Former employee accuses Cordova Recreation and Park district of whistleblower retaliation

The Cordova Recreation and Park District faces allegations of discrimination and whistleblower retaliation against a former top employee.

In a claim filed last week, former supervisor Kathy Reyes Spindola alleged the district fired her after she complained that Park Services Superintendent Gary Dobbs had made insensitive and offensive remarks. She accused Dobbs of referring to people wearing cultural headgear as “ragheads” and making a statement derogatory to Mexicans.

Dobbs was hired in 2013 to replace Steve Ebert, who was murdered the year before in Rancho Cordova’s Hagan Community Park by a laid-off maintenance worker. According to Reyes Spindola, Dobbs has further upset a staff that was still in distress about the loss of the well-liked Ebert.

In the claim, attorney Mary-Alice Coleman says Reyes Spindola has “suffered injuries and damages far in excess of $10,000.” The district’s actions are in violation of state and federal laws against discrimination, harassment and whistleblower retaliation, she said.

“It’s offensive that a public agency, with taxpayer dollars, tolerates this kind of behavior,” Coleman said.

Dobbs, who is responsible for maintaining 39 parks in Rancho Cordova and a handful of unincorporated Sacramento County communities, declined to comment on the allegations Tuesday, directing all questions to the district’s administration. District Administrator Jim Rodems said he could not comment because the case involves confidential personnel matters.

A Nov. 14 letter from Resources Manager Andrea White to Reyes Spindola says she had a good record under Ebert, but did not listen to Dobbs and was critical of him and other district staff, and those were the reasons for her termination. Coleman provided a copy of the letter to The Sacramento Bee.

Reyes Spindola disputes the letter’s contents, saying that she was not informed of any problems with her work under Dobbs until recently. She said Rodems had her serve as acting superintendent following Ebert’s murder in 2012 and encouraged her to apply for the permanent position, which she did, before the district hired Dobbs in August 2013.

In September 2014, White told her she was being placed on leave while the district investigated her employment, Reyes Spindola said.

“I was in a state of shock,” said Reyes Spindola. She said she can only come to the conclusion that Dobbs wanted her out because of her complaints about his offensive remarks, of which she alleges there were several.

She said not long after Dobbs started as park services superintendent, he repeatedly told a story about a former female colleague who gave him a coffee cup with a provocative picture of herself on it, in an attempt to gain favor with him. His repetition of the story suggested he was bragging, she said.

Later in a roomful of employees, Dobbs made a reference to “dark-skinned people” as “ragheads,” apparently referring to Sikhs who wore turbans, Reyes Spindola said. She said she did not report the remark to White until one of her employees said he was offended.

Dobbs also made remarks about a transgender individual being “wrong” and complained about a “large ethnic group” vandalizing a soccer field, Reyes Spindola said.

She said she verbally reported these remarks to White, who told her that Dobbs has different standards because he’s from the South and that she would talk to him. Dobbs went to college in Virginia and worked in Kentucky, Virginia and Washington, D.C., for the first 30 years of his career before taking a job with Michigan State University in 2008, according to his résumé on the website LinkedIn. He left Michigan State after he was hired by the Cordova district following a national search to replace Ebert.

Reyes Spindola said she didn’t press her concerns about Dobbs until he told her a story about getting squirted with a weed killer while he was in the field. “Do I look like I’m Mexican?” Dobbs said, according to Reyes Spindola. She said she found the remark offensive because her mother is of Mexican descent, and Dobbs knew that about her.

She said she submitted a complaint in writing to White, but nothing came of it. She said Dobbs must have learned about her complaints because he became increasingly distant toward her.

Reyes Spindola said that while she was on leave, the district offered her a different job with less pay and fewer supervisory responsibilities, and she agreed because she needed the money.

But White later rescinded the lesser job offer, saying she realized that the move would not “impress upon you your need to genuinely accept your shortcomings as an employee,” according to the November letter that informed Reyes Spindola of her termination.

Reyes Spindola said she remains confused by what happened, and upset that she has been forced to apply for unemployment compensation and search for a new job.

“I don’t understand why I’m here,” she said during an interview in her attorney’s Davis office. “I have to believe it is retaliation.”

Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee