By DOTTY NIST
Among the recommended findings of a recently-completed invesigation was that no basis exists for Walton County to impose disciplinary action against Robert Halfhill, who served as county administrator from March 1 until April 3. The investigation report, prepared by the Warner Law Firm, also states that “it appears that a good-faith basis existed” for complainants, four women working for Walton County, to bring their concerns about Halfhill to the attention of the county.
Halfhill submitted his resignation on April 2 after being notified by county legal counsel that harassment allegations had been made against him and that an investigation into the allegations would be conducted, according to the report. Halfhill’s resignation letter had cited health problems in his family as his reason for departure.
Initiated on April 4 at the request of Mark Davis, interim county attorney (now county attorney), the investigation was concluded on Sept. 5 with the submission of the report, 62 pages in length, to the county. The Herald/Breeze obtained a copy of the report through a public records request.
While recommended findings of fact are provided, the report notes that it is the Walton County Board of County Commissioners which is the proper authority to make an ultimate determination in the matter.
According to the report, no written complaints were initially provided to the investigator. The names of four women who had made verbal complaints regarding Halfhill were provided. In the course of the investigation, interviews were conducted with 16 county staff members, three county commissioners, and Halfhill, and sworn statements were also obtained from these people.
The report indicated “factual disputes” in connection with some of the allegations, among those that the former administrator made a sexual comment to a female employee under his supervision, looked down the blouses of female employees, and told “blonde jokes” to a female employee.
According to the report, hostile workplace complaints were made by some interviewees.
As undisputed, either by Halfhill, the complainants or witnesses, the report listed a conversation between Halfhill and a female employee under his supervision in which he referenced critical comments to her the previous day on the topic of smoking and apologized because those comments could have been perceived as harassing. Among other allegations categorized as undisputed were remarks made by Halfhill to county staff stating that he had returned home one day and found his wife in their dog cage. When interviewed, Halfhill confirmed the remarks, explaining that his wife had joked that the dog kennel was “her new house” and that he had related the story because he thought it was funny and as an attempt to fit in with employees.
In the interview with Halfhill, the report indicated, he repeatedly “stated that he did not ‘consciously’ or ‘intentionally’ engage in any inappropriate actions or conversations.” However among the report’s recommended findings is that portions of a sworn statement by Halfhill “leave the door open to the interpretation that Halfhill ‘unconsciously’ or ‘unintentionally’ engaged in activity which could have been perceived by a reasonably objective person as constituting harassment or sexual harassment.”
Still, the report later states that, since his employment with the county ended on April 3, “there is no basis for Walton County to impose disciplinary action against Halfhill after that date, even in the event that (the) Walton County Board of County Commissioners were to make a determination that Halfhill did violate existing County policies.”
In addition, it is stated that the investigator found no evidence of any “collusion, plan or scheme” by complainants or witnesses in connection with the allegations raised about Halfhill.
The report notes, “Regardless of whether Halfhill’s actions were ‘intentional’ or ‘unintentional,’ ‘conscious’ or ‘subconscious,’ based upon the testimony received during this investigation, it appears that a good-faith basis existed for the Complainants to bring their concerns about Halfhill to the attention of Walton County.”
The report revealed that a number of county employees had expressed concerns during interviews that they might face retaliation as a result of their participation in the investigation. The first recommendation offered by the investigator was that the county consider issuing a letter to the complainants and witnesses emphasizing that retaliatory action against anyone who provided information in the course of the investigation is prohibited and that any instance of retaliation “should be reported immediately to the county attorney.”
Among other recommendations provided as part of the report were for the revision of county policies concerning “all aspects” of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, the addressing of appropriate protocol when an alleged perpetrator of discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment or retaliation is in a position above that of department director, and the revision of the county’s grievance procedures. There are further recommendations for training of all county commissioners and county employees in any newly-adopted procedures and ongoing training on the issues of discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and retaliation.