Montgomery County officials are investigating allegations by employees at the Department of Economic Development that acting director Sally Sternbach has fostered a hostile work environment marked by “persistent inappropriate and intimidating behavior.”

The charges are contained in an April 6 letter to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) from Gino Renne, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 (Municipal and County Government Employees Organization), which represents about half of the 40 employees in the department.

Sternbach declined to comment and referred all questions to county Chief Administrative Officer Timothy Firestine. Firestine suggested that the accusations are part of a union effort to thwart plans under consideration to privatize the department. He said that Sternbach “challenges a lot of facts in the letter.”

In the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post, Renne said employees have observed Sternbach “screaming vulgarities, disrespecting staff members and conducting herself in an unprofessional manner with business leaders in the community.”

The letter alleges that Sternbach “on numerous occasions” has described unionized employees as “highly paid children” and “useless.”

Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike"Leggett poses for a portrait in his office in Rockville in this file photo. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

One employee said that in discussing a vacancy for the directorship of the department’s small- and minority-business empowerment division, Sternbach said the employee — who is white — was “the wrong color” for the job.

Renne requested that Sternbach be removed from supervising union members in the office.

Leggett said he was surprised by the charges and has “not known [Sternbach] to mistreat people,” but added that the incidents will be investigated. Firestine said his office would “follow up to see if there’s any validity” to the claims.

The two officials, who have been looking at ways to improve Montgomery’s ability to attract and retain jobs, are considering whether to propose spinning off the county’s economic development functions into a private nonprofit organization.

“A lot of people are concerned about their future,” Firestine said. “I sense the union feels it has a job to do.”

Sternbach came to the county as deputy director of the agency in 2012 after nine years at Rockville’s nonprofit economic development organization. She was appointed acting director in January, and is paid $163,000 a year. Her predecessor, Steve Silverman, now a private business consultant, said none of the accusations against Sternbach rang true.

“I’ve known and worked with Sally for 25 years and she’s a very strong, opinionated person who wants to get things done,” he said.

Silverman, a former Montgomery County Council member and 2006 candidate for county executive, also pushed back hard against Renne, the union leader, charging that he was attempting to cow Leggett in an effort to protect union jobs and possibly thwart privatization.

Renne said Wednesday he was just doing his job as a union leader. He has also mustered union members in recent months to protest a proposed overhaul of the county’s Liquor Control, which could jeopardize union positions.

In addition, the labor group he heads opposed Leggett’s plans for an independent transit authority, in which Ride-On bus drivers would leave county government to work for the new agency — but, according to county officials, would remain members of the bargaining unit.

The names of agency staffers bringing the allegations against Sternbach were redacted in the version of the letter that was supplied to The Post. But three employees, made available by the union, agreed to elaborate on some of the allegations.

James Moody, a business development specialist and the agency’s union shop steward, said Sternbach was often infuriated when she learned that anyone in the office had reached out to the County Council or county executive’s office without her permission.

Moody said he recently heard Sternbach “screaming on the phone, yelling” because a staff member had e-mailed Firestine without copying her on the message.

Moody said he heard her say never to contact without her knowledge the “second floor,” which is the location of Firestine’s office in the Executive Office Building in Rockville.

“She starts yelling at people before she even gets to their office,” Moody said. “Her management style is like from 40 years ago,” Moody said.

Another agency employee, who requested anonymity, said Sternbach used possible privatization as a form of leverage, telling some staff members that they “had nothing to worry about” in the transition, while sharing no information with others.