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Wadena County Attorney, Human Services Director stuck in conflict

The Wadena County Attorney's Office and the Human Services Department are at odds over philosophical differences in how they feel they need to work together.

Wadena County Human Services director Tanya Leskey spoke during the last regular commission meeting, Dec. 18, 2018, about issues that surfaced during the environmental scan two years ago, that still remain today. One main concern was how Human Services staff and the County Attorney's staff function together. While some movement has been made in a positive direction, it was clear problems remained.

"The areas of challenge was conflict between Human Services Department and other departments, a 'philosophical approach' is what it was termed in the environmental scan report," Leskey said. She noted she's been working on those challenges since January 2017 and major successes have been found, including training opportunities related to mental health, child protection, trauma informed care and reentry programs. These trainings involve the Human Services staff, Sheriff's Office staff, police chiefs, corrections—a whole gamut of players.

"We've seen success, definitely, there's just some areas we need to continue to work on," Leskey said.

Employee comfort level and communications efforts between Human Services and the County Attorney's office since that environmental scan appear to be poor, according to Susan Herreid, a consultant with Sand Creek, a workplace wellness consulting firm. Herreid attended the meeting with Leskey and offered her opinion and offered services to the county to facilitate improved conversations. Sand Creek's services come at a cost of $295 per hour for direct services, and $100 an hour for planning services.

One example Herreid referenced was that Human Services staff expressed anxiety in taking calls from the County Attorney's office.

"When people are talking about fear in contacting another work group, that they need to utilize, feeling demeaned and shamed for questions and comments, that's what really concerns me because I think that gets in the way of a very important work that needs to get done," Herreid said.

She recommended facilitated discussion to improve communications. Leskey offered up a report outlining actions taken over the last couple years including numerous instances where she tried to have conversations with County Attorney Kyra Ladd to come up with some resolutions to the concerns, and Ladd repeatedly declined those requests, Leskey reported.

Leskey said she was unsure why Ladd continually declined offers to discuss the issues, saying she hadn't been given a reason. It didn't seem to stop Leskey from addressing the issue.

"I'll keep trying," she said.

While Ladd was unable to attend this Dec. 18 meeting to hear Leskey's presentation, she did offer comments afterwards by email. In that email she completely denies the assertions of Leskey and took it a step farther bringing up a letter from February 2017, in which all agencies of law enforcement within Wadena County indicated a vote of no confidence in the leadership and administration of Wadena County Human Services. While that letter never made it to the full county commission board, because the two commissioners that heard it wanted it handled within the departments, those law enforcement agencies hoped the concerns would be addressed, Ladd said. Ladd does not feel that occurred.

Leskey reported four separate occasions where she tried to set up meetings to try to resolve differences between the two departments. Ladd responded that she has been consumed by the workload of her own department and was not up for spending more taxpayer money to try to resolve the issues created by a different department. Her extra workload included the fact that she was without full staff for 15 of the last 20 months. In that time, she was involved in a homicide case requiring two grand juries, handling issues involving the auditor's office and HR department and dealing with a change over to a new judge following the retirement of Judge Sally Ireland Robertson.

"It is within this context of multiple pending investigations involving Human Services as well as being understaffed in the County Attorney's Office that discussions with the Director of Human Services concerning "meetings" that my position was to decline yet another outside entity to be paid taxpayer dollars to address internal staff issues that ought to be taken care of by the department head, namely the Director of Human Services," Ladd wrote.

She added that the environmental scan showed the County Attorney's office was one of five departments that "passed with flying colors" Human Services and the Auditor/Treasurer Office were those found to be "dysfunctional and in need of a corrective plan."

In Leskey's report to the board, it explained that by the time the environmental scan was complete, conditions in Human Services were already improving. Within two years of Leskey's arrival "few dissenters remained and those that did, had less influence and the changes that had been implemented were done to provide continuity, consistency, and improve services to clients and working conditions."

After hearing the presentation by Leskey, the county board fully supported facilitated discussion and Commissioner Hofer said, at the Dec. 18 meeting, he would plan to have a meeting between Leskey, Ladd, County Coordinator Ryan Odden and Human Resources Director Curt Kreklau to come up with a plan of action.

Ladd was shocked and disappointed that the board entertained Leskey's presentation considering it was known that she would not be able to attend to address those matters.

Leskey noted that the collaboration between departments is important because all departments have a similar goal of protecting children in a child protection case. However, everyone has a different role in reaching that goal. Leskey said coming up with a resolution was important because if they can't work together it's not just a matter of hurt feelings, it's slowing the process for all departments involved to do their work and ultimately hurts county residents depending on the services.

Ladd agreed that there needs to be problem solving between the departments as it relates to safety and security of children, but she disagreed that her department was unwilling to be a part resolving conflict.

"Any assertion on the part of the Director that my office is refusing to meet with her and/or her staff is patently false—she simply does not like the message/content from some of these meetings, which is consistent with the results of the environmental scan," Ladd said.

Ladd pointed out a point of contention was Human Services disregard to the legal advice from the Wadena County Attorney's Office.

Based on commissioner discussion, it appears the environmental scan will continue to be a talking point well into the New Year as more departments share their plans to resolve issues brought up over two years ago.