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Wadena County police, sheriff staff reaffirm vote of no confidence in Human Services management

Wadena Police Chief Naomi Plautz addresses the Wadena County Board Tuesday with continued concerns over the management of the county Human Services. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal1 / 2
County sheriff staff and police staff show a united front in attending the Tuesday board meeting. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal2 / 2

Almost exactly two years after a vote of no confidence in Wadena County Human Services management, police and sheriff staff of the county filled the public seating area of the county courtroom and reaffirmed their belief that the Human Services director and supervisor are not effective in their jobs.

The law enforcement group brought up the concern, which stems from their need to have an effective relationship in working with child protection cases in the county. Neglected children's lives were at stake, they felt.

Wadena Police Chief Naomi Plautz chose to address the county board during the public comment period. Commissioners can't take board action on issues brought up at that time, but they can if the topic is placed on the agenda for a future meeting. She read from a letter stating that the first vote of no confidence was submitted to the board chair and vice chair in March 2017. She wished to present the letter to all board members and the public. The letter calls out Human Services Director Tanya Leskey and supervisor Mike Willie as mismanaging the department, putting children, families and vulnerable adults at risk. It calls for personnel changes.

"This collective group of professionals, in good faith, relied upon the representations of the board chair and vice chair in 2017 that our collective concerns would be addressed in a meaningful way. Fast forward two years later, the concern of "no confidence" has only grown stronger given the departure of a number of valuable employees who have left county employment due to the unaddressed situation we brought forward over two years ago," Plautz said. "... We cannot continue to sit silently by and continue to watch the failures in the system as well as the mass exodus of valuable county employees that leave due to this unattended matter—we require action and respectfully request that the Board take immediate action."

The original letter is signed by Wadena, Verndale, Sebeka, Staples and Menahga police chiefs as well as the Wadena County sheriff, sergeant investigator, sergeant, chief deputy and county attorney and assistant attorney.

Within the letter, the authors state that "Wadena County Human Services, and specifically the Child and Family Unit, is not managed and led with the efficiency, standards, or best practices that we have seen govern other human services agencies in other Minnesota counties, including our neighboring counties. Leskey blindly defers to Willie's purported "expertise" in his unit; meanwhile WIllie misinterprets and/or ignores statue, legal rules, and case law in favor of his personal interpretations of applicable law."

Plautz believes somethings have been tried after the first letter was submitted, but it's apparent that the situation has only become worse.

"Our county Human Services for child protection is the laughing stock of all the counties surrounding us, with the exception of the last few years where we've had KariLee Pietz as our supervisor and the social worker before that who was experienced," Plautz said.

Plautz said the turnover rate in human services is staggering. The numbers she has seen is close to 40 employees have left during the time Leskey has been managing the department. That number was unconfirmed as of press time.

Plautz was clear that it's not the employees of Human Services that law enforcement is concerned with, it's those in leadership.

She presented a report, which showed child maltreatment reports in the county are fairly steady from 450-550 reports over the last four years. But when Willie took over supervising in this area, the number of child placements was just 15. When a new supervisor stepped in, those rates jumped to over 60 placements.

Plautz points to that as inaction to protect those children.

She provided an example in a CHIPS court case, where Willie spoke up during a court case disagreeing not only with the county attorney, but with the judge's decision to move forward with a hold. Plautz said the judge said she had never been in a situation where Human Services and attorney were at odds with each other.

The second push

The last straw, so to speak, appears to have been the recent departure of a child protection supervisor in the Human Services Department, KariLee Pietz. Without naming her in the letter, it's expressed that she was excellent in being the necessary connection between the departments. With her gone, the fear of inaction has returned, Plautz said.

"She was leading her team, she was doing an excellent job despite her supervisors," Plautz said.

Commissioners response

The newest commissioner Jon Kangas spoke first saying he needed to read through the document before making any comment publically. He planned, later that day, to enter into meetings with the county attorney and Human Services director to try to resolve a conflict between those two departments.

Plautz later said that that situation was just half the problem, noting that the issues with Leskey and Willie go far beyond interactions with the attorneys.

Following the meeting commissioner Sheldon Monson shared that he doesn't feel the issue has been swept under the rug. He felt that commissioner Jim Hofer and previous commissioner Dave Hillukka were tasked with coming forward with some recommendations from an Environmental Scan document. That special committee that was created, however, has now disappeared, removed from the latest commissioner committee assignments. A move that seems to signal no action will be taken on the study the county paid for. A study that showed action was needed to resolve issues between the human services and the county attorney, among a long list of other concerns.

Monson said high turnover in Human Services can be partially attributed to the stressful nature of the job. He said in a Merit report he read, Wadena County was on the higher end of turnover in human services, but he added that others were also higher.

That 2018 report shows Wadena county with 21 percent turnover in human services, or eight separations out of 28 employees. Other counties with similar numbers included Wabasha, which had 28 percent turnover, Swift at 20 percent, Sibley at 8 percent, Pine at 4 percent and Mower at 13 percent.

County Coordinator Ryan Odden said he knows of one employee lost in the last month and two in the previous, but one of those was reapplying for a position.

"There isn't a mass exodus," Odden said. He said the child protection jobs are difficult ones, stressful for the employee.

Odden has been performing exit interviews with employees recently and said that he does not have enough data to make a conclusion yet, but was not hearing that employees were leaving human services due to hostile work environments or mismanagement as was asserted by the law enforcement letter. He said what he has heard are concerns over pay and location.

Sheriff Mike Carr, however, said he knows there has been tremendous turnover but he does not see that related to poor pay.

Commissioner Chuck Horsager commented that the things brought to light can't be put in the dark again.

"This is very serious, " He said. "We need to deal with this. We need to figure this out, and we're not waiting another two years."

Leskey response

In response to hearing the allegations against her, Leskey said she was completely caught off guard. She felt that the departments have been making great strides to improve interactions for the betterment of children and families in need in the county. She listed off the recent addition of the comprehensive reentry program, she explained how they have seen improvements in staff retention, and she outlined numerous multi-department meetings that have had positive results in building the team spirit.

"It was greatly disappointing to see, especially with the strides that I've seen," Leskey said.

She noted that several claims in the letter were not factual. She planned to address some of those topics including the comment about major turnovers in her department at a future board meeting.

Next step

Plautz said she would like to see a correction made. That employees could be shown where they lack, and things would change.

"After two years, that hasn't happened, and I don't think it's going to," Plautz said.

She thinks it's time to replace the director.

Sheriff Carr said former county commissioners were made aware of the concerns and now current commissioners are aware. He is hopeful for change.

"At the end of the day we want to see a healthy Wadena County," Carr said. "It starts with leadership. You either got to fix it or move on."