On May 15, 2013, Dr. David Sager was terminated from his position as the deputy commissioner of the Sullivan County Department of Family Services (DFS). He was given no warning or explanation—just a letter from DFS Commissioner Randy Parker telling him to collect his belongings and leave.
In recent months, news outlets, employees and taxpayers have cheered Sager and Parker for streamlined procedures, client support and cost-savings at DFS.
But then, in a late night shocker, Bill Liblick informed readers of his Sullivan County Post that Sager had been fired. Within hours, hundreds of stunned and distressed comments were posted in support of “a man of integrity,” and “a true public servant.” Some DFS employees credited Sager with improved morale in their division. “We will be lost without him,” said more than one.
Since the firing, rumors have surfaced of fraud and cover-ups at DFS.
And confusion reigned in the legislature. Legislator Cindy Geiger asserted that despite an executive committee meeting the day before the firing, not all legislators were aware of the planned termination. “I have questions,” she said.
So should we all:
• Which Sullivan County officials knew that Sager’s firing was imminent but chose not to tell their legislative colleagues?
• Did those who agreed with Sager’s termination believe he was incompetent or posed some threat? If so, how and what? And why weren’t their concerns shared with their colleagues?
• Is there truth in the rumors of fraud and cover-ups at DFS? Since the public is beginning to hear rumblings, what have the legislators heard and dismissed as “unfounded?”
At the legislative meeting on May 16, I asked the board to do three things:
• Immediately reinstate Dr. Sager as deputy commissioner.
• Conduct an immediate and thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding his abrupt termination. After all, what reasons exist for not investigating?
• Publicize the findings, as was not done in Ohio, when commissioner Parker left his former place of employment—an unfortunate lack that resulted in Sullivan County hiring him without a thorough “vetting.”
In response to my requests, legislator Kathy Labuda stated, “We hire commissioners, and [hiring and firing] is their job. It is not up to us, and I suggest my colleagues be very careful in how they move forward.”
Legislator Geiger countered, “My concern,” she said, “is the ‘method by which we address employment issues.’”
And for his part, legislator Alan Sorensen believes the legislative board is akin to a board of directors. “We need more information,” he said.
At the labor subcommittee meeting convened by legislator Gene Benson this week, “Employee exit interviews were discussed and hopefully, their use will be mandated….”
But, if the Sullivan County Legislature does not initiate an immediate investigation into the circumstances surrounding Dr. Sager’s termination, I hope you’ll join me at the 11:15 a.m. meeting of the June 6 Health and Family Services Committee.
Because, if a “hear-no-evil” view holds sway on the board, the public must weigh in.
• If the legislature rejects a reasonable standard of responsibility, how can it avert future costly lawsuits like the one brought against a former county clerk for sexual harassment?
• If the legislature’s hands really are legally tied relative to hiring and firing, what recourse will employees of conscience have if supervisors ignore their reported concerns, or worse, retaliate against them?
This is larger than the termination of one stellar public servant. It’s about how we build on the amazing resources that are ours, whether or not we show up to influence and improve the way decisions are made in this county and the processes by which we institute them.
[Liz Bucar is a concerned Sullivan County citizen who lives in Callicoon, NY.]