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Dilworth police chief sued by officer at last job who claimed he made anti-union remarks

Josh Ebert

PINE RIVER, Minn. - Before becoming police chief in Dilworth, Josh Ebert was sued by an officer here who claimed Ebert asked him to disband the local police union and fired him when he refused.

According to court documents filed in Cass County District Court in Minnesota, Ebert and the city of Pine River were sued in 2009 by Officer Shawn Birr and Law Enforcement Labor Services, the Minnesota police union which also represents the six full-time officers in Dilworth.

Ebert has been Dilworth's police chief since March. For eight years, he was police chief in Pine River, a town of about 950 people 30 miles north of Brainerd.

Dilworth officers presented a letter Monday to the City Council expressing no confidence in the chief and asking him to resign, citing broad but unspecified concerns. In the letter, the officers raised issues with Ebert's performance of a wide range of administrative duties such as scheduling, planning and budgeting. They also said they had other concerns, such as the chief's ethics, accountability, adaptability and relationships, both personal and professional.

The letter provided no examples of incidents with which they took issue.

Responding in a statement Wednesday, Ebert said when he took up the chief post, he was working to train his officers, who he said were not up to code.

He also said he recognized that his officers might be working a lot of hours because the department is small, adding that he had hired two part-time officers recently to alleviate scheduling concerns.

"Not everyone can be made happy," Ebert said, adding that he had the support of the City Council and Mayor Chad Olson.

According to the civil complaint filed Oct. 16, 2009, Ebert pressured Birr, then the local union steward in Pine River, to disband the union. He claimed that Ebert told him "things will continue unfavorably" for Pine River police officers if he didn't, including reductions in manpower.

Birr was cut from full time to part time in January 2008, the complaint states, because of "his union activity and for not cooperating with the City's efforts to have the Union decertified." Birr was laid off on May 2, 2009, the complaint states.

Birr recorded a conversation between himself and Ebert on Aug. 5, 2009, which led to the lawsuit, said Isaac Kaufman, general counsel for Law Enforcement Labor Services, which acted as co-plaintiff with Birr in the suit.

"Chief Ebert had made statements to the effect, and this is paraphrasing, had made statements to the effect of: 'The only way that the city will hire you back is if the union is disbanded,' " Kaufman said. "We considered that pretty persuasive evidence of anti-union animus, certainly on behalf of Chief Ebert and possibly on behalf of the rest of the city administration."

A phone message left for Ebert on what a dispatcher said was his work cellphone was not returned Thursday.

Kaufman said although only one conversation was recorded, Ebert had expressed "disfavor toward the union" many times.

"I would not call it an isolated incident," he said.

The case was eventually settled in mid-2011, with Birr being reinstated as a full-time officer, Kaufman said.

Kaufman said the issues that Ebert raised Wednesday in responding to officer criticism are generally the sort handled in union deals.

"Things like overtime is certainly covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and that could come into play when you talk about training," he said, because officers may be asked to work extra hours in order to be fully trained.

Kaufman said he is not aware of any forthcoming union action against Ebert in Dilworth.

City Administrator Ken Parke, who was on the committee that hired Ebert earlier this year, said a third-party group conducted a "thorough background check" when Ebert was hired, but he didn't recall if the lawsuit was discovered in the background search.

"They shared information with us, yes, on Chief Ebert, but as far as this specific incident, I can't tell you exactly," Parke said.

Parke added, though, that since the lawsuit is recent, he "would be surprised if it wasn't identified in the background investigation."