on SRJC president
By Bruce Robinson
BOB AGRELLA’S dirty laundry is going to be quite well aired in this county by the time this whole process is over with,” Santa Rosa attorney Jim Bertoli declares. Last week, Bertoli filed a $2 million lawsuit against Santa Rosa Junior College and Agrella, its president. That suit charges that last year Agrella and the SRJC board of trustees illegally fired Sylvia Wasson, a foreign-languages instructor, who is accused of writing a series of unsigned letters that sharply criticize Agrella and his administration.
Wasson, a 22-year employee at the junior college, was abruptly dismissed Jan. 14, with a terse sendoff that asserted the six anonymous documents contained statements about Agrella “that are false and defamatory and which had the purpose or effect of undermining his leadership . . . and brought discredit to the College District.”
The letters, which began appearing in August 1995, accuse Agrella of abusing the rights of district employees, precipitating an unprecedented number of lawsuits and costly settlements, restricting free speech on campus, and imposing a climate of fear and intimidation. Several also make reference to the president’s alleged extramarital affair with a staff member, allege racism in his dealings with specific college employees, and charge that Agrella is hypersensitive to criticism and aggressive in his efforts to suppress it.
“The charges that I am the author of six anonymous mailings critical of Robert Agrella are false and slanderous,” Wasson indignantly told the SRJC board of trustees Feb. 4. “All letters I have ever written to this administration I proudly signed.”
Wasson’s detailed statement was a public rebuttal to an accusatory process that had, until that point, been very private. SRJC legal counsel Bob Henry says the investigation into the origins of the “hit pieces” began April 1 after the fourth letter appeared.
“By June 1996, a certified document examiner, who had reviewed all the letters received as of that date, determined that the author could be identified, and was, in fact, an employee of the district,” Henry wrote in a statement that was released at the Feb. 4 college board meeting. The examiner, Patricia Fisher of Oakland, also apparently linked Wasson to the letters through an analysis of the handwriting on some of their envelopes.
Bertoli contends the surreptitious investigation itself violated Wasson’s constitutional and contractual rights of due process. “They failed to give her a hearing of any kind,” he protests. Before a disciplinary action is taken, the district “must give notice of proposed charges, and documentation, and a right to respond. They didn’t do any of that.”
Henry says the district tried to “pursue this matter in the strictest confidence to protect the employee’s rights and privacy.” But in this and other recent employment disputes at SRJC, aggrieved workers charge that the district is twisting confidentiality to the employees’ disadvantage.
“The principle of confidentiality relating to personnel matters, intended to protect an employee, has the contrary effect if administrative power is abused and due process is not observed,” wrote Carol Montoya, an SRJC Spanish instructor, in a statement of support for her colleague. “Confidentiality then serves to conceal abuse and violation.”
THIS IS THE SECOND time Wasson has been involved in a dispute with Agrella. As an administrator at SRJC’s Petaluma Center, Wasson went to the president–on the advice of the campus police–in the fall of 1993 with complaints about her boss, Associate Dean Henry Bell. Wasson told Agrella she was unhappy about having to cover for Bell, who, according to her lawsuit, “would be absent without leave for days participating in bridge tournaments on school time.”
The administration responded by asking Wasson to file sexual harassment charges against Bell, which she refused to do because she deemed it inappropriate. When she again met with Agrella, “he said to me, ‘Without your statement, I have nothing to hold against him.’ I believe that I was supposed to do the dirty work and get [Bell] fired,” Wasson says.
Wasson was fired for the first time then, but after threatening legal action and public embarrassment, she was reinstated and allowed to “retreat” to a teaching position, provided that she refrain from discussing the matter. Bell later negotiated his own departure, reportedly at a cost to the district of two years’ salary and benefits, a total of $160,000 or more.
But Wasson found herself trapped in a professional gulag. “Robert Agrella refused to give me letters of reference, which meant I had no way of pursuing my career elsewhere in any academic institution,” she says stoically, “but I also could not rise within this institution because of the stigma put upon me.”
Through it all, Wasson adds, she has maintained excellent evaluations, including one round that was completed just days before her dismissal.
A crucial question in Wasson’s case centers on whether the disputed letters are protected under the constitutional right to freedom of speech. Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Sawyer is due to rule on that on April 16.
The district has secured a consulting legal opinion that the critical letters were not protected by the First Amendment and that the district could properly take action against their author. The key, Henry says, is a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled “that critical speech, even on a topic of general public concern, did not outweigh the public employer’s interest in avoiding a disruption of the workforce.”
Bertoli and Wasson scoff at the suggestion that SRJC has been disrupted by the letters, but Henry says they have been sent far beyond the campus, to school accreditation officials and conferences of junior college administrators, causing extensive “harm to the name of the district.”
But does that harm result from the letters or the actions of the president whom the letters describe? Former SRJC President Roy Mikalson shocked the college community when he appeared unexpectedly at the Feb. 4 board meeting to point an accusing finger at Agrella and voice his support for Wasson.
Mikalson, who retired in 1990 after 19 years as president, says Agrella “likes to be right and he doesn’t like people who criticize. I think it’s generally felt on the campus that if you do disagree with him, you might have a problem.
“I was very disappointed with the board,” he continues. “They have to sort this thing out some way, because, boy, it’s headed in the wrong direction.”
As to the impact all the internal disputes have had on outside perceptions of SRJC, “I think we still have the reputation,” Mikalson says, “but it’s wavering a little.”
From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent
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