By Taylor Sisk
CHAPEL HILL â€“Kerry Bigelow, one of two former Town of Chapel Hill Public Works Department employees fired in October, appealed his termination before the townâ€™s Personnel Appeals Committee last Thursday night. At the hearing, Bigelowâ€™s attorney, Al McSurely, maintained that his client was fired in retaliation for the grievances, alleging racial bias in job placements and promotions and unsafe working conditions, that Bigelow and his co-worker, Clyde Clark, had filed.
The town counters that the two men were fired for insubordination and intimidating behavior toward residents along their waste-collection route.
Clark, who was fired at the same time and under the same charges as Bigelow, had his appeal heard by the committee on Wednesday night after The Citizen went to press. The five-member committee, comprised of Chapel Hill residents selected by the town council, has until Feb. 17 to advise Town Manager Roger Stancil whether Bigelow should be rehired, and until Feb. 23 for Clark. Stancil will make the final decision on both men.
The appeals hearings were held in a public forum at the menâ€™s request. On Thursday night, some 75 observers filled a conference room at the Chapel Hill Public Library, with more looking on outside the door. Town legal adviser Tiffany Sneed and McSurely presented their cases in a milieu replete with the drama of a courtroom, though without the usual procedural restraints. Each side, said committee Chair Anita Badrock, would be given considerable latitude to present its case.
In an example of that latitude, Sneedâ€™s first witness telephoned in a prepared statement and was identified only by a pseudonym, â€œMs. Johnson.â€ The witness told of encounters with Bigelow and Clark in which she felt intimidated by the men.
The woman said that some weeks her garbage wasnâ€™t picked up and on other occasions trash was strewn down the street. She described the men as â€œrude, argumentative â€¦ hostile and inappropriate,â€ but pointed out that in her complaints to the city she had asked only for a crew change, not that they be fired.
â€œIt is astonishing to me that this has ballooned into a race issue,â€ she said.
The caller then declined McSurelyâ€™s request to question her, as was her prerogative under the rules of the proceedings.
Sneedâ€™s next witness, James Jones, who often drove the collection truck on which Bigelow and Clark worked, was unable to corroborate the callerâ€™s accounts of inappropriate behavior. He did, however, allege that Bigelow became â€œirateâ€ after being told to stop collecting aluminum cans during his shift and that Bigelow once yelled at his supervisor over the truckâ€™s radio when drinking water was allegedly unavailable.
McSurely showed Jones pictures that Bigelow had taken of the truck when it was stopped in the middle lane of Martin Luther King Boulevard. Bigelow had taken the pictures to illustrate the danger he saw in the collectors having to cross a lane of traffic on either side to retrieve cans.
Kevin von der Lippe, an investigator hired by the town to look into allegations against Bigelow and Clark, described being told by one resident along the menâ€™s route that she felt so frightened by their presence that she would peek from behind her blinds until she saw that the truck had left.
Public Works director Lance Norris stated that he decided to fire Bigelow, despite the fact that Bigelow had been given complimentary job performance ratings and had received no warnings, due to â€œdetrimental personal conductâ€ that had included inappropriate exchanges with citizens and created a hostile work environment. Speaking about the report of the frightened woman, Norris said, â€œIt was behavior that the town couldnâ€™t tolerate.â€
Norris acknowledged to McSurely that it had taken a â€œmonth or twoâ€ for the department to respond to Bigelowâ€™s complaint about the truck parking along Martin Luther King Boulevard, and added that he didnâ€™t know if the driver still did so.
Under questioning from McSurely, Bigelow said that he never cursed or yelled, nor, as reported, flailed his arms at residents.
â€œI donâ€™t carry myself in that way,â€ Bigelow said.