By Michael Howell
Following a marathon meeting that lasted over eight hours on Friday, January 20, the Ravalli County Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to terminate the employment of County Road and Bridge Department Supervisor David Ohnstad. Ohnstad’s employment was terminated for violating county policy in his handling of the Upper Woodchuck Road paving project. The Commissioners found that Ohnstad had provided them with false or inaccurate information concerning the project and had failed to obtain appropriate engineering for the project.
The Commissioners first presented their allegations against Ohnstad at a meeting last November 21, 2010. Ohnstad waived his right to privacy and that meeting, as well as this follow up meeting, were both open to the public. At the November meeting it was decided to pursue an investigation into the issues.
The allegations at both meetings, as presented by Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht, remained the same. Ohnstad was accused of making false or misleading statements concerning what culverts had been removed during the process and what engineering services had been obtained. He was also blamed for unsatisfactory work on the project, specifically deficiencies in roadbed preparation, inadequate compacting, compacting testing and drainage problems and for failing to adequately supervise the work.
Ohnstad, represented by former county attorney George Corn, presented extensive evidence at last Friday’s meeting. Almost immediately, Corn called the investigation conducted by the county “biased and incomplete.” He said information being presented to the commissioners by the investigators was being presented in a lopsided and unfair manner. He noted that several road department employees had been interviewed by investigators but none of the information they gave was included in the report. Corn submitted a letter of support for Ohnstad signed by 15 road department employees, three quarters of the workforce. Corn also noted that investigators failed to interview the engineers from WGM Group who worked on the project. Instead the county simply enlisted the services of another engineering firm, Stahly Engineering, to review and comment on the project work. Corn had a WGM engineer answer the questions raised by the Stahly report, as well as address a letter from the Department of Environmental Quality concerning permitting infractions on the project.
Corn also criticized the county investigators for not interviewing any of the former county commissioners who participated in the lawsuit settlement agreement that culminated in the original paving project on the Upper Woodchuck Road. Former commissioners Carlotta Grandstaff and Jim Rokosch both spoke about that lawsuit and the ensuing settlement agreement, pointing out that the developers of the proposed subdivision were asking for extensive road improvements on Upper Woodchuck Road, but that the resulting settlement, which resulted in the dismissal of the lawsuit with prejudice, required the county simply to pave the road and did not require any of the other improvements requested such as replacement of culverts.
Rokosch stated that Ohnstad was directed to “pave the road with minimal extension of improvements beyond what was merited by the road’s classification as a low volume. low speed, local access road with no Ravalli County residences located on it.” He and Grandstaff both emphasized that the aim of the commissioners at the time was to minimize any cost to the taxpayers.
“A lot of time and taxpayers’ money has been spent on a road that no Ravalli County resident lives on, and which accesses nothing more than a hunting area and one or two Missoula County subdivisions, including the plaintiff’s own Red Quill Ranch subdivision,” stated Grandstaff, referring to the fact that the developers of the Saddle Hills subdivision, Aldo and Niki Sardot, who were plaintiffs in the original lawsuit, are also the developers of a subdivision across the county line which is accessed by Upper Woodchuck Road.
Ohnstad maintained in his defense about the failure of the asphalt work in areas along the road that it was likely related to heavily loaded construction trucks hauling over 500 loads of material to the Sardot’s Missoula County development site. It was also noted in that regard that the precipitation was heavier and lasted longer than any year on record. That too, Ohnstad argued, likely contributed to problems on the road.
Corn also pointed out that Ohnstad has an exemplary performance record over the last seven years in which he has served as supervisor, noting that there are no marks against him in his personnel file.
Besides the letter of support provided by 15 employees, a few spoke in Ohnstad’s favor. Mike Nichols, recently retired from the Road Department, said that with over 41 years’ experience in road work at this department and others under eleven different supervisors that he found Ohnstad to be knowledgable, honest and straight-forward in his decisions.
“I can say I’ve known him not in any circumstance to do anything that is not above reproach,” said Nichols.
Both Corn and one of the road department employees questioned whether Commissioner Ron Stoltz could render an unbiased decision in the case at hand since he also actively participated in the investigation itself.
About the question of making false or misleading statements concerning the culverts, Ohnstad claimed that the commissioners were conflating the timeframe of his remarks about the culverts. He said that the Sardots’ initial complaint mentioned only a single culvert at the entrance to their proposed subdivision. He said he did not then and does not now believe that there was a culvert removed from that proposed entranceway and that none of the road crew recalls one being removed. While other culverts in the area that went under the roadway were removed and not replaced, he said it was because they were not needed and that engineering documents supported that outcome.
Ohnstad said that while there was engineering involved in the relocation and design of the middle section of the road where it went up the hill, which included a drainage plan, there was no engineering on the road from there on to the county line. He said re-engineering was not required on that stretch because they were only paving it, not relocating it.
He said that the drainage plan developed by the Saddle Hills subdivider’s consultants, Territorial Landworks, was used by WGM Group to develop the project plans for the relocated portion of the road.
The commissioners voted on each of the four allegations of policy violation separately. Two of the allegations were unanimously dismissed. It was found that the full evidence did not support the claims that Ohnstad had done unsatisfactory work or failed to adequately supervise his department. Motions made by Stoltz to find in support of the allegations were each defeated unanimously.
But on the question of making false or inaccurate statements the commission was divided. On the issues of making false statements and not getting appropriate engineering the commissioners voted 3 to 2 to find that county policy had been violated, Commissioners Matt Kanenwisher, Stoltz and Suzy Foss voting in favor and Commissioners J.R. Iman and Greg Chilcott dissenting.
The next question addressed was whether any disciplinary action should be taken.
Commission Chair Kanenwisher called the question of making false statements the “primary question” and insisted that false statements had been made by Ohnstad, not just based on the minutes alone, but on actually having heard the false and inaccurate statements made by Ohnstad concerning the culverts. He said it was a question now of not being able to direct an employee.
“We can’t have a conversation if we can’t get a true statement,” said Kanenwisher. He said that was the main reason he thought discipline was necessary.
Foss called it “a matter of trust.”
“To not get straight answers from a road supervisor is not acceptable,” she said.
Chilcott said that discussions about the culverts had been extended and confusing. He said that he had perhaps not heard some things that other commissioners had heard but felt like some inaccurate statements may have been made.
“Accountability is incredibly important,” he said.
Iman stated that there had been a lot of miscommunication and the problem should be addressed. But he also stated that the board needed to recognize that the level of improvement required was different for different roads. He said in this case “the road is used by less than 80 cars per day, asking for full standards is not reasonable.”
The Commission voted unanimously to take some disciplinary action.
The Commission was divided on what action to take.
Deputy County Attorney Recht said that the commissioners could terminate the employee or simply reprimand him. He said the employee could be suspended for some amount of time and or given some set of requirements to follow. He said he had no recommendation as to the level of discipline to be taken.
Kanenwisher said that his problem boiled down to not being able to trust, and thus not being able to supervise, an employee.
Foss said she was in 100 percent agreement.
Stoltz also agreed, saying, “I would not know when a statement was true and when it was not.”
Chilcott said,” I think a work improvement plan is appropriate.” He said it would be difficult but that through proper supervision of the day-to-day activity by the board it could work. He also noted that the supervisor’s employees have given him exemplary support.
Iman also suggested writing a letter of reprimand that would indicate areas where a different standard of communication was expected.
“There is no question that there is a problem here, but I am absolutely against the most extreme measure which is termination,” said Iman. He said the obligation of the board was to work on what need’s fixing. He said a reprimand and some guidance should be offered.
“But to say that we’ve got a problem on a mile and half of road, out of 800 miles that we are obligated to take care of, and that is reason for termination, that is absolutely ludicrous,” said Iman.
“The point is,” said Kanenwisher, “if untrue statements are made you can’t direct the employee.” He said that the commission had to go through the county attorney’s office, get another engineer, and all this just to have a conversation.
“We tried to have this conversation over and over and over,” he said.
Foss said that the issue was that having a supervisor be vague and make misstatements for months was the problem.
“It’s cost too much time and heartache for everybody,” she said.
Stoltz made a motion to terminate.
“I don’t believe this is rising to that level,” said Chilcott. He said the board had an obligation to make departments successful.
“To my knowledge this is the first disciplinary action at all with Dave Ohnstad,” said Chilcott. “I think that there should be an opportunity to correct this action and to improve and to be successful.”
“A single incident in the performance of an individual in over six years in my opinion does not rise to the level of termination,” said Iman. “I think by law we are required to provide direction, to provide an opportunity for improvement. I disagree violently.”
Foss asked how you can measure the truthfulness of an individual.
“That we haven’t sought to correct this is simply not true,” said Kanenwisher. “We’ve been seeking to correct this since April.”
Iman countered by stating that the board of commissioners also was displaying ignorance about many aspects of the project and the problems discussed. He said the situation was that everybody was needing some education. He said the matter of truthfulness was still a matter of discussion.
The question was called and the vote was taken and termination was approved 3 to 2 with Iman and Chilcott dissenting.
Next the commissioners placed Mike Roth temporarily in charge of the snowplowing program as temporary crew leader, but did not give him all the duties of the Road Supervisor.
Kanenwisher suggested then that he and Human Resource Director Robert Jenni give the road department employees an update on Monday. He said at the same time somebody needed to take responsibility for things that needed to be done. He suggested that Commissioner Stoltz take on the daily task of oversight at the road department.
Iman said that it should be the Human Resources Director.
Chilcott said that due to personality reasons maybe Iman would make a better appointment, because there have been some questions raised about Stoltz.
Foss moved to have Commissioner Stoltz be the temporary director at the Road Department.
Specifically, according to Kanenwisher, that would mean checking in in the morning and the evening to make sure there is some direction and that things are moving.
“I agree with what you’re saying that we need somebody over there,” said Chilcott. “But because of comments and perceptions, it should not be Ron (Stoltz).”
Foss agreed and withdrew her motion.
Chilcott moved to have Commissioner Iman do it.
Iman said he was agreeable.
“I’m not for it,” said Stotz. “I’ve heard numerous complaints about J. R. (Iman) going on his own and doing things and talking to people and not bringing it back to the board and I think that’s a bigger liability and we need to get somebody else.”
The motion to appoint Iman was defeated on a 3 to 2 vote with Chilcott and Iman voting in favor.
Chilcott then moved to have Kanenwisher serve as the temporary director and that motion was approved unanimously.