By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Commissioners have decided to launch an investigation into the performance of Road and Bridge Department Supervisor David Ohnstad concerning work done on Upper Woodchuck Road at the north end of the valley. Ohnstad waived his right to privacy at the November 21 meeting and Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht subsequently read a proposed letter at the open meeting detailing the allegations against Ohnstad.
The letter, which the commission voted unanimously to send to Ohnstad, outlines four areas of concern with his handling of the project. According to preliminary information gathered by a special investigator for the County Attorney’s Office, the letter states Ohnstad may have violated county employment policy by making false or misleading statements to the board of county commissioners concerning work done on the road about what culverts had been removed and needed replacement, what engineering services had been obtained, and the cause of the problems with the road.
Ohnstad is also accused, based on initial investigations, of failing to perform duties satisfactorily in that the work done by him and under his supervision required extensive rework to be done. That rework involved the installation of culverts that were not installed in the first place, and the work done to address the improper installation of other culverts. The deficiencies include inadequate road bed preparation, inadequate compacting, compacting testing and drainage issues which, according to the letter, will require additional remediation.
The letter goes on to state that Ohnstad may have violated county policy by failing to supervise the work done by the department and by failing to properly manage work assignments. Ohnstad is also alleged to have violated county policy by failing to obtain appropriate engineering services for the work.
A date was set for a hearing on the allegations on January 20, 2012 at 9 a.m., at which time the Board may take further disciplinary action, which may include termination of employment. The evidence submitted at Monday’s meeting included records of statements made to the commissioners, records of remedial work done on the Upper Woodchuck Road, a letter to the editor in the Bitterroot Star by local landowner Niki Sardot complaining about the deficiencies in the road work, and 117 photographs taken by the county attorney’s special investigator.
Recht told the commissioners that the information supplied so far indicates grounds for an investigation. The letter, which he prepared to be sent to Ohnstad, also recommended suspension of the Road Department Superintendent with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.
Former County Attorney George Corn, who represented Ohnstad at the meeting, said that his client had not received proper notice of the allegations and had not had the opportunity to review it before the meeting. He said that if the commissioners were considering making a decision based on the allegations and material presented that his client should have had the opportunity to review the material before the meeting.
“This would seem to be improper notice,” he said.
Ohnstad said that he had received a letter from the board of commissioners while on vacation visiting his mother on November 4 stating that a meeting would be held on November 7 to consider possible disciplinary action against him. He was invited to attend or to participate by telephone. He expressed “outrage” at that notification and called it “utterly inexcusable.” His attorney protested and the meeting was cancelled. He expressed further frustration at coming to the current meeting and being faced with a “list of bizarre accusations.”
At that point Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher said that he would make a motion that would clear things up.
A reporter for the Bitterroot Star made a point of order stating that the agenda item for the meeting was deficient if the commission was considering taking any action on the matter. He claimed that the public notice of the meeting was insufficient in both content and timing since it stated neither the topics to be discussed nor any action being contemplated.
Commissioner Kanenwisher said, “You can’t be noticed before you are actually noticed, I don’t know how to fix that.” He made a motion to suspend Ohnstad with pay pending an investigation and to execute the due process letter to Ohnstad. As far as the notice to Ohnstad while he was on vacation, Kanenwisher said, “The county has business regardless of whether someone has vacations. So we proceed, we research and we take some action.” He said, “We noticed a meeting, the employee asked us to wait and we did that.” He said when the employee returned, “We had to determine when we could meet given the schedule we had, so we gave 48 hours notice and in my mind we have done everything we can do.”
Commission Chairman J.R. Iman asked the county attorney if the process being followed was correct and County Attorney Bill Fulbright, who was in attendance, said, “The short answer is yes.” He said the first step in the process was to decide if an investigation is warranted.
Ohnstad’s attorney, George Corn, said that the question of due process for this meeting needed to be addressed. He said that Ohnstad should have been given the documents presented at this meeting beforehand so that he could prepare a response. He called it a “one sided deal with no due process.” Ohnstad added that the county obviously had all this information back on November 1 when they first tried to schedule a meeting.
Commissioner Kanenwisher stated that the employee could not even be named or anything discussed until he showed up and either asserted or waived his right to privacy.
Corn responded, saying that if his client had received the material in advance he could have prepared a response and possibly convinced the commissioners that an investigation was not necessary.
Deputy County Attorney Recht responded, saying that Ohnstad would have a chance to reply to the allegations at the planned hearing.
Corn then argued against suspending Ohnstad pending the investigation. He said that Ohnstad was a valuable employee with seven years of good service in which he was able to bring in multiple grants for road work all over the county and even received some awards for his service. He said that suspending Ohnstad would be to treat him unfairly. He said there were no allegations of violence in the workplace, or of insubordination, or of any unlawful activity.
“These are the kinds of things that call for suspension,” said Corn. “There is no reason to suspend him based on the record.”
Commissioner Iman said that he had serious concerns about not having a road supervisor for any extended period of time and wondered if the suspension would be in the county’s best interest.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott agreed and it was ultimately decided not to suspend Ohnstad during the investigation.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, Lee Tickell of rcwatchdog.org, an online news source, stated that in his opinion the notice for this meeting was insufficient, that the public had been “cut out” of the process and been deprived of access to the documents.
Commissioner Kanenwisher said that he had placed the item on the agenda early Friday morning.
“We’ve got a workweek. We’ve got schedules. We’ve got people who work here,” he said. He stated that more than 48 hours notice was given. Recht agreed, stating that more than 48 hours notice was given and that the law does not offer specific requirements for public notice. He also stated that an employee’s name should not even be mentioned before he can appear and claim or waive his right to privacy.