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SLO County Education Office supervisor accused of secretly recording employees

A maintenance supervisor for the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education and his lead custodian are accused in three administrative claims filed last month of secretly recording and harassing employees.

Internal emails obtained by The Tribune indicate that Bill Barnhill, the maintenance supervisor, allegedly admitted to recording employees without their consent, but Barnhill told a personnel official that he was simply using the recordings for note taking.

Office of Education Superintendent James Brescia declined to comment on the claims Monday, citing potential litigation and personnel confidentiality issues.

Administrative claims represent only one side and precede a civil lawsuit. If the county rejects the claims, lawsuits could be filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

The claims were filed Oct. 29 by custodians Sharon James and Julie Lackie, as well as groundskeeper Dennis Loftus, who all work at the Office of Education’s facilities throughout the county. They each allege harassment by Barnhill and lead custodian Michelle Terry.

The three employees learned in August that Barnhill secretly recorded conversations with them, according to the claims. The number of conversations recorded was unknown, the claims say, because at least one audio recorder was destroyed on or around Aug. 21.

In California, recording private conversations, either in person or over the phone, requires consent from all parties involved. Skirting consent could subject a person to criminal prosecution and civil liability.

The claims further allege that Barnhill unlawfully took photographs and other media of the employees but do not say what those showed.

Barnhill did not respond to requests for comment.

Dustin Tardiff, an Avila Beach-based attorney representing the three employees, said he discovered receipts for one audio recorder and a set of binoculars purchased by Barnhill. He declined to say if the items were bought with county funds.

The conduct of those (supervisors) is absolutely outrageous, and the total failure of responsible administrative personnel is alarming, to say the least. This whole thing is incredibly bizarre.

Dustin Tardiff, attorney representing the three employees

The recorders were hidden and the employees learned of them later through administrators, Tardiff said. The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office investigated and forwarded the case to the District Attorney’s Office for review of formal charges. As of Tuesday, no charges had been filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, and a DA spokesperson was not available for comment Wednesday.

The employees claim the recordings were part of a series of harassing behaviors by Barnhill and Terry.

Beginning around February 2014, according to the claims, Barnhill and Terry began showing up unannounced at the custodians’ job sites, where they often work late at night in unoccupied buildings, for the purpose of “surprising, shocking, annoying, assaulting and harassing” them.

Administrators were notified of the behavior in August and “disingenuously asked” Barnhill and Terry to stop or give employees notice if they were going to a job site, according to the claims. The harassment continued, the employees allege, including separate incidents in which Terry sneaked up on two of the employees as they worked with headphones on and purposefully startled them when they turned around.

“The conduct of those (supervisors) is absolutely outrageous, and the total failure of responsible administrative personnel is alarming, to say the least,” Tardiff said. “This whole thing is incredibly bizarre.”

Internal emails show that on Aug. 17 a staff member told Chief Human Resources Officer Tom Alvarez that Barnhill was making the recordings and expressed concern that Barnhill may have broken the law. The staffer wrote that Barnhill also was accused of using an “unprofessional and otherwise intimidating tone” and making threats of reprisal to members of the employees union.

The staffer also told Alvarez that Terry was possibly “not realizing the differences between lead (custodian) and supervisor.”

Days later, Alvarez wrote that he met with Barnhill and was told that the idea to record employees came from Barnhill’s former supervisor, who suggested Barnhill “take notes or record conversations so that he could remember discussion points so that he could later write them down correctly and accurately,” according to an email.

“Bill stated that he was following (his former supervisor’s) direction and was not aware that he could not record conversations without the consent of others or question his recommendation to use this as a tool,” Alvarez wrote.

Barnhill reportedly told Alvarez that the records were not used for disciplinary reasons, and that all recordings had been erased and no copies made, according to an email. He was told not to record in the future and was to undergo coaching on how to “communicate more effectively.”

The claims allege Barnhill, Terry and the Office of Education caused their staffers general and special damages and emotional distress. The employees are seeking unspecified punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

Barnhill was hired in May 2012, and Terry was hired in March 2013, according to the Office of Education.

The county is expected to respond formally to the claims within the month.

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