By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Commissioners voted 4 to 0 to deny a grievance filed against Road and Bridge Department Supervisor Dusty McKern last week. Road Department employee Crystal Dale filed the grievance, claiming that she had been intimidated, and retaliated against, by her boss. She complained specifically about being “written up” for not showing up at work on her day off after being ordered to do so.
This is the latest in a series of complaints that have emerged from the County Road Department since the new set of County Commissioners came on board in 2011. Problems first surfaced when the secretary of the office was fired and subsequently filed a complaint with the Human Rights Bureau alleging wrongful termination. Former Road Department Supervisor David Ohnstad has said that he had no reason to fire the secretary but was ordered to do so by the County Commissioners. That complaint was withdrawn once the former secretary accepted a $35,000 settlement agreement with the county.
Then came the firing of former Road Department Supervisor David Ohnstad. Ohnstad sued the county in federal court for violations of his civil rights. That case was set to go to trial this month, but Commission Chairman Greg Chilcott said last week that negotiators in the case had produced a tentative settlement agreement although he had not seen the agreement and could provide no details. Word on the street is that the agreement calls for $125,000 payment to Ohnstad and a good recommendation to any future potential employers who may make inquiries concerning his work history.
Then came the firing of Danielle Senn, who was hired to serve as the Road Department administrator a few months prior to the hiring of Dusty McKern as the Road Department supervisor. Senn also filed a wrongful termination claim with the Human Rights Bureau. That complaint is still under consideration by the Bureau. A request by the Bitterroot Star for copies of the complaint is also under consideration by the Bureau.
The most recent allegations were precipitated by an order from McKern for Dale to show up at 4:00 a.m. on her scheduled day off due to emergency snow conditions. Dale told McKern that she could not show up due to the fact that she had promised to babysit her grandson and another child that day and it was too late to change those arrangements. She was then notified to show up on Saturday morning at 4:00 a.m. But that morning she got stuck in a snowdrift and was an hour late to work. Her truck and her usual route had been assigned to another driver and she was instructed to do the Town Route. She claims that she was then sent out by McKern with an incorrect list of streets on a route that she was unfamiliar with. She claims to have wasted hours driving around trying to follow the incorrect list. She says that she expressed her concerns to McKern about how unsafe it was to put someone on an unfamiliar route but that he failed to remedy the situation when he had an opportunity early in the morning. She claims he acted out of retaliation and was “playing games” with her.
Dale waived her right to privacy at the grievance hearing and testified about her complaints. She accused McKern of intimidating behavior and the use of offensive language and related other instances in which she believed she was being treated rudely and unfairly. She noted that on two separate bad weather days in the month of February, McKern had asked other employees to come in and was refused. She said that no written reprimand was placed in their files.
During discussion of the issue, the Commission noted that the county’s contract with the Union specifically requires employees to show up when ordered to do so for emergency reasons. They agreed that the extreme weather event constituted such an emergency and that Dale was in violation of the contract for not showing up. They said appropriate responses to the violation could range from a verbal reprimand to a written reprimand to even more serious repercussions.
Commission Chairman Greg Chilcott said that the Commission needed to limit its consideration to the specific incident involving the failure to obey the order to show up and that other incidences and other complaints were not on the table. He noted that there was no foundation for the other claims included in the complaint packet.
Union Representative Jay Reardon said that testimony about the other incidences helped to establish a pattern of activity by the supervisor that is related to the complaint.
McKern defended his actions and his behavior. He said that he had asked other employees to come to work on extreme weather days and been refused. He said that is what led him to change his method and order the employees to show up per the contract agreement. He said that he was not rude and did not hang up on Dale when talking on the phone with her. He said that he thought she had hung up on him, so maybe it was just a dropped call. He also stated that it just didn’t occur to him to change drivers and routes when one of the trucks came in for repairs that morning.
Human Resource Director Robert Jenni said that the union contract did allow the county to demand that employees come to work on extreme weather days. He said the supervisor was also within his rights to assign any driver to any route.
The Commissioners first made and approved a motion stating that there was insufficient due process to make any decision about the Supervisor’s actions since it was not on the agenda.
Another motion was made to deny the complaint. It was approved on a 4-0 vote. Commissioner J.R. Iman abstained from voting because he was not in attendance for the whole discussion.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows then made a motion to remove the written reprimand for not showing up at work from Dale’s personnel file due to extenuating circumstances. Commissioner Suzy Foss seconded the motion. Burrows said Dale’s commitment to take care of her grandchildren put her in a real bind and all the circumstances needed to be taken together.
Commissioner Ron Stoltz said that a verbal reprimand was not strong enough and removing the written reprimand from her file would undermine the Supervisor’s authority.
Chilcott said that he was sympathetic with Dale, “but we have a duty in times of emergency and a duty to comply with orders when given.”
Foss withdrew her second and the motion died, leaving the written reprimand in Dale’s file.