Dan Hust | Democrat
With Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson listening, Liberty resident Ellen Neumann makes her point Thursday about the firing of David Sager.
Sager firing heats up Legislature
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO June 11, 2013 Former Family Services Deputy Commissioner David Sager’s firing was both the implicit and explicit focus of discussion and debate on Thursday.
The abrupt termination of the Jeffersonville chiropractor and former county legislator a month ago affected the course of two Legislature committee meetings this past week at one point, garnering a crowd sizable enough to warrant moving to a larger meeting room.
The first committee meeting of the day, Personnel, featured an effort to offer more training to supervisory county employees.
“Management should have certain skill sets and be consistent with policy ... to try to stem grievances,” Personnel Chair Ira Steingart explained.
“We’ve had a great deal of turnover,” added Human Resources Director Lynda Levine, noting training in disciplinary policy hasn’t occurred for a long time.
She said some supervisors have had “knee-jerk reactions” to issues, too often resorting to 30-day suspensions that ultimately are successfully challenged by the unions.
“Not every situation requires a suspension,” she remarked. “There are other things you can do.”
Legislators in the Personnel Committee thus unanimously agreed to pay the county’s labor law firm Roemer, Wallens, Gold and Mineaux an additional $425 a month to host four days of training per year.
“It’s well worth it and will pay itself off over time,” promised Levine.
The full Legislature will vote on it on June 20.
Legislator Cindy Gieger indicated the move came about in part because of Sager’s firing, arguing that the county must ensure “we are following a policy that is well-defined ... so we can prevent some of the incidents that have happened in the past.”
She demanded a presentation on that policy be given at next month’s Personnel Committee meeting, which Steingart said was already in the works, though he cautioned her that “it’s not as simple as you’re making it seem, and we don’t want to make mistakes.”
Former county employee Star Hesse of Narrowsburg congratulated legislators during public comment for moving forward on the issue.
“I think the county has had a rather shoot-from-the-hip attitude when dealing with union personnel in the past,” she observed.
She then asked why reasons for termination would not be given to a fired employee, as was the case with Sager.
“Once a reason is given,” noted County Attorney Sam Yasgur, sitting near Sager, “it can lead to either litigation or additional proceedings.”
He pointed out that no-reason firings are legal for at-will employees (of which Sager was one), but Gieger argued that “there’s a gray area there.”
Speakers weigh in
The discussion turned into public protest at the subsequent Health Committee meeting, where Gieger reiterated her desire to review the personnel policy after Sager’s departure.
“That needs to be looked at and changed so this doesn’t happen again,” she insisted.
At Sager’s invite, several locals attended and voiced concern about the handling of Sager’s firing.
Callicoon resident Liz Bucar wondered aloud if Sager’s termination was for legal reasons, while Hurleyville’s Sandy Oxford called the firing “aggressive and reckless” (see her and fellow NAACP member Elaine Williams’ letter at bottom).
Liberty resident Ellen Neumann asked how many legislators were aware beforehand that Sager would be let go.
Gieger, Alan Sorensen and Gene Benson replied that they were surprised by the action.
“I feel that we should have [been made aware],” Gieger stated.
“I do, too, and so do the rest of us,” Neumann remarked, gesturing to the crowd in the room. “This is going to cost the county money.”
Sager’s mother, Rock Hill resident Terry Epstein, also called on legislators for change.
“I think it’s time to go back to accountability and transparency,” she said.
Health and Family Services Commissioner Randy Parker listened quietly during those comments.
In an interview afterwards, he offered his reasoning for hiring and firing Sager.
Parker said last fall, when he first arrived to oversee the county’s largest division, he interviewed two applicants for the deputy commissioner post, one of whom was Sager.
Despite Sager’s lack of social services/family services experience, Parker heeded pressure from those around him to put Sager’s enthusiasm to work.
“I figured I could work with that,” Parker recalled.
But less than six months later, Parker said it became clear Sager “wasn’t what I needed.”
“There just wasn’t a fit,” Parker stated, explaining that Sager’s lack of experience hindered more than helped.
Parker tried to find a spot to plug Sager into and not simply because Sager had support from politically influential people.
“He was a good guy, worked hard,” Parker acknowledged. “He was well-liked by staff.”
But ultimately Parker felt the position needed an experienced hand, and he was told by Acting County Manager Josh Potosek that he had the Legislature’s support to act as he felt.
“He [Potosek] supported me on it,” added Parker.
But at least some of the legislators did not know how Parker was going to handle the situation which is not necessarily unusual, as department heads have the power to hire and fire on their own.
Was it a mistake to not inform them ahead of time or to not tell Sager why he was being let go?
“I corrected a mistake I made in October,” Parker replied.
He said the decision to fire Sager was his own, adding that he handled it properly and without a political or personal agenda.
He’s now planning to advertise for a replacement in the next few weeks.
“I’m hiring a deputy that has a background and management experience in social services,” he explained.
The position will likely be filled by the end of the summer.
Sager offered no comment to the Democrat, except to say, “It is unfortunate that Mr. Parker is choosing to take this course of action.”
In comments to other media, however, Sager indicated he believes he now knows the reasons behind his firing and is considering legal action.
In a Facebook post, he thanked the more than 500 people who’ve signed an online petition protesting his termination.
“It is especially gratifying to see how many rank-and-file DFS [Dept. of Family Services] employees have already signed the petition,” he wrote. “I think that it speaks volumes as to the work I did and the relationships I fostered during my short tenure.
“I have given much of my adult life to serving Sullivan County, first as an elected public servant and more recently as Deputy Commissioner of Family Services,” he continued. “My termination was unjust and unwarranted. It is past the time to demand transparency, accountability and fairness from our county leaders and those who work for them. I, along with many of you, feel it is necessary to have a thorough public discussion of the circumstances surrounding my termination.”
Editor’s Note: This letter was read at Thursday’s Health Committee meeting of the County Legislature.
Dear Sullivan County Legislators and Sullivan County Freedom of Information Act Compliance Officer:
Our organization has had for many years’ serious concerns with the professional conduct, competence and due diligence of the Sullivan County Department of Family Services Legal Division. Therefore, the Sullivan County Chapter of the NAACP would like to assert its rights under the Federal Freedom of Information Act. Out of grave concern for the children and families throughout Sullivan County, especially those in the minority population and/or those underprivileged, we are submitting this letter, not only as a public statement, but also as FOIL request to obtain all Child Protective Services/DFS Legal abuse and neglect petitions filed in the past year in Sullivan County Family Court.
We believe that current efforts on the part of an overworked and understaffed CPS staff are simply not sufficient. The protections we expect and deserve for our children and families have been short-circuited by what can only be described in a cavalier and disengaged DFS Legal Department. In short, more than ever, our most at-risk children are at even greater risk.
The Sullivan County Chapter of the NAACP would also like to state that it is extremely disturbed by the sudden and unexplained termination of Deputy Commissioner David Sager. We believe his unexpected departure needs to be publicly accounted for by those in power within the Sullivan County Government. Based on what we have seen to date of Commissioner Parker’s leadership, we are very concerned it appears that Mr. Parker’s aggressive behavior and reckless policies will go unchecked without the benefit of Dr. Sager’s sound reasoning as part of the management team at the Department of Family Services.
We look forward to receiving the FOILED documents and fully expect to hear from you in the very near future with a legitimate explanation as to why Dr. Sager no longer works at the Department of Family Services.