‘Toxic’ vibes at Waterloo City Hall

Election season is often a time for previous unexpressed issues and grievances to come to the fore, as individuals with something to say might finally feel change is possible.

Such issues seem to have come to light locally with the Waterloo mayor’s race – the first contested mayoral race in 15 years – as current and former staff members of Waterloo City Hall have reached out to discuss what’s generally been described as an unpleasant work environment.

Among those currently working at City Hall, all requested to remain anonymous.

Robin Hanner, a former administrative clerk at City Hall who resigned late last year, spoke about the difficult culture which she largely attributed to Mayor Tom Smith. 

“I would call it incredibly toxic, the mayor having what I would call an imperious attitude,” Hanner told the Republic-Times. “He was so ‘I am the king,’ not only the mayor but the king of your life. And it was very hard to be a part of.”

Hanner offered similar thoughts on the work culture in her official resignation letter dated Nov. 28, 2022.

In the letter, having reached one year at City Hall, Hanner wrote about how she was “silently fired” sometime during her brief tenure.

She described how employee growth seemed to be not allowed at City Hall, with “opportunity not afforded and criticism abundant.” 

Hanner further described the situation as “death by 1,000 cuts,” alluding to many “insignificant and petty” issues that drastically added up for her.

Hanner added the union many at City Hall are part of wasn’t able to assist with the situation, as there were no specific union contract breeches.

One individual currently at City Hall echoed Hanner’s general thoughts.

“Hostile and toxic are the two words I would use to describe the atmosphere there,” this city employee said. “I’ve never worked in a place like that before, ever.”

They alleged, and others said similarly, that some at City Hall were regularly threatened with firing. She added Smith could often be heard yelling at various staff members in the office.

Hanner spoke to Smith’s “abuse,” as she described it. While she said she didn’t bear the brunt of it as someone with a stronger personality, she witnessed such altercations.

According to Hanner, union staff received relatively less abuse, though interactions with Smith were still difficult – especially for those not in the union.

“He could still be very controlling and domineering,” Hanner said, “but people that are appointed by him, oh my goodness, they have to live and die by his sword, and it’s awful to watch.”

Former Waterloo Zoning Director Jim Nagel, who previously served as a city alderman, spoke about some of what he experienced during his time at City Hall.

Nagel, too, used the term “toxic” to describe the City Hall culture, adding that nobody was happy to go to work.

“I’m gonna say the mayor pretty much had belittled everybody,” Nagel said. “Everybody just felt really discouraged, I guess.”

According to one individual at City Hall, Nagel endured a great deal of criticism from Smith, with frequent yelling that resulted in anxiety and problems sleeping.

“We would be able to hear the verbal abuse of him just yelling at him if he would mess something up or if something happened,” they said. “Constantly yelling. And it would literally make Jim very upset to where it just took an emotional toll on him.”

Nagel recalled the specific incident that ultimately led to him stepping away from his position. He was in the office of then-Waterloo Building Inspector Nathan Krebel. Krebel received a call from Smith and immediately put it on speaker – unbeknownst to Smith.

“He began immediately belittling me to Nathan,” Nagel said. “He had no idea I was in that office or that I was hearing what he was saying, but it was just cruel and uncalled for. And so I was out of there. I had resigned within probably the next two weeks just to get out of that environment. Nobody should have to work with that type of backstabbing. It’s just belittling and disrespectful.”

Nagel further remarked on his eagerness to leave the position even as it meant a significant cut in pay.

“I was so ready to get out of there,” Nagel said. “I took a probably at least a 40 percent pay cut. I gave up all my vacation and days off and have never been happier with that decision. It was sleepless nights and just total anxiety just every time you walked in the door.”

Others also spoke about the relationship between Smith and Jessica Rucks, who previously served as human resources officer for the City of Waterloo.

Hanner and others mentioned how Rucks was deeply afraid of Smith, which they suggested was one of the reasons for her departure.

She and one anonymous source spoke about an incident between Rucks and Smith at the height of COVID-19 pandemic protocols, when they alleged Smith yelled at Rucks about coming into the office after having tested positive for COVID.

Smith, they said, insisted Rucks stay in her office unless using the bathroom, also telling her he would hold Rucks responsible should he or his wife Pat, now deceased, get sick.

Another prominent figure among each individual’s recollections is Shawn Kennedy, Waterloo’s budget officer.

Many spoke about the relationship between Kennedy and Smith, with some noting Kennedy seemed to get special treatment from Smith compared to others in the office.

In regard to the city’s HR situation, many – including Hanner – reported Kennedy and Smith were overly involved with the department, resulting in questionable confidentiality as they demanded to hear what staff had discussed with Rucks.

Nagel added Smith and Kennedy seemed to run the HR office.

In an anonymous letter from one source, they similarly spoke to Rucks’ poor treatment, also describing how HR wasn’t allowed to operate properly.

“Employees have nowhere to seek help,” they wrote. “The confidentiality you should receive from any organization’s human resource department is non-existent at City Hall. The HR coordinator tried many times to inform him of wrongdoings, but (Smith) moved forward anyway.”

Kennedy’s apparent involvement in various other goings-on at City Hall was also a common theme among Hanner, Nagel and other sources.

Nagel remarked that Kennedy was the only one in the office whom Smith respected, adding the two would go to breakfast or lunch at least three times a week prior to COVID.

Hanner and others also made mention of the two’s frequent lunches – with some questioning the use of taxpayer funds – while two anonymous sources made specific mention of Kennedy’s accompanying Smith on various photo opportunities or other outings.

Many suggested Smith gave Kennedy responsibilities outside her purview, with Hanner saying a common attitude in the office seemed to be “if it’s not her idea, it’s a bad idea.”

“She had her nose in every single aspect of the city,” Hanner said. “Everything goes through her… There’s nothing that doesn’t happen there that she’s not involved in.”

Sources also spoke to an apparent lack of empathy from Smith. 

One incident several brought up concerned an individual working at City Hall whose child was set to have a prolonged hospital stay. When they asked if they could work from the hospital on their laptop, reportedly, they were flatly refused.

A similar incident concerned another staff member who, according to Hanner and other sources, lost his very young son but was too new to the office to have earned a substantial amount of time off, prompting Rucks to request additional time off for him in order to grieve.

Per Hanner, Smith was seemingly willing to agree, but Kennedy refused to allow it. 

Waterloo aldermen eventually stepped in to ensure the time off was granted.

Additional grievances mentioned by several sources included a general sense of disrespect from Smith.

Some, including Hanner, spoke about the stark difference in environment when Smith and Kennedy were out of the office.

The anonymous sources currently working at City Hall also spoke about Smith’s health problems following a stroke last year. They particularly mentioned seeing Smith fall asleep during meetings.

When asked for comment, Smith pointed to a lack of formal complaints within the office.

“They say it’s a hostile work environment, but they don’t file a grievance,” Smith said. “There’s a grievance procedure, but they haven’t done it. If I’m doing something wrong, why haven’t they filed a grievance?”

Smith is seeking re-election on April 4 and is being challenged by outgoing Waterloo Alderman Stan Darter.

Smith said those speaking about these issues are simply pro-Darter, referring to the remarks from present and former staff as a “witch hunt.”

“This is a witch hunt on me because the girls in the office didn’t get 4 percent pay raises,” Smith said. “The guys got 4 percent, they got 3 percent, that’s not my fault.”

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Andrew Unverferth

HTC web