Attorney tells County Board to hush up on harassment claims
To protect the county from more potential sexual harassment complaints, St. Louis County Attorney Melanie Ford on Tuesday advised the County Board not to talk about complaints filed earlier this year against two commissioners or about the female ...
To protect the county from more potential sexual harassment complaints, St. Louis County Attorney Melanie Ford on Tuesday advised the County Board not to talk about complaints filed earlier this year against two commissioners or about the female employees who filed the complaints.
"There's a lot of talk out there that there could be other complaints," Ford told commissioners at the end of a regular board meeting in Duluth. "There's a lot of people in the county talking about what's going on, and there's even talk about them getting together and filing a complaint."
Earlier this year, sexual harassment complaints were filed against Commissioners Dennis Fink and Steve Raukar.
Following investigations by Duluth attorney Elizabeth Storaasli, both commissioners were found by the county's personnel officer to have violated a county harassment policy. However, as elected officials, commissioners are not subject to the same policy that covers county employees.
The board, in two separate split votes, didn't take disciplinary action against either commissioner.
Further public discussion about the issue -- either to media or among commissioners -- could lead to additional complaints from the complainants or from others, said Ford.
"I am here telling you that it is a possibility, and I am here to suggest there is a way to reduce the risk of a complaint or lawsuit being filed," Ford said. "I would suggest you not make your feelings public about the harassment complaints."
Commissioners Peg Sweeney and Bill Kron thanked Ford for her legal advice.
Kron said former county attorney Alan Mitchell offered similar warnings to the board during Mitchell's tenure.
"You have told us some areas to be careful of and that is your job," said Kron.
Sweeney said Ford's job is to "put up red flags" to the board and "prevent further victimization of the victims."
However, Commissioner Keith Nelson said Ford was keeping the issue alive by bringing it up at a board meeting.
"This is just perpetuating what has been going on since Jan. 1 [when Ford took office] and I want to thank you," Nelson said. "If there is potential litigation, shouldn't this be held in a closed session? I am struggling and I need to say this. I rely on the county attorney's office, but I don't rely on rumor. Until I have something substantive, I don't know why we are bringing it here. I don't see us sitting herediscussing it, but heavenforbid, let's talk about it some more."
Ford said the countyhasn't received any formal notice of legal action.
However, she warned that any comments about the complainants from board members could constitute a violation of county policy.
Commissioner Mike Forsman said the board needs to move beyond the harassment complaints and focus on county business.
"From me, you will hear no more about these complaints," said Forsman. "It's time to move on. We have other issues. We are dealing with developing a sexual harassment policy, doing our due diligence on that, and I think the board is going to take it very seriously."
A draft code of conduct and ethics policy that would cover commissioners, including a sexual harassment provision, is to be introduced at Tuesday's committee-of-the-whole meeting in Duluth.
Final action on a policy could come Oct. 16.
Kevin Skwira-Brown of Duluth, a member of the watchdog group "We are Watching," asked commissioners Tuesday to approve a code of conduct and ethics policy that would be enforceable.
LEE BLOOMQUIST can be reached weekdays at (800) 368-2506, (218) 744-2354 or by e-mail at lbloomquist@duluthnews . com.