The Isanti County Board of Commissioners conducted a grievance hearing regarding disciplinary action taken against Public Transit Director Paul Smith at its Nov. 20 meeting.

Smith was appealing a five-day suspension issued to him Oct. 14. The disciplinary action was substantiated through an investigation and included hugging a subordinate employee on more than one occasion; receiving overtly sexual text messages from an employee over a period of months without reporting the concerns immediately to human resources and without proof Smith notified the employee the behavior was inappropriate, unprofessional and should cease immediately; permitting the use of a county vehicle outside of the use of county business, in violation of personnel policy regarding use of county vehicles; providing cash in the amount of $400 to the subordinate employee for personal reasons; and engaging in personal business with an antique business relationship with a subordinate employee. 

When the hearing began, Smith voiced his frustration with the entire process. He stated that he felt the county’s personnel policy regarding the grievance procedure had not been followed in this case. 

“As you are all aware, I have sent emails expressing my frustration throughout this process and what brought us here today,” Smith said. “It just seems like yet another example of the county deliberately putting roadblocks and barriers within this process here, denying my ability to be heard and have my side of the story told. ... All I’ve asked from the beginning of this was that I be given my due process as outlined in the Isanti County Policy Manual.”

Four steps allegedly not followed

He noted the grievance procedure has four steps, the final being a presentation before the county board. 

“I have not been allowed to pursue steps one through three to any degree,” he said. “I have repeatedly asked to do so. I have asked why I have not been able to pursue or granted the same rights as every other county employee, and received no response.” 

Maggie Periland, of Madden, Galanter and Hansen, labor employment attorney for Isanti County, outlined the grievance procedure for the board. Step one is bringing the grievance to a supervisor or department head. Step two is submitting a response to department head or supervisor. Step three is submitting the grievance to the human resources director and step four is submitting the grievance to county board in a public hearing.

Due to step one being submission to department head, the process didn’t fit here, given that Smith is the department head, Periland stated. 

Smith explained that step two states that, even if the grievance is made to the same person, in the event the immediate supervisor is the department head, the procedure shall none-the-less be followed.

“You are selectively enforcing and applying county policy at this point,” Smith argued. “It is a unique circumstance that I am a department head, and Miss Giese (Isanti County Human Resources Director) is filling two roles as the human resources director and interim county administrator, but regardless, county policy as it is written doesn’t say unless there is extenuating circumstances or unless this doesn’t fit. It’s pretty clear I should have been allowed steps one through three to address this matter privately before having to bring the public into it and making a public record of it to at least be heard.”

Giese explained that she, as well as the personnel committee, felt process was followed, noting that during the investigation was Smith’s opportunity to be heard. 

Smith pleads his case 

Smith stated that the allegation being investigated was of sexual misconduct, specifically sexual harassment. Everything else for which he was disciplined was not part of the original complaint, but were things which he shared during the investigation. 

“The only reason these things came to light was because of, in all honesty, the totally forthcoming and willingness to cooperate with this investigation,” he said. “I had no idea that by sharing this I would be penalized for it.” 

Smith spent two hours pleading his case before the board, stating he spent 11 hours with the person investigating the case. Smith admitted during his testimony to a majority of the allegations. 

However, he argued that most of those actions were not against any personnel policy, and the thing for which he was originally investigated (sexual harassment) was not substantiated.  

During his testimony, Smith noted during his first year as director of the transit department, things went really well, and he and his employees had a great working relationship. However, soon issues started to arise and tensions arose. Subordinates were feeling that supervisors were out to get them, and working relationships were becoming strained, he informed the board. 

Things became so bad that an outside psychologist was brought in to conduct some training with the department and attempt to get to the root of the issues that were occurring. However, it eventually came to light that the employee, who subsequently made the complaint, had been “wreaking havoc” within the department for a while, according to Smith.

It was after Smith made County Administrator Kevin VanHooser and Giese aware of the issues with the employee that this complaint was filed against him, according to Smith.

action postponed to next meeting

Smith was placed on paid administrative leave while an investigation took place, after which he was given the disciplinary action of a five-day suspension.

Smith noted that during the investigation, the investigator indicated they knew of at least two times Smith advised the complainant that the inappropriate text messaging was unwanted. Smith informed the board he had this conversation with the investigator recorded. 

Overall, Smith felt that none of his conduct was done with ill-intent or that he acted less than honorably, he said. 

Smith stated there were no findings of sexual misconduct/harassment during the investigation. He argued policy specifically states the contact has to be unwanted, and it was the complainant who initiated the one hug he does remember. 

The county vehicle was used to assist an employee in leaving an abusive/unsafe relationship. The bus was not taken out of commission to provide this service, and the fare was paid, Smith said. 

There is nothing in county policy that prohibits the loaning of money or purchasing of personal property between county employees, but Smith was told that was a “gray area” when he questioned why that was part of the disciplinary action, Smith added.

After Smith was finished giving his testimony, and the board was satisfied they had all the information they wanted to make a decision, County Attorney Jeff Edblad informed the board it had four options moving forward, one of which was to make a motion to take the issue under advisement and make a decision at the next board meeting. The board moved forward with that option.

At the next board meeting, the final three options are available to the board: it can make a motion to sustain and uphold the disciplinary action; overturn the disciplinary action; or it could impose some sort of disciplinary action that is less than what was imposed, but not greater than what was imposed, according to Edblad.

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