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Wadena County Board: Human Services group backs supervisors

Staff from Wadena County Human Services showed up in support of director Tanya Leskey and supervisor Mike Willie at the Wadena County Commission meeting Tuesday. Not pictured are a large group of law enforcement members standing near the door. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

Showing their support of the Wadena County Human Services supervisors, a group of Human Services staff filled seating within the county board room Tuesday morning.

In contrast, a crowd of law enforcement officers demonstrated their lack of support, and stood while both sides shared their comments during open forum.

The discussion stems from the March 12 meeting where law enforcement presented a letter to board members stating their vote of no confidence in the Wadena County Human Services (WCHS) supervisor Mike Willie and director Tanya Leskey. That topic stems from a similar vote in 2017. In that letter, law enforcement state high turnover in human services and failures in the system were contributing factors for bringing the message forward.

Naomi Van Batavia, a 17-year employee with the Human Services department read from a letter signed by 29 WCHS employees (including herself) in support and confidence in Willie and Leskey.

The letter, dated March 14, expressed concern from the current employees over the claims brought forth by law enforcement. They felt there was little substantial evidence of wrongdoing.

"We read that law enforcement believes that human services staff have resigned due to Ms. Leskey's leadership. We are aware that there is turnover at WCHS and also that there is turnover at human services agencies across the state, specifically in a very difficult field such as child protection. Our information is that the overriding reasons for recent departures have been to receive substantially higher pay in other agencies and be employed closer to home."

The letter addressed another claim brought up by law enforcement, that their agency is not respected. "We have not heard any information from surrounding county human service agencies that our agency is not respected," the letter reads. "If surrounding counties have concerns it would be beneficial for our county management to have specific information."

It goes on to say that Leskey and Willie provide knowledgeable leadership and work hard to meet the needs of vulnerable members of the community.

Van Batavia shared that some employees did not want to sign as they wanted to remain neutral, some were not present, thus unable to sign, others were fearful of publicly supporting the director as there could be retaliatory response in doing so.

Following the reading of the letter, commissioners briefly responded. Commissioner Jon Kangas, who was blessed with the task of working with Coordinator Ryan Odden to work with the departments regarding the concerns brought up in an organizational study, spoke first.

Kangas asked whose idea it was to write the letter. Van Batavia said she was one of the original authors, it was not a direction from a supervisor or director to do so. She added that she used her own time to speak to employees on their break time about this subject.

"I received phone calls when this was going on and a lot of concerns were brought forth," Kangas said following the March 12 meeting.

Commissioner Chuck Horsager noted that there are 29 employees signing the letter, but there are 58 employees of human services. He said that's about 43 percent that didn't sign. Van Batavia responded that the turnaround time for crafting the letter, getting signatures and sending it out was short following the Pioneer Journal article posted on March 12.

LE response

Next up to the plate was Wadena Police Chief Naomi Plautz who said she planned a response "as we anticipated that Ms. Leskey would be addressing you with her manipulated version of the truth."

As she did last week, Plautz said the issue is not with the employees of Human Services, rather with the director Leskey and supervisor Willie.

"This letter of support signed by Human Service employees should not be considered by this board nor given any merit," Plautz read. She suggested instead that commissioners go by comments that were put into the organizational study, one that allowed comments with confidentiality.

"It showed there was discontent and a need for change in leadership," Plautz read.

Next Plautz read from a letter from a couple trying to adopt a child living in the county. They went through numerous hoops in trying to adopt the child. The experience was very unpleasant for them and the child.

Plautz said she has had numerous phone calls from professionals cheering her on for bringing up the issue.

Matter of fact

Following public forum time, Human Services Director Tanya Leskey presented to the board on WCHS data. The data showed over a number of years how the department was not only reaching the thresholds set by the Department of Human Services, but it was surpassing them. The data showed WCHS in many cases surpassing the goals of two other area counties, Todd and Morrison. Categories included child maltreatment, which Wadena County had 100 percent performance in 2013-2017, that's the number of children with substantial maltreatment report who do not experience a repeat substantial maltreatment report within 12 months.

"As you can see we have done very well in each one of our thresholds," Leskey said.

She then presented on percentage of staff that have left WCHS, which included 18.2 percent in 2015; 17 percent in 2016; 14.04 percent in 2017; and 13.7 percent in 2018.

She suggested that there has been stability and improvement in this area. She added that five staff that resigned, have returned to work at WCHS and five that interned, took full-time positions in WCHS.

"I think that speaks well to our ability to retain employees," Leskey said.

She added that of those leaving WCHS in 2017, the average travel distance to work was 73 miles, no small commute.

Commissioner Kangas said while other departments have turnover, he is not getting phone calls from other departments like he has about Human Services.

Following the board meeting, Leskey noted WCHS would be celebrating World Social Worker Day and enjoying some desserts at their office, with commissioners invited.