Politics & Government

Probe faults Yosemite’s ex-superintendent for style, but absolves him of gender bias

Former Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher.
Former Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher. The Fresno Bee

Federal investigators on Monday found fault with former Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher’s management “style and behavior,” but concluded there was “no evidence” he had acted out of bias or favoritism.

In a long-awaited report, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General gave Neubacher what amounted to a mixed grade for his leadership of one of the country’s most popular parks. Of the 71 employees interviewed, investigators noted, 42 “spoke highly” of Neubacher as a manager.

“The remaining either had no opinion, vacillated in their opinion or said that he sometimes communicated poorly; that he could be dismissive, abrupt or overly critical; and that he would often publicly criticize and undermine employees after he lost confidence in them,” investigators noted in the 24-page report.

Titled an investigation into “allegations of a hostile work environment at Yosemite National Park,” the inquiry was initiated last summer. It mirrored, in part, an investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which first put Neubacher’s management under the spotlight in a September 2016 hearing.

Neubacher retired shortly after that hearing as the investigation was picking up steam. He had served as Yosemite superintendent since 2010; his permanent replacement has not been selected by the Trump administration.

A spokesman for the National Park Service, Andrew Munoz, called the new report a “valuable catalyst for organizational self-reflection.”

“We recognize we can and must do better to cultivate a workplace environment where everyone can thrive,” Munoz said.

Munoz noted that over the past year, the park service has “introduced new, service-wide anti-harassment training; increased employee awareness of their rights in the workplace; conducted a comprehensive workforce survey and created a new confidential resource for employees to seek assistance on sensitive workplace issues.

The report made public Monday did not include any formal response from Neubacher, and it identified him only as a “senior official” rather than by name. But in an email sent to Yosemite employees prior to his retirement last September, Neubacher said he was sorry for any shortcomings.

“It was never my intention, in any way, to offend any employee over the course of the six and a half years I have been superintendent,” Neubacher wrote. “If I did offend any of you at any time, I want to sincerely apologize.”

A Yosemite supervisor said that he did not believe that the senior official had a gender bias, but he felt that the senior official could have handled certain situations better.

Interior Department Office of Inspector General

Neubacher, according to investigators, “acknowledged that he tended to micromanage certain issues at Yosemite and was critical of employees, but said that he did not consider his behavior to be hostile or harassing.”

“He said that his job was very demanding and that he had not intended to appear dismissive,” the report said.

While many Yosemite staffers told Office of Inspector General investigators said they had witnessed Neubacher “undermining another team member’s competence and performance,” they voiced uncertainty about whether it constituted harassment.

“The official’s management style and behavior may have contributed to what some Yosemite employees perceived as inappropriate behavior,” the investigators wrote, adding that co-workers “expressed varying degrees of concern about the senior official’s demeanor, management and communication styles, tone of voice and behavior.”

Yosemite staffers recounted, for instance, Neubacher “walking out of someone’s office abruptly, publicly criticizing employees’ work and being unsupportive or uncongenial,” according to investigators.

Nine Yosemite employees told investigators they believed Neubacher “had a bias against women,” and they described “an environment in which he targeted certain female management team members who were smart and outspoken by frequently bypassing them to speak with their male subordinates” or micromanaged them.

One employee, Kelly Martin, chief of the park’s fire and aviation branch, went public with her complaints in the House hearing last September.

Other Yosemite workers, though, countered that while Neubacher “did not always treat female employees well, some male employees did not necessarily fare any better.”

Female employees make up approximately 39 percent of Yosemite’s workforce and accounted for 36 percent of the park’s supervisors. Investigators found no apparent discrepancy between the monetary or time-off awards given to male and female employees.

“A former Yosemite supervisor said that he did not believe the senior official had a gender bias because he had seen him treat both male and female employees in what he would consider a hostile fashion,” investigators recounted.

Neubacher himself denied creating a hostile work environment, while noting the quick management requirements and constant demands imposed at a park visited by more than 4 million people annually.

“At Yosemite, you work at a fast pace,” Neubacher told investigators, “and I do think some people want to ponder things for a long time, which we don’t have time for.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10