A Bulwark Against Bullies

Times Staff Writer

In the weeks since his board colleagues scolded him for abusing staff, new stories of Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn’s alleged bullying ways have spilled out -- in compelling detail.

There was the day he became so enraged with another supervisor that witnesses feared for her safety. The time he grabbed a county manager and chided her for not looking him in the eye.

And, most recently, a supervisors’ meeting in which he leaned toward County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston and called him a profane name, apparently because Johnston supported the board’s moves to restrict Flynn’s contact with staff.


Flynn, 72, calls the stories false or exaggerated and contends they are intended to divert attention from legitimate issues. His colleagues, however, say they’re determined to protect workers from harassment. In fact, at least two of them said they might be willing to consider an anti-bullying policy.

They wouldn’t be the first in government to do so.

Nascent attempts to institute workplace no-bullying policies are underway in a handful of communities in California and around the nation. An organization called the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute in Bellingham, Wash., offers help in drafting them.

But no-bullying policies face a lot of opposition from employers -- not least because of the difficulty of defining bullying behavior.

“You could end up with ‘He’s been mean to me for three months and yelled at me four times’ as a triable offense,” said Los Angeles attorney Michael Bononi, an expert in employment law. “It could create a nightmare for employers and the courts.”

Advocates acknowledge the complexity but say such policies are needed, and not solely to close a gap in federal law that ignores workplace harassment unless it is linked to gender, ethnicity or religion.

“Employers worry that adopting these policies will reflect negatively on their city,” said Gary Namie, who heads the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute. “But if they don’t address the bully, he can drive some of their best people out the door.”

Early next year, Namie, a social psychologist and former USC management professor, will make a presentation on bullying to the Berkeley Commission on Labor. The panel, which advises the city on labor policy, could follow up with training workshops or even recommend that Berkeley pass an ordinance outlawing bullying, said Chairman Russell Kilday-Hicks.

The subject of workplace bullying is of special interest to Kilday-Hicks, who said he’s experienced it firsthand.

A colleague at San Francisco state college sabotaged his projects and blamed it on him, Kilday-Hicks said.

“She would make digs behind the scenes,” he said. “But, finally, at a public meeting, she blew up and everyone could see her for what she was.”

Not far from San Francisco, a community college professor’s complaints about workplace bullying prompted a new policy.

William Lepowski, a math teacher at Laney College in the Peralta Community College District, said his harasser withheld information and lied about him to the administration.

At first, the district believed the harasser and punished Lepowski. It later reversed its decision.

“It was a horrible ordeal that lasted more than two years,” he said.

In 2004, the district board passed a no-bullying policy and has since held employee workshops to raise awareness on the issue, said spokesman Jeffrey Heyman, who said he could not comment on the Lepowski case because of confidentiality laws.

“The document gives the board another set of policies by which they can govern the district,” Heyman said. “It helps to have written policies from which they can draw if they need to.”

Board members felt they needed to do just that two weeks ago, when they invoked the policy for the first time to censure a fellow board member. Trustee Marcie Hodge was reprimanded for “uncivil” speech and “emotionally disturbing” behavior toward several district managers.

In its censure motion, the board said Hodge had repeatedly publicly criticized the performance of district personnel in violation of confidentiality rules, including reportedly calling a vice chancellor “clueless” in a newspaper op/ed piece.

Hodge dismissed the rebuke as a ploy to silence her. “I’m going to fight until I get some answers,” she told a reporter.

Namie’s organization tracks efforts to introduce anti-bullying rules across the nation. Attempts to get laws passed in California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington have so far met with little success, he said.

In 2003, Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) introduced no-bullying legislation to protect state workers. But it died in committee, and he said he doesn’t intend to try again under what he says is a pro-business Republican administration.

“As governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger tends not to be sympathetic to worker’s issues,” Koretz said.

A move to ban bullying in Providence, R.I., gained traction last month from city leaders who promised to review model legislation provided by Namie’s institute.

Bononi, the employment lawyer, said legislatures and the courts have generally allowed the private sector to take care of the problem on its own and it has done so effectively.

“There is no law against being a jerk in the workplace,” he said. “But if an employer allows that to occur, good employees will leave.”

If harassment is so severe that it causes an employee emotional turmoil, the worker can file a worker’s compensation claim, Bononi said. A no-bullying law, unless narrowly defined, would be ripe for abuse and frivolous lawsuits, he said.

“The behavior would have to be repeated, severe and pervasive,” he said. “It would have to create essentially a hostile work environment.”

Namie said that bullying can be defined generally as “malicious mistreatment, physical or emotional,” carried out by one person seeking to “control or professionally destroy” another.

The Peralta district’s policy says any behavior that is “demeaning, intimidating, threatening or physically or emotionally violent” is unacceptable. But even Lepowski, who pushed for its passage, agreed it could be misused.

College faculties have objected that it could be used to suppress academic freedom in the classroom, he said. Lepowski thinks the policy needs work.

“As a teacher, I could say something and my student could say it was demeaning,” Lepowski said. “That must be clarified, because it wasn’t the intention of the policy.”

Kathy Long, Ventura County’s board chairwoman, said an anti-bullying policy is worth looking into, and Supervisor Steve Bennett agrees.

“Whether someone can sue or not sue is not the question,” Bennett said. “The question is, what policy can be put in place to protect our employees?”

Recent events have brought that question to the forefront.

On Nov. 1, the Ventura board voted to restrict Flynn’s contact with county harbor staff after he publicly accused Harbor Director Lyn Krieger of taking a “payoff” in return for a harbor contract.

Flynn says he has proof of that and other harbor misdeeds, which the grand jury and the district attorney’s office are investigating. But other supervisors say the allegations are meritless and part of Flynn’s long pattern of harassing anyone who disagrees with him. The supervisor’s run-ins with political allies and foes have been recounted many times in news reports over his 30 years in office.

Each new incident brings more stories out in the open.

Long recounted a private meeting in April 2000 when Flynn became enraged with her because she was advocating an issue that he claimed as his own.

He slammed his briefcase on a table, leapt toward her and jabbed a finger in her face, yelling the whole time, Long said.

“He was spitting he was so close to me,” Long said. “When I told him I wouldn’t allow him to bully me, he said, ‘Don’t give me that feminist crap!’ ”

Former county counsel James McBride said he remembers the day well. He and former county administrator Harry Hufford jumped up to assist Long, he said.

“I was ready to run up because it looked to me like it might be physical,” McBride said. “He really lost his cool.”

In a different closed-door meeting, Flynn allegedly backed Krieger, the harbor director, into a corner and grabbed her arms because he was angry that she hadn’t been making eye contact. Krieger’s aide, Carol Abella, said she witnessed the event.

“I’ve had him get me in a corner before and jab me with a finger,” Krieger said. “I hate it, but I won’t quit. I’m not changing my life because he’s out of control.”

Flynn dismisses the stories as a red herring meant to divert attention from what’s happening in the Harbor Department. He said his constituents clearly have no problem with his style. After all, they keep reelecting him.

“[Critics] can say whatever they wish because it’s not going to hurt my reputation,” he said. “These are he-said, she-said disputes, and no one was able to make the case. So what does that tell you?”