Monday, April 22nd, 2024 Church Directory
Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing

Sherburne County

The issue of whether to have outside counsel review internal investigations in Sherburne County has been put on the back burner by the county board - at least for now.

Last week, members of the Sherburne County Board continued their discussion about reviewing investigations - an issue that was brought up by Commissioner Felix Schmiesing during the Jan. 21 board meeting.
 
Schmiesing said he had been contacted by some former employees who had questions about whether investigations had been handled properly.
 
He wanted the board to hire outside counsel to review all internal investigations over the past three years to determine if county policy had been followed.
 
That request sparked a 45-minute discussion that eventually led to a deadlocked 2-2 vote. The motion failed, but the board did vote, 4-1 to research how many investigations had been done and what a review might cost.
 
Last week, Administrator Steve Taylor went over some of the research that had been done into county policies, the number of investigations, and the cost.
 
“Over the past 18 years, the human resources director is aware of 68 completed investigations,” he told the board. “Of those 68, 12 were completed in the last three years.” 
 
Taylor said it was important to know the scope of the investigation, since there are different types. He said there are internal departmental investigations. He used Health & Human Services (HHS) as an example.
 
“You may have an upset client that may request a new social worker, financial worker or child support officer because the current one is following agency policy but not providing the services that the client desires,” he said. “Those complaints come through the system and it’s looked at.”
 
Taylor said there are other investigations that might go further.
 
“A client may not have  received appropriate or timely services or the staff person has not met agency standards in some area,” he said. “An investigation is done. It’s completed by the supervisor and any action taken would follow Sherburne County’s union process.” 
 
“To the best of our knowledge there have been 13 investigations in HHS over the last three years  that led to dismissals or performance improvement plans put in place,” he said “But there are hundreds of these types of complaints, especially when you consider the Affordable Care Act, MNsure, and all the health-related insurance changes.”
 
Taylor said the cost of an investigation varies considerably based on the complexity of a particular case, the number of interviews and the time required to fully investigate an allegation
“I’ve been told it’s anywhere from $5,000 - that’s really for a couple of pages and one or two interviews, to a minimum of $30,000 or more,” he said. “I’ve talked to a colleague of mine, another county  administrator, in the last couple of days, and his cost for investigations right now is $25,000.” 
 
Sherburne County Attorney Kathleen Heaney said the issue of reviewing past internal investigations was difficult because of data privacy.
 
“If there is no disciplinary action that stems from an investigation, and somebody seeks that information, what we have to do is  apply the data practices act,” she said. “If it’s unfounded in terms of the complaint, then the information contained there is going to be private, which means it’s not accessible.  If it is founded, then some of the information may become public information and would be available if an individual requests that information.”
 
Heaney said reviewing investigations with a “broad brush” wouldn’t comply with the requirements of the data practices act.
 
“The difficulty is that  each is case-specific,” she said. “If there’s a particular concern, my suggestion is to contact the administrator with what the concerns are or and individual can make a data practices request. We’re happy to comply with that.”
 
Schmiesing said he wasn’t looking for particular information within the investigations. He only wanted to review them to see if county policy was followed during the investigations.
 
“No one’s asking for names. I’m simply asking for a review to make sure that we have followed the policies that we’ve had in place,” he said. “As a board, we have not known how many investigations we’ve done. I never got reports on them.  Are we not supposed to know? What’s our responsibility as commissioners?”
 
Taylor said he couldn’t speak to past policy because he wasn’t the county’s administrator until last November. He said some information could be shared if that’s what the board wanted.
 
“It really comes down to governance. If the board believes that’s an important aspect of governance, then that can be shared with the board. In my experience it’s up to the county administrator whether to share that type of information or not,” he said. “My philosophy on that is, if I think there’s an investigation of interest, I would let the board chair know about that.” 
Taylor said because of data privacy, anyone looking for information would have to follow legal channels.
 
“Is if there is a question about a specific issue, have the individual file a data practices request. Have these former employees contact me or the county attorney if they have specifics that they belive require attention,” he said. “Another option is to have these former employees pursue legal action to remedy any wrong they feel has taken place.” 
 
“To try to bring this to a close I will take the county attorney’s advice and I will try to work through the administrator and resolve some of these issues,” Schmiesing said. “Some of the things I’m going to be asking him to help us with is how do we know what is going on in terms of investigations and what is going on in terms of punishment and that sort of thing. We don’t need to know names. but I think we have a responsibility to have an idea of where we’re going with this. We’re making policy. We want to make sure policy is being followed.”