An $80,000 settlement paid by the city to a former employee last year could be connected to embattled City Prosecutor Caron Close, who is set to retire on March 18 following an internal personnel investigation of her leadership.
Close, who worked for the city for 21 years, chose to retire after meeting with City Attorney Bruce Washburn about a review conducted by the Human Resources Department that included allegations made by current and former employees that she created a hostile work environment.
“After concerns were addressed to the Human Resources Department about Caron Close's leadership and management style, a thorough review was conducted,” according to a statement provided by the city.
City documents obtained by the Progress under Arizona’s open records laws show that former assistant city prosecutor Jennifer Paetkau, once a model employee, was asked to resign in October 2017 after bringing complaints about Close and her leave-time policy to the human resources officials.
Many of the allegations included in the HR review mirror those levied by Paetkau.
A notice of claim sent to the city by Paetkau’s attorney in January 2018 alleged the forced resignation violated federal disability discrimination law and the Arizona Employment Protection Act.
In the claim, Paetkau’s attorney demanded $369,740 in damages.
On Aug. 29, 2018, the City Council approved a settlement agreement with Paetkau for $80,000.
Paetkau, who began working for the city in 2014, said in the claim that she had been lauded by superiors for performance but began experiencing negative treatment after disclosing a disability to Close in the spring of 2017. The nature of that disability is redacted in the copy provided to the Progress.
Paetkau’s claims about her performance are backed up by city documents.
City records show that Washburn recommended Paetkau for a promotion and salary increase during her first year on the job.
Similarly, a performance review of Paetkau signed by Close on June 24, 2017 showed an overall rating of “Performance Exceeds Expectations.”
Despite the positive performance review, both Paetkau’s notice of claim and internal city documents show that she and Close began having issues around that time.
The notice of claim characterizes Close’s behavior as confrontational and aggressive – allegations also made, and sometimes sustained, in the HR review.
The Progress was unable to reach Close for comment.
Internal city documents show that Close confronted Paetkau about problems between Paetkau and other employees in the prosecutor’s office. According to a report from the HR department, Close was concerned about Paetkau “engaging coworkers (that did not want to be engaged by her) and involving herself in office matters that did not concern her.”
According to the notice of claim, Close began the first one-on-one meeting by “angrily admonishing” Paetkau.
The HR investigation found that Close had control issues.
Some staffers said the office atmosphere led to low morale and there was a fear of retaliation if any issues were brought forward
The report noted that the work environment did not meet the legal definition of a hostile work environment but that 12 of the 15 employees interviewed for the report “stated there was a fear of retaliation by Ms. Close if anything was brought forward.”
In an email to Lead HR Analyst Ronald Fasano about the leave time issue, Paetkau requested Fasano “keep me anonymous so I can avoid any sort of retaliation.”
She added, “I am very fearful to say anything to (Close) myself.”
At a second one-on-one meeting about issues with other employees – that took place following a meeting between Paetkau, Close and Scottsdale Human Resources Director Donna Brown – Close allegedly “berated Ms. Paetkau.
The reported quoted Close as saying, ‘The HR director left here yesterday thinking I have no idea what goes on in my office,” according to the claim notice.
It further alleges Close threatened to fire Paetkau “if things didn’t change.”
That incident occurred on June 28, 2017.
By Oct. 26 – following another incident in which Paetkau suspected Close had modified her timecard – Paetkau was asked to resign.
According to the notice of claim, on Oct. 26, 2017, Paetkau met with Close, Washburn and Lead HR Analyst Ronald Fasano and was told she could either resign or be fired.
“In response to a no-win directive, Ms. Paetkau signed the resignation notice which, again, had been prepared prior to the meeting,” reads the notice of claim.
That situation appeared to stem from speculation by Paetkau, later confirmed by Fasano, that in September 2017, Close had changed her timecard, causing Paetkau to use vacation time she did not intend to use.
In its report, the HR department suggested Close refrain from continuing to require employees to use leave time.
“While Ms. Close is able to approve salaried employees taking time off from work, she should not continue to require them to use accrued leave as this deprives the employee(s) of the option to work the hours at another time during the pay period (i.e., when they are doing jail court).”
Requests for comment sent to Paetkau and her attorney were not returned.