Sherburne County’s policies and procedures have been followed correctly during internal investigations.
That was the conclusion of an audit of a sample of investigations that were done over the past three years.
The issue was first brought up at the Jan. 21 board meeting, when Commissioner Felix Schmiesing said he had been contacted by some former employees who had questions about whether investigations had been handled properly. He suggested reviewing investigations over the last three years to determine if county policy had been followed.
After a lengthy discussion that was continued in a subsequent meeting, the board voted not to look into old investigations because of the cost and potential data privacy issues. But they agreed to research how many investigations had been done and what a review might cost. Tuesday, Administrator Steve Taylor said he selected nine completed internal investigations and hired Scott Lepak of the law firm BGS, Ltd. to review the cases.
“I hired outside counsel to basically perform an audit of several internal investigations that were of interest to the county board,” he told the county commissioners Tuesday. “What he found was that the county policy with respect to internal investigations has been strictly adhered to, properly initiated and assigned. The outcomes and dispositions were appropriate and no evidence of reprisal was found.”
Commissioner Bruce Anderson, who voted against looking into old investigations because he believed county policies had been followed, asked Taylor about the process.
“I understand why you did what you did and I support that,” he said. “But how did the cases get determined? What cases were brought forth for this investigation and what was the cost?”
“They were primarily the ones that seemed to have elicited reaction and questions from the county board as to whether these took place appropriately,” he said.
Taylor said the cost to audit the old investigations was $3,066.
“If you reinvestigate an investigation, which this wasn’t, that would cost tens of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Anderson said ever since the process of internal investigations was questioned, the perception has been that department heads and elected officials weren’t doing their jobs. “That frustrates me, and I think that’s the reason I took the position I did at the time,” he said. “But I think this investigation shows that these people are doing their jobs very professionally and these issues are being dealt with.”
Schmiesing said now that the review had been done, he wanted to improve communications when it came to new investigations.
“I would hope that as we move forward, we work on how we communicate and what’s appropriate for the board to know about what is being investigated in Sherburne County,” he said. “I think that would be the next step.”
Taylor said he would prefer that employees follow proper channels and go through administration if they had an issue. He didn’t feel employees should contact individual members of the board.
“Employees may come on their own volition to board members,” he said. “My strong preference is that they come to me.”
Anderson agreed the board shouldn’t be involved in investigations. He said there is already a process being followed.
“There’s a lot of discipline that goes on within the departments that we’re not privileged to nor do we need privilege to it,” he said. “We as a board should not get involved and give them another layer so that they can come to us.”
He said department heads can report to the administrator and the administrator can report to the board.
“I’m in favor of it going through Steve (Taylor),” he said. “I just don’t want to give employees a sense that they have another layer to go to in regards of how investigations are dealt with.”
“That’s the piece we need to work on - to insure that we’re aware what is going on in terms of investigations,” said Schmiesing. “I’m not asking to be involved in the investigation. I’m not asking for names. But our employees are out there sharing information with others. When it comes back to us I hate to be completely surprised.”
Commissioner John Riebel agreed the board had to be kept in the loop at some level. He said, as an example, if some employee stole some computers, he didn’t want to be the last to know.
“I want to know about it,” he said. “I don’t want to be in the dark and read about it in the paper.”
Commissioner Rachel Leonard said she felt going through the administrator was the best way to handle the investigations and communication.
She said employees wouldn’t have to worry about reprisals for coming forward.
“It’s a trust issue, and I trust our administrator to handle it that way,” she said.