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Itasca County settles with wrongly fired sheriff's official

An Itasca County sheriff's official who alleged retaliation after a wrongful termination dispute has received a payout in excess of $500,000.

Lt. Michael Bliss filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the county in November 2016 — months after an arbitrator said his termination by Sheriff Vic Williams was unwarranted.

Bliss and the county settled the case last month, averting a jury trial that had been set to begin Nov. 27. Under the terms of the agreement, obtained by the News Tribune, the county will be on the hook for $191,417.13, while insurance will cover another $330,000.

Matt Morgan, a Twin Cities attorney representing Bliss, said his client intends to continue working for the sheriff's office.

"Certainly, Mike is happy to have the case resolved," he said. "It was on terms he found acceptable in light of the allegations and his loss. We had the opportunity to resolve it short of trial, so we put our heads together and come up with a mutually acceptable deal."

County Administrator Brett Skyles said the county denied the allegations but "reluctantly" opted to settle, with a significant contribution from its insurer, rather than continue expensive litigation.

"In approving the settlement, the County Board concluded that the time and energy spent on defending the matter was draining County resources that were simply better spent on improving County operations and the lives of County residents," he said. "Most importantly, this settlement allows the sheriff's department and its dedicated employees to continue providing for and improving public safety in the community, free from the distraction of ongoing litigation."

Bliss, who was hired as a deputy in January 1992, was fired by Williams in December 2015 over alleged misconduct stemming from a November 2014 meeting he had in an interview room with a records deputy he did not supervise.

Bliss, a union member, challenged the termination. An independent arbitrator in June 2016 determined Bliss' firing was excessive, reinstating him to his post with a 30-day unpaid suspension.

After returning to the job, Bliss alleged he was retaliated against by having his supervisory duties removed, being excluded from meetings, receiving a distant office with restricted access to the main workplace and receiving an ill-equipped squad car.

Bliss has continued to work over the course of the lawsuit. Morgan acknowledged that has made for a challenging environment, but said the workplace issues have been getting smoothed out.

"He's comfortable now with where he is," the attorney said. "He loves being a cop. He loves working for the county. That's what he wants to continue doing."

Williams is running for re-election Tuesday against Bryan Johnson, a former deputy he fired earlier this year over false timesheet entries. An arbitrator upheld that termination, but Johnson's labor attorney told the News Tribune this week that she is preparing an appeal of that decision.

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