated the City’s Conduct Unbecoming Policy and Work Rules because they are unprofessional and disrespectful,” the investigator wrote. 

The investigator also found it “concerning” that Padmore “did little to correct the communication and collaboration issues” between Ghebrekidan and Mackey.

Ghebrekidan said some city department heads “truly care about their employees.” She called the library, fire and police departments and neighborhood services good places to work.

“I can’t recommend anything else,” she said. 

The Journal’s Jared McNett shows how to download and browse the Sioux City Journal’s app.

Jesse Brothers

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