3 of 7 administrator finalists have resigned in the last year

Published 8:20 pm Wednesday, July 26, 2017

1 faced allegations of gender-based discrimination

Three of the seven candidates for Freeborn County administrator have resigned from their previous public-sector positions within the last year for different reasons.

According to newspapers in the candidates’ previous regions of employment, finalists Shaun LaDue, former West Des Moines police chief; Laura Elvebak, former Steele County administrator; and Tom Burke, former director of Aitkin County Health and Human Services, have all resigned since last fall.

LaDue resigned after allegations of sex-based discrimination amidst a civil lawsuit, and Elvebak and Burke had been on paid administrative leave prior to their resignations.

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Interim Freeborn County Administrator Kelly Callahan and Human Resources Director Sue Tasker narrowed the list of candidates from an original list of 29 people based on experience in a number of fields.

Tasker said though she was unaware that Burke and LaDue had resigned, she would have become aware of that before a job offer was made.

Shaun LaDue

According to the Des Moines Register, LaDue was forced to resign from the West Des Moines Police Department in November after allegations of sex-based discrimination and intimidation that proved costly to the city.

According to the newspaper, the city of West Des Moines paid $2.08 million in settlements to former Sgt. Tanya Zaglauer Schmell, crime analyst Alice Wisner and animal control officer Carol Gass.

“LaDue was brought in to improve accountability in the department, and I think he did that, but he was challenged in getting people to follow his lead,” said West Des Moines City Manager Tom Hadden in the article.

The city’s problems with LaDue reportedly began when Gass, Wisner and Zaglauer Schmell filed separate complaints in 2014 with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

In May 2015, the women filed a civil lawsuit. Zaglauer Schmell was the only one to go to trial, saying she was mistreated by the chief and other senior commanders, and then retaliated against after she complained to human resources and the city manager.

The article states Gass and Wisner — who were not sworn personnel — resigned and reached settlements with the city for $30,000 and $150,000, respectively, before the trial last fall.

Zaglauer Schmell, a 17-year veteran of the department and its first female sergeant, agreed to resign at the end of 2016 after her civil trial against the city ended in a $1.9 million settlement.

In his testimony at the trial, LaDue reportedly admitted he deleted a text message related to the sex discrimination lawsuit. He also used symbols to refer to Zaglauer in texts and emails to avoid having messages used in court.

The women’s complaints about LaDue and the senior command were never investigated by the city, despite a process outlined in the city’s employee handbook. But Hadden said the harassment allegations were in lawyers’ hands shortly after he joined the city in 2014.

Hadden said he asked LaDue to resign before the Zaglauer Schmell court settlement was announced, according to the article. 

“It was obvious there was not support behind him in the Police Department,” Hadden said.

The legal battle reportedly cost the city $163,119 from the time the first complaint about LaDue was filed with the Civil Rights Commission in 2014 to last year. That amount included $10,000 deductibles in each of the three legal cases paid to the city’s insurer — the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool, which paid the settlements.

According to the article, the city’s premiums were expected to increase 5 to 10 percent.

Laura Elvebak

According to the Owatonna People’s Press, the Steele County Board of Commissioners accepted the resignation of Elvebak as Steele County administrator on April 21 before a full boardroom of residents, county staff and community leaders.

Her resignation came after she was placed on paid administrative leave on April 18 by Steele County Commissioner James Brady, who is also the board chairman, after the county board held a closed session on April 11 to discuss her annual performance review — a discussion Elvebak said she was not a part of.   

“The summary in conclusion of that review was the board determined the county administrator is not the person the board wishes to carry out its vision for the future of the county,” Brady read from the statement during the April 21 meeting — a meeting in which Elvebak was also not present, the article states.

The county board unanimously accepted Elvebak’s letter of resignation, which was submitted on April 20, effective immediately, and authorized the board chairman to send her a letter outlining the day’s board action.

According to a May 12 article by the Owatonna People’s Press, Elvebak resigned after the board informed Elvebak on April 18 of its intention to fire her, writing a tersely-worded letter.

“I strongly disagree with this decision,” she wrote, “and believe it is unlawful in numerous respects.”

The working relationship between the board and Elvebak was broken, and perhaps broken beyond repair, by the time her resignation was accepted, an article published online in the People’s Press May 12 states.

“She was not receptive to new changes,” said Commissioner Greg Krueger. “We couldn’t move forward with the administrator we had. She was unwilling to do what we needed to, to make the changes we were trying to make.”

According to the article, two commissioners were new when Elvebak became administrator and three more had taken office since January.

According to the article, commissioners were not happy that Elvebak had placed two employees whose positions were going to be eliminated on paid administrative leave.

“She had every opportunity to speak to us. We weren’t in the loop,” said Steele County Commissioner James Brady. “It was a total breakdown of how things should’ve worked.

Commissioner Greg Krueger called it the “final straw.”

“Not that we maybe wouldn’t have agreed with her, but it would have been nice to be consulted,” he said the week prior to the article.

Commissioner Jim Abbe was reportedly upset Elvebak had sent a copy of a column she wrote to the Owatonna People’s Press and the Steele County Times in response to a critical letter to the editor about county employees and their salaries that appeared in the Times to the newspapers before she sent it to commissioners.

Since Elvebak’s departure, there have been some in the community who have questioned, as Elvebak herself did in her letter of resignation, the legality of the way in which the county board moved toward her termination, particularly as it relates to what transpired in that closed door session on April 11.

Elvebak’s responsibilities related to ongoing county projects, such as the courthouse, the public works complex, Steele County Communities for a Lifetime, Community Corrections Act conversion and others, were assigned to department heads — many of whom were in attendance at the April 21 meeting.

Elvebak became the county’s administrator in March 2015 after former administrator Tom Shea announced his intention to retire before July 2015. Elvebak had previously served as Waseca County administrator from 2011 to 2015.

“I’ve known her. I’ve worked with her. I know her to be incredibly capable, competent, dedicated. I’m sorry to see her go,” Shea said during public comment at the meeting, according to the article. “I feel that you will be hard-pressed to find somebody who will bring the knowledge and skillset and the dedication that they’ve had with Laura.”

The article states her salary prior to a step increase on March 30 was $119,616. As part of her initial employee contract, Elvebak was scheduled to a receive “a lump sum cash payment equal to three months’ salary” and health benefits for three months.

Tom Burke

According to the Aitkin Independent Age, Burke delivered a letter of resignation to interim Aitkin County Administrator Patrick Wussow on Nov. 21, as part of a settlement agreement between employee and employer. The resignation went into effect Dec. 1 and occurred after Burke was placed on paid administrative leave by Aitkin County last September.

Then-Aitkin County Administrator Nathan Burkett told the newspaper in September that putting Burke on paid leave was a non-disciplinary step in a process the county used to sort out facts in an unbiased manner.

As of September, the investigation was being handled by Pemberton Law Firm of Fergus Falls. The Data Practices Act prevented any further information to be released at the time, the article states.

The two sides agreed on ending Burke’s contract with the following severance:

$105,072 paid by the county to Burke, pursuant to the Health and Human Services director employment agreement

Payment of $22,000 in additional wages

A $6,000 payment to Ryan, Brucker & Kalis LTD for attorneys’ fees.

The article states within the agreement, the parties agree “neither party admits, and specifically denies, any violation of any local, state or federal law, common or statutory. The parties recognize this agreement has been entered into in order to achieve an orderly separation, and nothing contained herein shall be construed to be an admission of liability or a concession of any kind.”

Burke reportedly pleaded guilty to fourth-degree driving while intoxicated in April 2012.

The finalists for the administrator position will be in Albert Lea Aug. 7 and 8 to tour the city and Freeborn County. The public will be able to visit the candidates at about 3 p.m. Aug. 8  in the Freeborn Room at the Freeborn County Government Center, Tasker said.

The other finalists in Freeborn County’s administrator search are Tom Meyer, attorney and coordinator for the city of Manly, Iowa; Gail Leverson, graduate assistant in e-learning at Bemidji State University, owner and manager at North Central Development Services and city clerk and treasurer for the city of Sebeka; Scott Kelly, staff attorney at Public Health Law Center in St. Paul and former staff attorney at League of Minnesota Cities; and Ken Osmonson, whose most recent work experience as of July 14 was North American operations manager for Valicor. A southern Minnesota native, Osmonson recently moved back to the area.

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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