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County hires law firm to investigate social services dept.

Hubbard County Social Services staff and supporters once again filled the boardroom Tuesday, demanding that county commissioners address the toxic work atmosphere and high staff turnover.

The board then voted unanimously to hire the law firm of Ratwik, Roszak and Maloney of Minneapolis to "conduct a thorough review of the issues that have arisen with the Social Services Department."

Teamsters agent's comments

Roger Meunier, a business agent for Minnesota Teamsters Local 320, represents Hubbard County social services workers. He spoke first.

Meunier said he provided County Coordinator Eric Nerness with documentation on exit interviews with employees regarding Social Services Director Deb Vizecky. More than 20 employees "retired, quit or were forced out by the behavior of the director, some of which took drastic cuts in their retirements just to get away from the turmoil and hostile work environment in this department. Others left full-time jobs with Hubbard County Social Services to accept part-time jobs in other counties," he said.

Meunier noted that the county spent $4,955 to hire Susan Herreid, a consultant with Sand Creek, to do an assessment of the department in November 2018, plus another $4,293 in January 2019.

"There's also the cost to the county taxpayers for the time the employees met with Dr. Herreid to be interviewed," he said, accusing the board of shelving the consultant's recommendations.

On June 5, Meunier continued, Vizecky fired the children's services supervisor and "told the staff she'd be assuming all the duties and responsibilities of the fired supervisor," yet she was out of the office on June 7, 10-12, 18-20, 25 and 28.

The children's services supervisor is one of the most important county positions, he said, affecting a vulnerable population: children.

"Who are the employees supposed to go to for questions for child protection, assessments, reports? Who is signing foster care payments? Who's around to screen investigations since the unwarranted firing of the children's services supervisor?" he asked.

Meunier said some foster care providers are considering ending their services "because, in their words, 'It's not worth the constant headaches.'"

"How can one department have a 52 percent turnover rate with employees and 75 percent rate with supervisors in just the past two years? This board, especially the two members that have been here the longest, know there's a problem and have done nothing," Meunier said.

Since Ann Goering of Ratwik, Roszak and Maloney is the county's labor negotiations attorney, Meunier argued that "she has a vested interest in this county, and I feel it is unethical that she is part of this investigation." He recommended using a different law firm for "a complete, unbiased assessment."

"Teamsters Local 320 is frustrated that our members continue to be treated in a manner that they have been. They are professionals, each and every one of them, and they should be treated as such by the director and the board," he concluded.

'No direction'

Assistant Hubbard County Attorney Erika Randall echoed Meunier's concerns about the lack of a children's services supervisor and Vizecky's nine-day absence in June.

"I and my office received not one communication from the director that there was no longer a supervisor," Randall said. "There's been no direction to my office about who are our officers are supposed to call when they have a child that gets placed on a hold outside of business hours. I have assumed additional duties because all the child protection staff comes to me with questions because Ms. Vizecky is out of the office so much and unavailable by phone."

Randall suggested that Vizecky not be out of the office so often.

"They're drowning, and they're not getting any help," she said.

'Upheaval and dysfunction'

Bob Kaumans is a county social worker in the field of children's mental health. He's been employed with Hubbard County for almost 10 years.

He said he considers it a privilege to work for the county, but the department is now "in complete and utter upheaval and dysfunction."

"Social services serves the most vulnerable and disenfranchised residents in our county — the abused, the mentally ill, chemically dependent, the elderly and those in great poverty," Kaumans said. "Most of the agents are like me. We like our jobs. We like our clients. We like what we do, and you know what? We're pretty good at it. What we don't like is serving under dysfunctional leadership and a toxic work environment."

As elected officials, Kaumans said the county board has authority and responsibility to fix the issues. He questioned the ordering of another investigation at a cost to taxpayers, noting that Herreid's report was "thorough."

County's public statement

Following the public comment period, board chair Dan Stacey read this statement: "The Hubbard County Board recognizes that significant issues exist in the Social Services Department. We take these issues seriously. We are determined to take appropriate and effective action to create and maintain a well-functioning, efficient and cooperative work environment for the benefit of the residents of Hubbard County.

"The Hubbard County Board reviewed and considered the summary report and recommendations of the organizational consultant. We feel that we need more facts to fully understand and respond to the issues raised and get additional advice."

The statement goes on to say that the board has asked the law firm to "gather additional information for the board to consider and to provide advice and recommendations to the board. This is an important issue that we must handle in a careful and fully informed manner in the best interest of the county."

In related business, the county board authorized Vizecky to purchase a cell phone.