Officials: City gardener’s termination unrelated to grievance

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Former Eureka Springs city gardener Denise Pepmiller was terminated on May 5 — 19 days after filing a grievance against interim parks director Scott Miskiel —but parks officials said Tuesday her dismissal was not related to the grievance.

Denise Pepmiller

"The grievance had no bearing on the termination. It was unfortunate timing," said parks commission chairman Kevin Ruehle. "We couldn't address anything until the grievance was resolved."

Pepmiller said the timing is "awfully suspicious."

"I applied to be the director, my boss started bullying me so I filed a grievance and then I got fired," Pepmiller said.

In Pepmiller's employee termination form dated May 5, Miskiel wrote that Pepmiller was being terminated "for reasons including failure to comply with written policies and for insubordination."

Miskiel sent out a memo to the entire parks staff titled "Policy Reminders" on April 19, which Pepmiller declined to sign. In the memo, Miskiel wrote that "frequent, time-consuming visitations in the workplace by friends and family members will be prohibited."

"In other words, this should rarely, if ever, happen," Miskiel wrote. "You cannot focus on your job while adequately caring for a minor child, but this rule applies to adult visitors as well."

Pepmiller called the memo a "complete set-up."

"They're telling me to be friendly, gregarious, to interact with the people around you … and then I have this memo that's like, 'No, you're not allowed to talk to people,' " Pepmiller said. "This is my hometown. All these people are my cousins and friends."

Pepmiller said she would bring her daughter and dog to work sometimes.

"I bring my dog with me so I wouldn't get bitten by a snake," Pepmiller said. "I bring my daughter with me because she's playing. It's a park."

Miskiel wrote in a Feb. 16 performance appraisal that Pepmiller needed to "find a back-up plan for daycare." In the appraisal, Miskiel awarded Pepmiller a total of 983 points in 11 categories — an overall rating of 89.3. Miskiel gave Pepmiller 95 points for quality, interpersonal relationships and productivity; 90 points for reliability, creativity, initiative and independence; 89 points for adherence to policy; 92 points for judgement; 75 points for job knowledge and 82 points for attendance.

In a section designated for "supportive details or comments," Miskiel wrote that Pepmiller "has had difficulties with reliable daycare."

Three days before Miskiel sent out the "Policy Reminders" memo, Pepmiller submitted a grievance to Ruehle. In the grievance, Pepmiller wrote that her "already very laborious job has been made nearly impossible" by Miskiel, her supervisor.

"I feel he has gone out of his way to belittle me, discriminate against my family status and bully me around," Pepmiller wrote. "This will surely not be the first grievance to be spoken of concerning his micromanagement, unreasonable demands and expectations, and general disrespectful demeanor."

By "family status," Pepmiller said, she was referring to being a single mom.

"I feel [Miskiel] really pushed me into a corner where I had to choose between my daughter or my job, and I'm not the first woman in the world that's been forced to choose between my family or my job," Pepmiller said.

A memo dated April 2021 in Pepmiller's personnel file sheds more light on her grievance. In the memo, administrative bookkeeper Dannelle Tomarchio wrote that Pepmiller said Miskiel "needed to learn boundaries."

"She said that he micromanages and does not allow her to do her job efficiently," the memo reads. "She also expressed her discomfort of him asking her opinion on an incident that happened in the workplace that did not concern her."

Miskiel said he wasn't involved in the grievance process because the grievance was filed against him. Miskiel said he "would never" discriminate against someone, saying Ruehle had more information on the commission's response to Pepmiller's grievance. Ruehle confirmed that Miskiel wasn't involved in the grievance process.

"The employee grievance process is pretty straightforward and spelled out in the manual," Ruehle said. "It goes to the next chain of command. Since [Pepmiller's] grievance was against [Miskiel], the next in chain of command was me. I addressed the grievance."

Ruehle said he asked parks commissioners Ruth Hager and Carmen Burden, who are on the grievance committee, to individually reach out to Pepmiller for more information. Ruehle said Hager was present at the grievance hearing, which took place last week.

"We had a meeting with [Pepmiller] to let her address the grievance directly and then we made a decision based on the outcome of the meeting," Ruehle said. "The determination was that she provided absolutely nothing to substantiate the allegations she made, so there was no action to be taken on the grievance."

Pepmiller confirmed that the grievance process happened the way Ruehle described and said Ruehle sent her an email after the grievance hearing saying the commission determined that she "was unable to provide substantiation to support any of the allegations made in the grievance."

Ruehle said he couldn't comment on the details of Pepmiller's termination.

"I can comment on the grievance process. As far as any other information, I can't comment on that," Ruehle said. "We were extremely thorough in giving [Pepmiller] the opportunity to show some basis for her grievance."

Pepmiller said she was terminated because she asserted her boundaries.

"It's because I wouldn't use Roundup. I wouldn't get my vaccine. Vaccines cause me seizures," Pepmiller said. "We disagreed and I started saying no. Instead of having good communication and understanding different perspectives … it just turned into insubordination, which is what I was fired for."

She added, "For me, it's a high compliment. It means I followed my moral compass. My time at parks was what it needed to be."

Pepmiller was hired in July 2020 at a rate of $11 per hour on a part-time basis. She was promoted to full time in November 2020, with a pay raise of $2 an hour. At the time of her termination, Pepmiller was paid $13 an hour.

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