Columbia County’s former EMA Director Pam Tucker will never forget a meeting she had last year with County Administrator Scott Johnson.
It wasn’t just unprofessional, she said.
It was frightening.
“I had been called up to the small conference room on the second floor, which is really the room where the beratements always took place with the doors closed,” Tucker said, adding that Deputy County Administrator Glenn Kennedy was also present for this meeting. “Scott came in with a stack of papers with his hands shaking.”
Over the past six years since Johnson was named the county administrator, Tucker had become accustomed to his outbursts.
“I was constantly being chewed out,” Tucker said. “Whenever the phone rang and it was Scott, it was never anything positive.”
But Tucker had never seen Johnson this incensed.
“His hands were shaking so badly that I took it to mean that he was more than just furious. That if he could have had his hands around my throat, I probably would have been dead,” Tucker said. “It was terrifying. People have no idea.”
The meeting was all centered around a new hire in the EMA department that Johnson didn’t support, Tucker said.
“So this final big push started last year when my department was just overworked and overloaded,” Tucker said, adding that her staff at the time included only two other people, EMA Deputy Director Rusty Welsh and Administrative Specialist Suzie Hughes. “Well, last year, I asked for and was approved to get a new employee to help us with our workload because the county had grown so much.”
The position was for an operations officer that would be paid $32,000 a year.
“We got 200 applicants for the job,” Tucker said, adding that she had decided this new employee would report to Rusty Welsh. “After going through the 200 applications, in the end, we came back to one lady, who is absolutely awesome. She was already a volunteer in many of our different areas of skilled training. We knew she could handle the heavy lifting and could be a part of our team and work well with us. We knew she was a good fit.”
During the employee search process, Tucker said she emailed both Johnson and Kennedy about the new position and the department’s progress.
“I did let them know, ‘Today, we found our person and we want to make her an offer,’” Tucker said. “I didn’t ever get replies too much on emails from Scott. He preferred texting and calling. He didn’t want to put a lot of stuff in emails.”
That day, Tucker said that she called up this young woman and told her that she would soon receive a letter offering her the position.
“We were so excited,” Tucker said. “She accepted the job, even though it meant her taking a pay cut. She wanted the job because her passion was working with us. She already put in, Lord knows, how many hours as a volunteer. We thought, ‘Wow. We have turned this corner in a positive way and everything is going to be better.’”
A couple of days later, Tucker said she got a call to meet with Johnson up in the small conference room.
“When he walked in, I had never seen his hands shaking so badly,” Tucker said. “He was holding a stack of papers and he said, ‘I just went and did a quick check through the applications. Did you talk to any of these people?’”
He tossed the applications toward Tucker.
She looked at the applications and told him that she had reviewed and considered them, but that those candidates weren’t as good a fit as the woman she had hired.
“Some of these people were retired and intellectually brilliant with the rules and laws of emergency management and they had worked in more of a desk job, but that was not what our job description was regarding the operations officer,” Tucker said. “We were looking for a worker bee to help Rusty. Someone to do the heavy lifting.”
However, Johnson had other plans in mind, she said.
“Scott asked, ‘Can she replace you?’” Tucker said, adding that she was surprised by Johnson’s comment. “And I said, ‘Probably not. Obviously, we are on two different wavelengths regarding the person that I’m supposed to be hiring.’ And he said, ‘You are supposed to be hiring your replacement.’”
Tucker was speechless.
“He said, ‘We want you to train somebody to take your place,’” Tucker recalled, adding that Johnson hinted that she would eventually have to be replaced down the line. “I said, ‘What about Rusty?’”
Johnson asked Tucker if she truly felt that Welsh could take her place.
“I said, ‘Yes. I have been mentoring Rusty for 14 years. He has his professional certification. He has everything he needs in his pocket to do the job,’” Tucker said. “But Scott said, ‘Well, I don’t think so.’”
At this point, Tucker said she was completely baffled by Johnson’s remarks.
“So then I am sitting there, my mind is racing, and I’m trying to figure out what in the heck is happening,” Tucker said. “I told Scott, ‘You all saw the email. I have hired this lady. I have sent her a letter telling her that she has the job.’”
Clearly, Johnson didn’t care, Tucker said.
“Scott told me, ‘You know, you are a division director, Pam. You can do what you want to do, but I’m telling you that I’m not happy,’” Tucker said. “And I replied, ‘Well, I can’t rescind the offer.’ And Scott said, ‘Sure, you can.’”
That’s when Tucker said her heart completely sank.
“Doesn’t that go to show what kind of manager he is,” Tucker said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my Lord, I love this lady so much. Look at all of the free hours alone that she has put in volunteering for this county. She loves this county and she has worked with us and now I have to go tell her that she is not going to get this job after I already offered it to her.’”
But Tucker said she felt she had no other choice. Johnson had made himself clear.
“So I set up a lunch meeting with her because I just didn’t know any other way to do it,” Tucker said. “So me, Suzie and Rusty took her to lunch and talked to her. And, I say this from my heart, only somebody with this girl’s awesome character would have sat there and been so understanding of this situation. Only her. And I will love her always for it. It was horrible.”
Around that same time, Andy Leanza, who was then employed by GEMA as an Area 5 Field Coordinator, decided to apply for the operations officer position in Columbia County.
Tucker said Leanza was young, very energetic and had a background in EMA, so the county decided to hire him.
“I said, ‘All right. Let’s work with Andy. We’ll train him. He’ll work with Rusty and we’ll move forward because this is the hand that I’ve been dealt,’” Tucker said. “So, the day Andy started was Dec. 5. By the time Christmas came around, we all had our Christmas lunch and at the end of the day, I was leaving. I gave Rusty a gift, he gave me gift and we hugged. Everything seemed fine. I left saying, ‘See you at the first of the year.’”
For the EMA department, there always needs to be at least one person, either her or Welsh, on call in case there is an emergency.
For Thanksgiving, Welsh had taken off the week to go on cruise and Tucker had been on call during that holiday.
“I was at the helm and on call during Thanksgiving, so during Christmas, I had both of my granddaughters and I asked if he would be on call and he said, ‘Yes,’” Tucker explained. “Well, then the day before Christmas Eve he sent me a text and said, ‘I would like to go out of town for dinner on Christmas Eve.’ I asked him if there was anybody around to cover for him. And he said, ‘I think Chester is around.’ Chester is one of our great volunteers.”
But Tucker felt a staff member should be on call.
“And I said, ‘What about Andy?’” Tucker said. “Rusty wrote back and said, ‘Nevermind. I just won’t go.’”
Since it was the day before Christmas Eve, Tucker said she was busy playing with her grandchildren and had chili on the stove.
“So I didn’t really think anymore about it,” Tucker said. “Well, apparently, Rusty decided he was going to quit. So that Monday, it was still a holiday, he contacted Glenn and Glenn contacted Scott. By the very next day, Scott called up all my managers to the small conference room to show them Rusty’s resignation letter.”
There are two resignation letters by Welsh, Tucker said.
One just states that he is resigning from his position. In a second letter to Johnson, which was dated Dec. 26, 2016, Welsh complained that Tucker required him to perform over-the-top duties such as maintain an “on call” status at all times including nights, weekends and holidays; he was expected to ask permission to leave town, even during non-working hours and especially during holidays; and he was expected to monitor and reply to email and text messages multiple times within the hour during both non-working and working hours.
He also accused Tucker of being “controlling, manipulative, condescending, arrogant, disrespectful, hypocritical and juvenile.”
“So, when I came back to work on Jan. 3, I was hit with all of this,” Tucker said. “I was called upstairs to that same room, the beratement room, and I’m told that Rusty has resigned and I’m shocked. Nothing is making sense to me at this point. Questions were racing through my mind, like why didn’t Scott call me the minute that Rusty called him? Why didn’t Rusty call me because I am his supervisor?”
When Tucker read Welsh’s resignation letter, she honestly didn’t believe it.
“It was almost like somebody said to him, ‘You need to sit down and write down every complaint you have about Pam,’” Tucker said. “That’s what I believe happened.”
“I believe that Scott had him sit down and write down every negative thing he could think of.”
“Because it was all this name calling and that made me think, Rusty and I had a close relationship our whole working life together. I don’t know what happened.”
After reading the resignation letter, Tucker asked Johnson if he would contact Welsh and ask him to come to the meeting.
“Rusty came up there and I said, ‘Rusty, why are you doing this? You don’t want to do this,’” Tucker said. “I mean, I paid him over $70,000 a year with car allowance. He ran his own show. I never micromanaged him. I was a very, very, very good leader for Rusty. I allowed him the freedom to do his job.”
But Tucker said Welsh told her that he was simply “burned out.”
“He said, ‘I come in your office and I want to talk to you and if the phone rings, you answer it,’” Tucker said. “I said, ‘Well, Rusty, if people call me, I answer it.’”
Since the EMA department only had three employees at the time, Tucker said she always answered the phone if no one else was available.
“I have people ask me, ‘Why are you answering your own phone?’ And I tell them, ‘It was ringing,’” Tucker said. “I always take my calls. It wasn’t meant to be negative or disrespectful to him. But that’s how he took it. I guess it was a sensitive side that I didn’t see in him.”
Tucker continued to ask Welsh to stay.
“I said, ‘You know, we’ve got Andy now to help out,’” Tucker said. “But Rusty said, ‘Well, it is just too late.’ However, I found out later on that I don’t think the two of them were meshing. It was not a good fit between the two of them.”
While the sudden resignation of Welsh was bad enough, Tucker also learned that Johnson had been trying to get additional complaints about Tucker from other managers working under her.
Johnson had his executive assistant, Janeabeth Wells, contact each of the managers, one by one, saying that they needed to meet with Johnson.
“But Janeabeth told them, ‘Don’t tell anybody. Don’t you dare tell Pam. I mean it. Don’t you dare tell Pam.’ Well, when I came back to work, of course, my employees told me,” Tucker said, laughing. “What Scott did was take the manifesto page that Rusty wrote with all the nasty things and said, ‘All right, so this is what Rusty wrote. He has resigned, by the way, so tell us how she treated you?’”
When most of the employees said that Tucker had treated them fairly, Johnson continued to press them, she said.
“Scott would say, ‘Well, you can be honest. She has already been written up twice and she has been trying to get rid of you,’” Tucker explained. “Well, neither one of those things are true. I was never, ever in my whole entire career written up for anything. Ever. Nothing. And I ended up getting a copy of my own file just to go through it and be sure that nothing was put in there without my knowledge. Also, I was not trying to get rid of anybody.”
But Johnson didn’t seem to mind lying to these employees’ faces, Tucker said.
“Scott was coercing my mangers into trying to say something negative,” Tucker said. “I confronted him later on and asked, ‘Why did you tell this person that I had been written up twice?’ And Scott said, ‘I didn’t tell her that.’”
When Tucker told her employees about Johnson’s response, they couldn’t believe it.
“They said, ‘Pam, why would I just make that up?’ And I said, ‘You wouldn’t. I know that,’” Tucker said.
Johnson pressed a male employee even further to provide negative information about her, Tucker said.
“With another manager, Scott said, ‘You just tell us how is she with you? We already know there are complaints against her,’” Tucker said. “The manager said, ‘Well, we get along fine. I have a strong personality. Pam has a strong personality. But we get along fine.’”
And then Scott told the manager, ‘Well, my ex-wife had a strong personality, too, that’s why I divorced her.’”
When that employee told Tucker about Johnson’s comment, she said her stomach turned.
“This is his so-called investigation because I was accused of a hostile work environment by Rusty?” Tucker asked. “Scott also proceeded to tell me that Rusty had been recording some our private conversations in the office. Heck, who knows what you say in private? But, apparently, he played some of those for Scott.”
All of this news came crashing down on Tucker the first week of the year, she said.
“The only thing that I can say about my feelings for Rusty is that I’m very, very disappointed in him,” she said. “For everything that I did for him in his career, he knows that I was always the person who followed the policies, followed the rules and followed the laws. I worked hard and I wanted all of us to work hard for the safety of the community. He knows that about me.”
That is why Welsh’s accusations against her were so heartbreaking, Tucker said.
“Why he suddenly turned on me, I don’t know,” she said. “I think there was some coercion on that as well. I think it all lays at Scott’s feet.”
Tucker said she met with Columbia County Commission Chair Ron Cross and Johnson on four separate occasions trying to resolve the situation prior to her submitting her own resignation letter on Jan. 31.
“I think it was the second meeting and Scott was sitting in there and I was talking to Ron about some of my concerns and Scott said, ‘So, I’m the reason that you are wanting to leave?’” Tucker said. “And I looked at him and said, ‘Scott, what you did was wrong. It was plain wrong.’ And, even then, I still don’t think it was sinking in. I mean, you just can’t treat people that way. Your good employees won’t stick around just because you pay them money. Money is not everything, especially to somebody who has character and ethics like I do.”
But trying to dig up dirt about her from other employees really crossed the line, Tucker said.
“Scott went behind my back and called up my employees and had this whole thing planned out,” Tucker said. “He broke my heart. He took away my job that I loved. And he did take it away. He can say, ‘Oh, I told Pam I didn’t want her to leave.’ But he did. He took my job away.”
In fact, Tucker clearly remembers the evening before her final meeting with Johnson and Cross.
“In this last go around, I told my husband, ‘Baby, I don’t think I can take this one more day. I have done all I can do. I have put up with it and put up with it. I just can’t do it anymore,’” Tucker said.
“After I submitted my resignation letter detailing what I went through at the hands of Scott Johnson, I began finding out that other employees had similar experiences with him as well. And some of them had it even worse. It really opened my eyes because sometimes you think you are the only one.”
Such treatment of county employees is totally unacceptable, Tucker said.
“Columbia County deserves better,” she said. “We know that is a change that is going to have to be made. I can say that with full honesty that we can’t have a person like that in our government. That’s not management. That’s not leadership. It’s a control thing with him. And people won’t speak out because they are scared of revenge from him. He is very vindictive.”
But Tucker says she refuses to remain silent.
In fact, she is taking it to another level by announcing that she is running for Columbia County Commission chair in 2018, the seat currently held by Cross.
“I’m not looking for any revenge. I’m not running to just shake things up. I want to truly come in and effect positive change because I love this county and I want the best for it,” Tucker said. “But I’m not naive. Let me tell you something.”
“I fully understand and recognize that I am walking into the world that the good ol’ boys have controlled forever. I am fully aware of that. People say, ‘Don’t underestimate them.’ And I say, ‘Don’t underestimate me.’”
During her 18 years with Columbia County, she was first hired as the Columbia County Division Director of Emergency Services as well as the EMA director.
Tucker was in charge of not only the EMA department, but Risk Management, 3-1-1 Communications Center, Public Transit, Senior Center, Fleet Services, Animal Services and managed the county contracts for both the ambulance service and the fire department.
It wasn’t until Johnson came on board about six years ago that he slowly began to take departments away from her, Tucker said.
“Scott didn’t like me being a division director because that put me in an upper tier. He didn’t want me there,” she said. “But because I did such a good job, it took him a long time to change that, but he slowly and surely did.”
“In fact, I asked him this question at the end, ‘Are you dismantling my division?’ And he did this Cheshire Cat grin and nodded at me. That was the moment that I said, ‘All of the pieces of puzzle are starting to fall together now. He is destroying my career. He wants me gone, regardless of what I do.’ This man was terrible.”
Even more shocking was the fact that not one Columbia County commissioner ever asked her about the allegations against her, Tucker said.
Instead, the commissioners simply appeared to take Johnson’s word for it.
“I don’t know what all Scott told the commissioners, but none of them ever came to my aid. And that hurts, too. That causes me to lose a lot of respect for them,” she said.
“The commissioners approved and allowed Scott Johnson to do this to me and, literally, in the end, just destroyed my 39-year career. You have to wonder why there are five commissioners and nobody ever called me and asked what happened. Since my last day, I haven’t heard from anybody.”
Tucker said she did receive one comment from Commissioner Doug Duncan on her Facebook page, but that’s been it.
“I ran into Trey (Allen) at a meeting the other day and he just kind of stared at me. He didn’t speak at all,” Tucker said, shaking her head. “I’m finding all of these animosities toward me and why? Because what happened went public? It needed to go public. This cannot go on. Not another person should ever have to go through this.”
The only comment the commissioners or Johnson have had about Tucker’s resignation is through the county’s public relations manager, Cassidy Harris.
She issued a press release on Feb. 1 stating that the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, through Cross, had decided to bring in a neutral, third party to perform an “internal investigation” into the matter.
“The request for this investigation has been submitted to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office with the understanding that the Internal Affairs Division will be handling everything from this point forward,” the press release stated. “They are speaking with all the parties involved. The investigation will address the allegations of a hostile work environment as stated from Ms. Pamela Tucker in her resignation letter along with allegation made in (EMA Deputy Director) Rusty Welsh’s resignation.”
The investigation has been going on for more than two months. Tucker said she was interviewed for an hour and 45 minutes by an investigator.
“I don’t know what will happen with the investigation,” Tucker said. “First of all, it was going to take a couple of weeks. Now, it has been over two months.”
“To me it is taking up way too much taxpayer time and money for something that Scott wanted. They didn’t want to pay me my severance package. They wanted to say, ‘She resigned. That means she doesn’t get it.’ Well, I resigned because of how I was being treated. I was forced out and I deserve my severance package.”
Tucker recently heard that a report on the investigation should be completed by Friday, April 28.
“I think Scott is going to make every effort to try to put some stuff in there that is negative about me, but I did a good job. I’m not worried about it,” Tucker said. “When I learned about this investigation on Feb. 1, I sent an email to all the commissioners saying, ‘First of all, I welcome the investigation but I would like to request any investigation be done by a third outside party in fairness to everyone.’ I did not get a single reply. Not a single response. They ignored me like I was a piece of dirt.”
More positive leadership is desperately needed in Columbia County, Tucker said.
“If elected, I am going to share the power of the seat of the chair with the other four commissioners because, right now, it is not like that,” Tucker said. “The other four commissioners don’t have a voice. That needs to change.”
Tucker also said she wants to boost employee morale and restore some of the basic benefits that Johnson took away after he replaced former County Administrator Steve Szablewski.
“I can’t say enough about the employees in Columbia County. We have a great staff,” Tucker said, smiling. “I am hearing from them every day. Heck, I’ve had campaign donations from a lot of them. The employees are happy that somebody stood up. And I beg them all to hang in there because better days are coming for them.”
The future is bright because, if elected, she will insist on hiring a new county administrator, she said.
“By 2035, we are going to have 190,000 people in this county. Right now, we’ve got to ‘right this ship,’” Tucker said, laughing. “Scott always used to say, ‘It took this ship many years to get bad and it is going to take me many years to right this ship.’ The truth is, we had a good county before he came along. I just want to right this ship and show some true leadership.”
All she needs is the grassroots support from Columbia County citizens and Tucker said she will proudly and honorably serve as the next commission chair.
“I could have went and got another job and made a lot of money, but I feel like, ‘If not me, who?’ This is the right time for me and I want to do this. This is in my heart,” Tucker said, adding that she has lived in Columbia County for 37 years and wants to see the county prosper for her two grandchildren. “I think the citizens of this county deserve better and I’m going to give them better. I will never let them down.”