Consultant to review employee morale issues

Douglas County will hire an outside consultant to address problems within its highway department -- tension that has boiled over in heated letters to the editor and debates on the boardroom floor.

Douglas County will hire an outside consultant to address problems within its highway department -- tension that has boiled over in heated letters to the editor and debates on the boardroom floor.

Highway department Commissioner Paul Halverson informed Highway Committee members of the decision Wednesday. His memo was addressed to highway department employees.

Consultant Jeff Thompson has worked with Douglas County to address similar issues for the Health and Human Services Department, Forestry Department and Land Conservation Department.

"I think everybody gets their turn," said Kay Johnson, chairwoman of the highway committee.

Halverson said all departments have their peaks and valleys, but the highway department is currently in a long, deep valley.


"There's a bit of controversy, and I'm glad it's being addressed," said committee member Woody Budnick.

"I don't know if we can solve all of it, but it will help," Halverson said.

Thompson will interview all union employees as well as managers. He'll present his findings and suggestions on Jan. 23 at the department's annual luncheon. The cost, Halverson said, will be $7,600.

"Hopefully, after the suggestions for changes, this department will be able to function more as a team," he wrote in the memo.

Tensions have been mounting for several months, Budnick said, with a lot of "he said, she said" going on. Halverson said it stems from conflicts between employee cliques as well as between managers and employees.

Adding to the pressure were a pair of on-site accidents this year. Two employees were injured and two county dump trucks totally destroyed Aug. 24 when they collided head on during reconstruction of County Highway A near Solon Springs. On Oct. 16, a semi-tractor collided with county road construction equipment on State Highway 35 near Dairyland, injuring two employees and destroying a paver worth nearly $300,000. The county workers were laying hot blacktop in the rain at the time, which created steam and led to reduced visibility.

Following the second accident, the Telegram received a letter from Cindy Greely of Solon Springs, whose husband works for the department. She wrote that the crew did not feel comfortable talking to management about problems because they have been belittled and lied to. There was a lack of teamwork, she said, and things were getting worse.

"Are you willing to wait for another accident?" she wrote, "Or maybe a death will get everyone's attention."


The accidents aren't the only cause of friction.

Bottled water has been at the core of an ongoing dispute between management and employees. While Culligan bottled water is available at the main Hawthorne garage, which has plumbing, it is not available at the four outlying garages despite requests from employees. Highway Committee Member Mark Liebaert moved on Aug. 30 to earmark $500 of highway department funds for bottled water at the satellite garages, none of which has running water. Although board member Richard Thompson seconded the vote, Liebaert was accused of micromanaging the department and the motion was defeated.

The debate boiled over in front of the full county board in October when Liebaert resurrected his motion. While several county board members said water was a basic need and it was the right thing to do, County Administrator Steve Koszarek advised the board not to act. He said the board would be undermining the manager they hired. Liebaert withdrew his motion.

"We want people to look forward to coming to work," Liebaert said.

Getting an impartial outside look at department issues might be the key to defusing the situation.

"We feel things should work better than they are," said supervisor and highway committee member Richard Thompson. "There's problems, and we'd like everybody to work together to solve them. This does that."

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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