The City of Moab’s recent decision to settle a lawsuit former controversial City Manager Rebecca Davidson filed following her termination in September of 2016 did not sit well with many in the community, perhaps none more so than David Olsen.
Olsen was one of two longtime city employees who lost their jobs during a so-called reorganization of city departments one year earlier in September of 2015. Davidson wielded the metaphorical axe that day and Olsen was devastated.
He has rebounded, in a manner of speaking, but he has not forgotten what they did to him, and by they, he doesn’t mean just Davidson.
“They want people to think they didn’t know Rebecca Davidson had that harsh management style,” he said. “They hired her because of her management style.” He has particular animus for former Mayor Dave Sakrison, whom he believes orchestrated his ouster.
He said the city’s decision to settle – Davidson received $25,000 in exchange for dropping the $2 million lawsuit – set a bad example. He said it made no sense to settle since attorneys for the city had prevailed every step of the way and there was nothing on the horizon to believe her luck would change. He said he knows the city settled to save money on future litigation costs, but sometimes, “doing the right thing” means that saving money shouldn’t always be the priority.
“Where’s my settlement?” he asked. “Where’s the settlement for my friend, Ken?” He was speaking of the late Ken Davey, whose economic development position was eliminated alongside Olsen’s. Davey died in early December, 2017, following a bout with pneumonia. The men did not file a lawsuit against the city, believing they would have no standing to challenge the city.
The passage of time has tempered Olsen’s outlook. He admits he went off the rails for a few weeks after losing his job with the city. He had been there for 25 years, was in his 50s, an age most employers don’t typically clamor for – and he went from earning $90,000 a year to $9.65 an hour as a middle school custodian.
“It was rough, man,” he said with a tight grin. “I had no confidence. I totally lost my confidence and it took a while to get that back.”
In October of 2015, Davidson told The Times-Independent that Sakrison and the city council told her upon her hiring the previous April that they wanted her to review city operations and take steps to make local government more efficient. Olsen believes Davidson was told at that time to specifically get rid of him and Davey, a 10-year city employee.
“I saw the writing on the wall the minute she got here,” he said. He claims Davidson began their relationship on a hostile note and it only went downhill from there.
On July 4, 2015, two months prior to the elimination of his position, Olsen filed a 13-page grievance against Davidson. He alleged Davidson violated the city’s Personnel Policies and Procedures mission statement by not “dealing with me fairly, professionally and compassionately. I also feel she has violated … the city’s sexual harassment policy.” He went on to say Davidson created a “hostile and intimidating” work environment and that ageism might also have been in play.
He said she used bullying tactics. The constant stress affected his health, his ability to sleep at night and had made him “dread coming to work” to a job he loved until Davidson was hiring.
The city in its defense of Davidson’s lawsuit cited her hostile management style as the reason behind her termination – she claimed she was wrongfully terminated for blowing the whistle on the Moab Police Department.
As spring of 2015 moved into summer, the relationship continued to sour. Davidson took away Olsen’s work truck. She belittled him for spending so much time on trails, and essentially told him to give up his role on the Trail Mix board. He was berated for working two hours overtime and stopped logging over-time hours on his timecard when he worked more than 40 hours in a week. He was constantly told his salary was too high.
Olsen said he became one of the city’s higher paid employees based on longevity and the step advances that automatically come with time on the job, merit pay increases and promotions following consistently positive evaluations – until Davidson arrived. “They punished me for sticking it out with the city,” he said.
Three months after he was supposed to get his latest performance evaluation, and potentially another step increase, a frustrated Olsen sent an email out requesting the evaluation be completed. Davidson reportedly told him she was too busy and told him to “write my own evaluation.”
It turned out to be a case of “be careful what one wishes for.” For the first time in his quarter-century with the city, Olsen received what he called a “harsh” evaluation, completed by a person who had only been with the city for a few months and who repeatedly told him he “made too much money for someone who planted trees.”
For 22 years Olsen was the city’s urban forester. He’s a certified arborist. He also brought in millions of dollars in grant funding for projects ranging from senior housing repairs to water tanks, from new sewer lines to significant projects at area parks, bridge repairs, signage, sports facilities and trails.
While Olsen said he was treated with wholesale contempt, there’s a part of him that will be forever grateful to the people who spoke in his defense, and wound up as defendants in another Davidson lawsuit, which claim she was defamed.
“Those people were brave. They have integrity and I will always remember them,” said Olsen. He’s also grateful for the people who anonymously helped him and his family. Someone bought them a refrigerator when theirs went on the fritz. “I just got a lot of support at a time when I really needed it and I’ll never forget that,” he said. A 2017 run for mayor pitted Olsen against Emily Niehaus. He said he ran for a number of reasons, but losing the election didn’t hurt as bad as losing his job. He respects Niehaus and said he thinks she’s doing a good job.
In the meantime, he continues to perform his custodial duties at Grand County Middle School. If he sticks it out for a few more years, he’ll be eligible to collect a civil service retirement check.
“They never should have settled,” he said. “They sent such a bad message.”