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Talking it out

Weed & Pest board sets aside its differences

 

May 21, 2020



With some frank discussion, feedback from the commissioners and sage advice from the county attorney, Crook County Weed & Pest Board members appear to have set aside their differences.

Issues surfaced between board members at the beginning of the month, when board member Wade Dennis brought a complaint to the county commissioners. He felt there had been a “serious breakdown in the chain of command between the board and the supervisor”.

Dennis said he felt board members had chosen to act as the Weed & Pest supervisor themselves, directly violating the role’s job description. He felt that individual board had tried to set the hours employees should work, which is a responsibility of the supervisor; told the supervisor who he may and may not hire as a seasonal employee; and interfered with small purchases made by the supervisor.

Fellow board member Chip Neiman disagreed and invited the commissioners to attend last week’s board member to discuss the topic in more detail. All three commissioners accepted the invitation.

Commissioner Fred Devish opened the conversation by pointing out that, while he believes “you’re all good people trying to do a good job,” every once in a while even good people find themselves at odds – particularly when working under the stressful conditions of a pandemic. That does not mean, he said, that it won’t be possible to, “sit and talk it out face to face”.

“The direct, face-to-face thing I think solves a lot of problems before they become problems,” he said. Commending Andrew Litzel, current Weed & Pest supervisor, for his dedication to the job, Devish said he had attended because he did not want the issue to snowball.

Commissioner Jeanne Whalen said she had accepted the invitation because Dennis had called all three commissioners and seemed “very frustrated”. She also expressed concern at the idea the board is micromanaging the supervisor role.

Whalen echoed Devish in commending Litzel, saying he has brought Crook County’s Weed & Pest “out of being the laughing stock of the whole state” and done a wonderful job, so she would like him to be able to continue unhindered, especially at this time of year.

Neiman spoke to the first concern, that the board had dictated working hours as well as whether employees should work from home during the COVID-19 crisis. He asked what situation could possibly have been deemed comparable enough to use as an example when trying to make decisions; when the virus arrived, things were fluid and missteps may indeed have been made.

County Attorney Joe Baron also addressed this concern, noting that job descriptions can be changed by the board when deemed necessary. He suggested the board revisit the descriptions in the winter, which is a less busy season for Weed & Pest, to see if any changes need to be made.

Neiman also addressed the second of the three concerns: that the board was dictating how the supervisor should be making purchases. He addressed Dennis’s assertion that purchases below $10,000 are within the purview of the supervisor, asking where in the statutes or job description this is stated.

Neiman expressed that he feels it would be a bigger problem if the board was not doing its due diligence and looking for more frugal options. The board’s suggestion for the specific purchase mentioned by Dennis ended up saving the department $3000, he said, which is greater than the total of an average taxpayer’s annual property tax.

It’s frustrating to be called on the carpet as a micromanager when it’s the board’s fiduciary responsibility to spend the available money as wisely as possible, Neiman said. Baron spoke to this concern, confirming that there is nothing in statutes that gives the supervisor absolute authority on purchasing.

“Any supervisor purchases are subject to the approval of the weed and pest board, just like it is with the county,” he said.

Regarding the third concern – that the board is dictating who the supervisor may and may not hire – Neiman commented that this has only occurred with one specific applicant and there are “other extenuating circumstances that go with that decision”. Other information has since come to light, he added, but the suggestion was made based on what was known at that time.

Dennis responded that the board was still violating the supervisor’s job description, which places him in charge of hiring and firing. Commissioner Kelly Dennis agreed that the same situation applies to the county, where the commissioners do not have input on who is hired by, for example, the Road & Bridge supervisor.

That may be the case, said Neiman, but the board advised not to hire this person based on their previous performance. Is it not better to be proactive when the board has knowledge that could affect a hiring decision, he asked.

The responsibility for hiring and firing was given back to Litzel having been taken away from a previous supervisor, Neiman added. It was given back because the board trusted him, and, “If that’s not a vote of confidence, I don’t know what it could be”.

“It’s not that this board is not trying to make this work,” he said. It’s just that the board has a responsibility to make things happen, and make them happen in a financially sensible way.

Baron commented on this issue by noting that “every board does it a little bit differently” when it comes to hiring and firing and that the board should consider its own policies to figure out what would be best. Again, he said, the board should review job descriptions to ensure they fit with the needs of the district.

Neiman also commented he felt the issues should have been discussed by the board before involving the commission. The perceived transgressions were not brought to him before that happened, he said.

“Let’s all be better communicators,” Neiman stated. “If we can’t come to a resolution, then we’ll go and take it to somebody else.”

It transpired, however, that the board’s minutes reflect that Dennis did bring his concerns to the board. Dennis said he had done so at several meetings but did not feel the board was willing to discuss them.

A final matter unrelated to the supervisor’s job description but which Dennis had also complained about was the use of electronic devices during meetings. Dennis said he had been told he could not use his cell phone and felt this was a violation of his rights.

Any board can regulate their public meetings, said Baron, and if the board wants to control the use of recording and electronic devices in future, they “certainly have the power to enact rules and regulations”.

The board was in agreement that it will review policies and job descriptions later in the year. Baron also recommended instituting a formal grievance policy to enable the board to discuss potential problems before they become big issues.

 
 

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