Just in time for Sunshine Week — After a series of interviews, a pile of disclosed emails and some carefully weighted ethical considerations, The Journal Times published this story Sunday, exploring the continued issues inside the largest local municipality’s Village Hall.
By Alison Bauter
The Journal Times
MOUNT PLEASANT — Inside Mount Pleasant’s Village Hall brews a hostile work environment dominated by infighting and intimidation, if emails and interviews with staff and trustees are to be believed.
With help from updated complaint policies, newly appointed interim Village Administrator Tim Zarzecki has pledged to address reported issues and restore order.
“I think with any organization or business, you have to have leadership at the top,” Zarzecki told The Journal Times on Friday. “Like the village has seen, without leadership in place it’s going to breed dysfunction; it’s going to breed problems in the workplace.”
In dozens of Village Hall emails acquired by The Journal Times, staff and trustees describe a “hostile” and “intimidating” workplace where office factions “constantly needle” one another and some trustees reportedly “bully” staffers and fellow board members.
Without cogent grievance and complaint procedures or a permanent administrator in place, the situation has gone largely unaddressed for more than two years.
Emails sent as recently as February show that when invited to air their grievances before the board, employees balked, some citing “fear of retaliation.”
“We fear things will be turned around and (we) will be punished,” one staffer said in an email to trustees. “All … of us feel that (it) is difficult now and after the meeting it will be worse.”
The Journal Times is withholding some names and details for this story, because the accusations are unproven and the complainants could be targeted.
‘Hostile work environment’
Emails and interviews hint at the extent of the hostility, which some employees describe as a daily burden.
“… This conspiracy and harassment that (certain employees) are creating is out of control,” one staffer wrote Nov. 7. “All the employees here are suffering from this behavior. No employee should have to ‘deal’ with any sort of harassment or intimidation.”
A Nov. 16 email lamented the influence of “office politics and pettiness.” The staffer wrote that “a select few go out of their way to make division within the departments.”
“This nonsense … does not stop,” the employee wrote.
Although trustees and staff say complaints between employees are common, the issues detailed in the emails don’t end with staff.
An email from one trustee describes an employee’s experience of “excessive bullying, intimidation and inappropriate treatment” at the hands of another village trustee.
“Two other staff members have been on the receiving end of the same Trustee’s unprofessional conduct, as have I,” the trustee wrote Jan. 29. “This Trustee has created a hostile work environment for the individuals involved. This cannot be allowed to continue.”
Another series of emails accuse a different trustee of singling out specific staff members.
“This is harassment and demonstrates the hostile environment in which staff here works,” the employee wrote Feb. 1.
“Please help us,” opened one email from a staff member. They later pleaded, “Ignoring the problem is not the solution.”
Subsequent interviews suggest that the email exchanges scratch the surface of issues long brewing inside Village Hall.
Skeletons in the closet
“There’s been a lot of history in the village,” Trustee Gary Feest told The Journal Times in an interview Thursday. “We’ve been more or less dragging those skeletons out of the closet one at a time and dealing with them.”
When it comes to personnel issues, the “skeletons” are well more than three years old.
Allegations of serious workplace harassment first surfaced in 2010 against then-Village Administrator Mike Andreasen, details which The Journal Times revealed in 2011 after trustees unanimously voted to oust Andreasen.
The administrator is ostensibly the go-to person for employee complaints, but the rules are unclear on how to address those issues when the administrator is the problem.
Hard also is reporting a complaint without a dedicated administrator in place, as has been the case since Andreasen’s dismissal. Emails and trustees’ accounts show that staff members went to different board members with their concerns, or to the personnel committee, which is not empowered to address employee complaints.
“A(n) interim administrator is needed,” wrote one staffer in a heavily redacted email obtained by The Journal Times. “Staff doesn’t know who is in charge.”
The interim administrator position shifted from a three-person management team to the village’s planning director, then into the hands of a hired search firm’s vice president who later abruptly departed. Administrative authority eventually landed in the Board of Trustees’ collective hands.
In the leadership void that remained, Feest said, the cracks began to show.
“Once the administrator left, staff felt more comfortable bringing up issues that were behind the scenes,” Feest said.
From mid-November to early February, Mount Pleasant’s Village Board jointly filled the administrator position, but struggled to field staff
Emails between trustees show confusion over the grievance procedure, tweaked in 2011 following the allegations against Andreasen.
“There needed — in my opinion — to be … clarity,” explained Feest, who heads the personnel committee.
Other board members agreed, and work is under way to finalize changes to the grievance procedure, the formal process by which the village handled serious complaints, as well as the board’s communications policy and the less formal, administrator-led complaint system designed to address what Feest called “staff squabbling.”
Multiple trustees, Feest included, said they feel optimistic given those changes and the new administrator at least temporarily in place.
Police Chief Zarzecki, appointed interim administrator Feb. 15, said his role is to provide stability, give employees someone to report to and to enforce a respectful workplace.
“Any complaints that come my way, I will certainly address,” Zarzecki said. “Nothing’s going to be brushed under the carpet. If there are ways we can solve these problems, or even if there’s something more severe, I will do whatever I can do to solve them.”
View full story, plus a timeline and other related info here.