Celebrated Ex-County Engineer Faith al-Khatib Sues Over Termination, Citing Racism and Illegalities

Then-County Engineer Faith al-Khatib during one of her last public appearances for Flagler County, at a meeting on the beach renourishment project in Flagler Beach. She had worked for the county for 18 years. (© FlaglerLive)
Then-County Engineer Faith al-Khatib during one of her last public appearances for Flagler County, at a meeting on the beach renourishment project in Flagler Beach. She had worked for the county for 18 years. (© FlaglerLive)

Faith al-Khatib, for 18 years the Flagler County engineer and public works director repeatedly praised for securing millions in state and federal dollars for county projects, is suing the county for wrongful termination and retaliation, citing favoritism, illegal acts she refused to perform for the administration, and racism. Al-Khatib is of Palestinian extraction. 

It is the second lawsuit filed against the county by a former employee alleging discrimination in the past year. In May 2023, Sonya Graves, a Black-Hispanic woman hired in March 2022 as the housing and human services manager, sued on two counts of discrimination. She was “constructively discharged,” as her lawsuit describes it, barely two months after she was hired. Tallahassee attorney Marie Mattox, who specializes in labor law, is representing both women. 

Al-Khatib’s lawsuit follows a discrimination and retaliation complaints she filed with the Florida Commission on Human Relations and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last September. 

Al-Khatib had been prominently leading the administration’s efforts toward a beach-management plan, frequently appearing before county commissioners to discuss the initiative, along with road, bridge and other infrastructure projects. In 2017 she was named president of a state association of engineers, coinciding with the years when she pulled off two dune-rebuilding efforts and the expected match for a massive federal beach-renourishment project, all without more than a fraction of local dollars. She was an especially able navigator of state and federal funding bureaucracies, a skill the county repeatedly applauded her for

One of her signature recent achievements was the pedestrian bridge over State Road 100, which one commissioner referred to at its February opening as “the Faith Bridge.” 

Al-Khatib wasn’t at the opening. She had disappeared toward the second half of last year. For a time the administration said she was on a leave of absence. The lawsuit  claims she was fired, because even though she was denied a further extension of her medical leave, she was not warned of the consequences if she did not return.

A December 5 letter to al-Khatib from Deputy County Administrator Jorge Salinas accuses her of going seven consecutive days without reporting to work or contacting the administration, after receiving leave in one form or another since Aug. 22, 2023. “Effective immediately, the county considers you to have resigned,” Salinas wrote her. 

The lawsuit describes in bleak terms the county administration of recent years, straddling the tenures of Administrators Jerry Cameron, who left in 2021, and Heidi Petito, who took over since. Through her lawyer, al-Khatib charges Cameron (whose infatuation with backrooms was no secret), Petito, Deputy Administrator Jorge Salinas and Human Resources Director Pam Wu of discriminatory double standards, of deception, and of intentionally sidelining and undermining her while ignoring her whistleblowing on several occasions, including regarding orders from the administration to carry out acts she considered illegal, such as illegal sand dumping on a beach. 

The lawsuit claims the senior executive team treated her with “disparate treatment and retaliation,” while a colleague with a criminal record was afforded better treatment. Al-Khatib charges that she was stripped of her public works director title when she refused to appoint the colleague “with a criminal record” to a management position. 

She had by then hired Hamid Tabassian as her deputy. She accused him of sexual harassment on three occasions with no action by the county’s human resources director despite four complaints between May and August 2023. Yet Tabassian “falsely accused [al-Khatib] of misconduct,” leading the administration to launch the investigation that eventually caused her to take leave. 

Before that point, the lawsuit states, “Salinas and Petito met with [Tabassian] about engineering projects [al-Khatib] was responsible, legally liable, and accountable for. Notably, Tabassian was [al-Khatib]’s direct report.”

“Plaintiff was a loyal, dedicated, and industrious employee and was the recipient of several awards,” the lawsuit states, but was fired after nearly two decades of service.

The administrators Al-Khatib has worked with have never questioned her work ethic, her intelligence and her ability to get things done. But early on there were signs of the difficulties she would continue to face in some of her more routine relations with colleagues, perhaps a reflection of a Levantine disposition that did not always translate as intended in Flagler. 

Jim Jarrell, the county administrator in 2006, noted in an otherwise strong evaluation that “while an exceptionally intelligent individual who is highly knowledgeable in her primary area of expertise, engineering and program management, the one major shortfall that Faith exhibits is her interpersonal skills.” 

Al-Khatib, he wrote, “all too often displays an overtly aggressive and confrontational nature when she is not in full agreement with someone over an issue. Likewise, while she can be quick to show her temper in response to issues, she often reacts in a negative and emotional manner to those who are out off by her confrontational demeanor and, who in turn, end up responding in a negative fashion.” Jarrell recommended she strive to be a “team player” and learn to compromise. 

Then-Administrator Craig Coffey, while commending al-Khatib’s abilities and efficiency and finding her to exceed expectations, also cautioned in a 2008 evaluation: “Faith must concentrate on being flexible and having to work with the faults and opinions of others without being condescending or completely disregarding the ideas of others out of hand. Faith is a great credit to her profession,” he continued, with additional accolades. Al-Khatib herself had handwritten on that evaluation that she would “strive to adapt my managerial style and team participation throughout the changes in the management’s administration.” (Coffey was completing his first year as administrator at the time.) 

Notably, while FlaglerLive requested al-Khatib’s complete employee file, only those few evaluations were included. No evaluations beyond 2008 were provided, until a 2021 one-page memo by Cameron that apparently served as her evaluation. Either the county did not provide the rest or no evaluations were conducted for those many years. Neither possibility is to the county administration’s credit: one possibility would suggest that the county is suppressing documents. The other suggests that the county administration did not take evaluations seriously, or that supervision was wanting. Even the Cameron memo pointed to a slapdash, subjective approach to evaluations that discarded formal, standard methods for the ease of a quick, three-paragraph summary that just happened to be timed with the building of a case against al-Khatib.  

The evaluations that were included paint a limited portrait, leaving no possibility of evaluating al-Khatib’s evolution over the years, though clearly she worked well with Coffey. He rewarded her with a major promotion in pay grade and pay to prevent her from taking a job in Volusia County, with the County Commission ratifying the decision. 

The next batch of documents relating to her workplace conduct start with  the Cameron “evaluation” of the same year and a 2021 reprimand memo by Salinas, accusing her of violating the chain of command when she sent a consultant’s pavement management report to commissioners before it had been shared with the administration.

Cameron, who was weeks from one of his perennial retirements, recognized al-Khatib’s skill “in bringing millions of dollars to the county in State and Federal Funding” and keeping her projects at or under budget. But he went on to criticize her, albeit more gently than Coffey and certainly Jarrell had, suggesting “improved communications and relationships with other directors and senior staff members.” Cameron wrote that if she were able to do that, “she should have a very successful ending to her career.” 

Al-Khatib fired back at Cameron, as if she saw other motives at work: “There is one thing that the Engineering Department does more than most others, we work with state and federal agencies due to our assigned grants and the projects. We have been very successful because we are precise, collaborative, dependable and accountable. I know all the departments strive in the same way in their own work assignments,” she wrote him. “Yes, I do raise hard questions and challenge some proposals and some may think that is negative. It is meant to be a part of the process of acting in the best interest of Flagler County residents, for both short and long term goals to be met. This is entirely consistent with what you have taught about long term thinking and solving problems.” 

To al-Khatib, the Salinas and Cameron memos were part of a continuing effort to isolate her from the senior leadership team and from meetings involving her own projects. 

There’s another document gap between Cameron’s departure in 2021 and a key development in 2023: an investigation by Wu, the human resources director, into allegations that al-Khatib was “creating a hostile work environment in the Engineering Department” and “bullying employees.”

The investigation was launched almost contemporaneously with al-Khatib reporting an issue to Salinas under the Whistle Blower Act, after Salinas had asked her to approve the disposal of sand in the Bay Drive Parking Lot, which al-Khatib refused to do before legal steps were met first. Weeks later Salinas confronted al-Khatib with a fellow-employee’s allegations of bullying. 

During a May 19, 2023 meeting, according to the lawsuit, “Salinas brought up the sand issue again and said he was planning on dumping it on the beach illegally. [al-Khatib] again reported to Salinas and Wu that the plans to dispose of the sand were in contravention of state and federal laws and local rules and regulations. Salinas instructed [al-Khatib] to approve giving the sand away knowing it was illegal and stated it would cost ‘a lot of money, consume employees’ time and the public is concerned about the sand being there.’” 

Salinas then directed another employee to dump the sand, circumventing al-Khatib’s resistance, according to the lawsuit: al-Khatib “later found that Salinas had informed [Coastal Engineer Ansley] Wren-Key to illegally dispose of the sand in contravention to [al-Khatib’s] advice not to do so and reported the matter to [the county attorney’s office]. Salinas did not disclose to Wren-Key the illegality of disposing of the sand, instead he requested that she get rid of the sand to save county resources and satisfy the public which was complaining about the sand sitting in the parking lot.”

Salinas and Petito objected to al-Khatib roping in the county attorney’s office, which administrations going back to Craig Coffey’s day have known not to rope in if the administration wanted to steer clear of legal hurdles–in other words, if the administration wanted something done whether it was legal or not. 

At the same meeting, Salinas confronted al-Khatib with allegations of bullying from a fellow-employee. Those allegations were from the complaint by Tabassian, the deputy county engineer al-Khatib had hired, which kicked off the internal investigation. Al-Khatib herself had previously “raised legitimate issues with Tabassian’s insubordination, harassment and anger issues,” according to the lawsuit, but nothing was done. Al-Khatib claims it was part of the administration’s plan to push her out. 

Seven department employees were interviewed in Wu’s internal investigation of Tabassian’s complaint, with Salinas conducting some of the interviews, including that of al-Khatib. All spoke of loud voices, frustrations, aggression, al-Khatib’s propensity for interruptions and silent treatments, but the main problem was between Tabassian and al-Khatib, with Tabassian seeing her as a “my way or the highway” sort of person. 

At the May 19 meeting, al-Khatib herself “also reported that the culture of the county government was creating isolation, harassment, racism, toxicity, hostile work environment, and other problems for departments, employees,” the lawsuit states. During Ramadan last year, Sainas had insisted that al-Khatib attend a late-night county meeting despite knowing that she was fasting, and that she could only break her fast after sundown. No investigation followed over any of those issues.

The lawsuit also described an instance when the administrator and her deputy asked al-Khatib to lie to commissioners. 

Wu–who months earlier had sent al-Khatib an obsequious letter congratulating her on her 15 years of service: “we are delighted to honor your dedication and loyalty to Flagler County,” etc.–concluded in her investigation of the Tabassian complaint that that al-Khatib was creating a “toxic work environment,”  and if some employees did not see it that way, they still considered the environment “unhealthy.” 

The documents provided by the county show no reprimand or resulting work plan, no suggestion of probationary status or other forms of discipline. The conclusion of the investigation alludes to subsequent meetings where training on bullying and office dynamics was to take place, indicating a willingness to work with al-Khatib.

Several of al-Khatib’s claims point to a toxic and legally questionable work environment that inculpates many more people than al-Khatib and for graver behavior than she was accused of. For all those serious issues, courts don’t generally look kindly on former employees who build a retaliation case on the rather shaky claim that they didn’t know their employment would be terminated if they didn’t show up for work, or make a call to find out what would happen if they did not–as appears to have been the case with al-Khatib.

Whatever had been the environment Wu had described in her investigation and al-Khatib had described at the May 19 meeting, it appears to have taken a severe toll. It isn’t clear why al-Khatib went on medical leave, only that she did so on Aug. 22, 2023, weeks after the conclusion of the investigation. She never returned. 

At the time, she was earning $185,286 a year, having gotten a 5.3 percent cost-of-living increase in October. (Her starting salary as the county engineer in 2005 was $81,700.) The lawsuit claims Cameron demoted her pay grade. There was a change in pay grade, though the county did not call it a demotion, but a change following a salary study that had recommended reclassifying various jobs. Her salary was increased by over $2,000 as a result. 

Al-Khatib’s attorney filed the lawsuit on May 23. The county has not yet answered the lawsuit in court. County Attorney Al Hadeed deferred questions to the attorney handling the matter for the county, Susan Erdelyi of Marks Gray in Jacksonville, the law firm handling the case through the county’s insurer. Erdelyi did not immediately respond to a call before the article initially published. 

 

 

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