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Richland Co. Recreation Commission Exec. Director writes Commissioners created “hostile” work environment

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Published: Feb. 16, 2022 at 3:23 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 16, 2022 at 5:35 PM EST
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RICHLAND COUNTY, S.C. (WIS) - WIS has obtained a letter written by the Executive Director of the Richland County Recreation Commission to commission board members where she alleges some board members’ behavior toward herself, commission employees and toward their roles has created a “hostile” work environment.

The letter from Executive Director Lakita Watson is dated Feb. 10, 2022. WIS got confirmation the letter was sent from Watson to the commission.

On Feb. 15, the board announced a special called meeting for Feb. 16 to review a personnel matter involving Watson at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday night.

In the letter, Watson names Commission Chair Donzetta Lindsay and Commissioners Brittany Singleton, James Mobley, and Alphonzo Anderson as negative actors.

No allegations were made against Commissioners Robert Lapin, Stephen Venugopal or Ashley Miller.

Lindsay and Anderson did not respond to a request for comment. Singleton and Mobley declined to comment.

Watson deferred comment to her lawyer Paul Porter. Porter sent a statement reading:

RCRC Director Lakita Watson is a professional in this field and she has worked tirelessly to improve the experience of RCRC’s customers and community stakeholders. She had decades of experience in parks, recreation, and tourism prior to coming to South Carolina to work for RCRC. She has done a fine job of healing RCRC after the last decade of public controversy at the agency.

Ms. Watson gave an appropriate and private response to a procedurally invalid and substantively unusual document presented to her from one lone Board Member as a so called “performance evaluation.” The “evaluation” was not presented to Ms. Watson in the normal fashion and there does not appear to be a proper vote authorizing the evaluation to be presented.

Ms. Watson’s letter was presented privately to the board and was not leaked to the media by Ms. Watson or anyone at her direction.

Ms. Watson’s reputation is being unfairly tarnished by a small handful of board members for political, personal, and non-professional reasons. The Board would be best served by taking a step-back and reassessing whether its members are acting within the confines of governing bylaws and the law. Ms. Watson was well-within her rights to privately and appropriately address false criticism conveyed to her from a lone board member under the auspices of a “performance evaluation.”

The commission manages an almost $16 million taxpayer-funded budget for parks, events and recreational programs.

The letter begins with Watson alleging how on Jan. 28, 2022, Commission Chair Donzetta Lindsay arrived at commission offices at 11:45 a.m. and directed Watson to attend Watson’s annual performance evaluation prior to a 1 p.m. appointment for Lindsay.

Watson wrote the meeting with Lindsay was not scheduled, and Lindsay “aggressively” insisted upon the meeting.

She wrote how members of the staff were in earshot of the conversation and that she was under “much duress” during the conversation.

She said she left the conversation and brought in Human Resources Director Diana McCoy as a witness for a meeting in the conference room.

Watson wrote she read THE “Executive Director Performance Appraisal” document dated Jan. 26, 2022 and signed it. She wrote the letter is in response to the document.

She wrote “Ms. Lindsay insisted that she read the document aloud in the HR Director’s presence even after I explained I explained to her that I had read the document for myself”

Watson wrote it caused stress and embarrassment.

The remainder of the 7-page letter is a list of Watson’s procedural concerns and formal responses to the appraisal document and allegations made against her within. Watson repeatedly references attachments to verify her arguments.

WIS is not in possession of those attachments but has submitted a Freedom of Information request for emails between Watson and the board during that timeframe.

The following is a list of allegations Watson makes in the letter:

  • Commissioners Mobley, Singleton and Anderson “have limited knowledge or understanding of their roles as Board members and how they relate” to Watson’s role as Executive Director
  • Commissioners Lindsay, Anderson, Singleton and Mobley violated the S.C. Freedom of Information Act by participating in an “unauthorized executive session on January 25, 2022, after the meeting ended in closed door session until 9:30 p.m. discussing my evaluation along with the process”
  • Chair Lindsay “did not adhere to board bylaws regarding conducting the performance evaluation”
  • Chair Lindsay announced a board retreat for December 2022 to “allow the Board to meet without the public.” Watson wrote she explained this was a FOIA violation and Lindsay “stated that she did not care.”
  • Chair Lindsay would make false statements creating “divisive relationship” between Watson and the board
  • Chair Lindsay “intimidates” and “harasses staff and corners them with questions about programs and policies” without reaching out to Watson to express concerns
  • Commissioner Mobley, then contracted as a dance instructor, was being paid for dance classes “that were not being held.” The commission did not renew his contract in March 2019, and he informed Watson he would “get me [Watson] back”
  • Commissioner Singleton has been “rude and unprofessional” despite being unprovoked
  • Commissioner Anderson “has sent demeaning and condescending emails” and “uses his background in the military to intimidate and question my leadership abilities”
  • Chair Lindsay “insults staff and members of the board placing me in awkward situations”
  • Commissioner Singleton told Watson that Singleton “is too busy during the week with her real job and does not check email during the day nor can she meet until after 6:00 p.m.” making it difficult for Watson to provide information to her
  • Chair Lindsay has “pushed false narratives,” impacting Watson’s ability to lead the agency and “resulted in individuals seeking opportunities elsewhere”

You can read the full letter below:

Letter by Hannah Robinson on Scribd

Watson took the reins of the department in 2018. Her predecessor James Brown III retired amid criminal charges. He was acquitted in December 2021.

Board members are nominated by the Richland County Legislative Delegation before being approved by the Governor.

On Tuesday, Rep. Leon Howard (D-Richland Co.) said he was aware of friction between Watson and the board.

“Who’s right, who’s wrong, I don’t know. As I said, I have a handful here in the General Assembly. So I’m not there micro-managing what’s happening. But at the end of the day, the board members are the boss and if they decide that they need to separate their relationship and go a different way, there’s nothing much we can do about that,” he said.

The commission is funded by the Richland County government.

Richland County Council Chair Overture Walker sent WIS this statement: Thank you reaching out to Richland County Council for comment on recent developments at the Richland County Recreation Commission. However, I think it would be presumptuous for County Council to comment on a story or allegations without knowing all the facts. Further, I think it’s imperative for the public to know that the Recreation Commission is not under the control or authority of Richland County Council. They are a completely separate entity for which Richland County provides funding only.

Moreover, the Legislative Delegation is responsible for the appointment of commissioners to the Recreation Commission, who in turn hire an executive director who is answerable to the Commission. Hence, I think it would be prudent for County Council to defer to the Delegation for a response to your inquiry on this issue.

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