Columbia County Administration Building Atrium

A harassment complaint filed by an unnamed employee in the Columbia County District Attorney’s Office is credible, according to the county board’s Human Resources Committee.

All five members of the committee voted Friday that the complaint warrants further investigation.

In a closed session lasting more than an hour, panel members read and discussed a letter, dated Feb. 26, in which a current employee alleged that he or she had experienced harassment.

Joseph Ruf, the county’s corporation counsel and human resources director, said he could not be specific about the identity of the accuser, the identity of the person accused of harassment or the nature of the alleged harassment, because the complaint is still under investigation.

But Bruce Rashke of the town of Wyocena, the Human Resources Committee’s chairman, said the unanimous affirmative roll-call vote indicates the seriousness with which the committee regards the complaint.

Rashke and committee members Adam Field and Matt Rohrbeck of Portage, Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville and Dan Drew of the town of Pacific all voted to forward the matter to the county board’s Judiciary Committee.

“All we’re saying is, this warrants further investigation by the governing committee,” Rashke said. “Given the nature and extent of the complaint, we believe these allegations may have a great deal of veracity.”

Rohrbeck is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which also includes supervisors Craig Robson of Portage, Mark Sleger of the town of Lowville, Susanna Bradley of the town of Caledonia and Robert Koch of Lodi. The Judiciary Committee – which also oversees the county’s courts, register in probate and child support agency – normally meets at 8:15 a.m. on the second Tuesday of odd-numbered months.

Although the complainant had a right to appear before the HR Committee in person, he or she did not, and the Feb. 26 letter was the sole basis of the committee’s conclusion.

In fact, no one appeared before the committee to address either the harassment complaint or two employee grievances also heard in the same closed session.

The grievance complaint details also are confidential pending resolution, Ruf said.

Both were filed, using the county’s standard grievance forms, with the Human Resources Department.

One was a grievance filed March 10 by a former employee of the DA’s office (not the person who filed the harassment complaint) and was referred to the Judiciary Committee with the HR Committee’s recommendation that the relief the complainant is seeking should not be granted.

The other grievance, also filed by a former employee, was lodged against the Management Information Services Department. This grievance was referred to the Information and Property Committee, which oversees the MIS Department, with the HR panel’s recommendation against granting the relief sought in a complaint dated March 14.

Ruf said grievances are usually related to loss of pay stemming from either termination or suspension, and the relief sought can be such things as seeking back pay or seeking reinstatement. The county adopted the grievance procedure after the 2011 enactment of Act 10, which stripped most Wisconsin public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Before Act 10, most county employees were represented by unions, mainly the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and the unions dealt with employee grievances.

Ruf said he could not comment on whether either the harassment complaint or the DA’s office grievance stems from the departure earlier this year of two employees – Assistant District Attorney Mary Ellen Karst and Victim Witness Coordinator Marnie Thome – under circumstances that District Attorney Tristan Eagon has not publicly disclosed.

The county’s procedures for dealing with harassment complaints and grievances are outlined in the county’s Operations Manual for Management.

The manual defines harassment as “engaging in persistent, repetitive, hostile and unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or which creates a hostile work environment.” This includes, but is not limited to, unwanted sexual advances and retaliation against complaining employees.

According to the manual, the human resources director (Ruf) is responsible for investigating any complaints of employee misconduct, including harassment. The HR director may designate others to investigate – in this case, the HR Committee and the departments’ governing committees.

“A written warning or suspension or discharge will be imposed on all employees for the first proven act of harassment or retaliation or creating a hostile work environment,” the manual says. “The severity of the discipline will depend on the nature and severity of the misconduct. The second proven incident of any type of harassment will result in suspension or discharge, based on the nature and severity of the misconduct.”

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Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde or contact her at 608-745-3587.

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