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April 21, 2011

64

Part 1 of Special Report: Bullying, infighting plague Lincoln streets department

by Deena Winter
Illustration: Idea go

PART ONE IN A SERIES OF STORIES
BY DEENA WINTER

About two years ago, Roger Helmick was one of dozens of employees in the city street maintenance department who were so frustrated with the way their division was being managed that they called the newspaper.

I met them in the brick-walled, spartan Labor Temple in northeast Lincoln. The room filled with burly men who looked like they’d just come from doing one of the jobs that keep this city running — pushing snow off the streets, patching streets with hot asphalt and mowing grass.

It can be dirty work on the hottest and coldest of days – but they weren’t there to complain about that. They were there to talk about how the streets division of public works had degenerated into an Animal Farm-like atmosphere where a few good ’ol boys ran roughshod through intimidation, humiliation, nepotism and retaliation, which they said produced a culture where:

• A few years ago, an employee showed up drunk to work and was sent home (driving his own vehicle) by a supervisor and a few hours later was seen driving around Havelock. He still works in the department and drives snowplows.

• In 2008, labor supervisor Ron Null showed people at work a video on his cell phone of him having sex with another city employee – he was fired three months later, even though the head of street maintenance maintains to this day that he should have just been disciplined.

• A “gang” or “family” of supervisors and their friends and relatives target people they don’t like, intimidating, belittling, harassing them, leaving them at work sites, spying on them and nitpicking their work in an effort to get rid of them.

• Last year, a relatively new employee, Eric Kohles, was instructed to use an old, notoriously unsafe mower to mow near a drainage ditch without any training – and the mower tipped over onto him and killed him.

• A supervisor used to pull a butterfly knife out and wave it around to intimidate people who would ask for time off, saying “denied” or threatening to fire them.

• Trust and morale is so low that about 30 employees have digital tape recorders that they take everywhere and use surreptitiously, in case they’re confronted by a supervisor and don’t have a witness with them. The recorders are allowed by a union contract.

But that day in the Labor Temple, the workers were afraid they’d lose their jobs if they went public with the problems – and allowed their names to be published in a story.

I took pages and pages of notes and put them away, waiting for the day that someone would have the courage to speak up.

It would be a long wait.

Working your way up, getting knocked down
Roger Helmick was no wallflower, but that day at the Labor Temple, he wasn’t about to risk his job by going public about problems in the city department.

Nine years ago, he moved his family to Lincoln from Falls City so his deaf daughter could get better school services. He started working on an asphalt crew – the lowest rung in the division – trying to feed a family of five on about $8.50 an hour. It was hot, dirty, smelly work, hammering out damaged concrete and filling holes with asphalt.

But he worked his way up and by this year, he was earning more than $20 an hour as a heavy equipment operator and crew leader.

A few years ago, Helmick became a union steward and stepped up to help an employee who was being so harassed, screamed at and belittled by a supervisor at the South Street shop that he claimed to have lost about 60 pounds from the stress.

Roger Helmick worked for the streets department for nine years, before recently being dismissed in what he believes was retaliation.

Stress levels in the division peaked after one of the street maintenance employees was killed on the job. About a dozen employees filed a grievance against the city and three public works officials – particularly their boss, Scott Opfer — saying they’d ignored their warnings that some city mowers were unsafe – leading to the accident last year that claimed the life of their 37-year-old coworker, Eric Kohles.

Employees say Kohles had never operated the antiquated, three-wheeled Heckendorn mower before, and was assigned to mow steep terrain near a drainage ditch, where it tipped. Opfer says Kohles had operated it before, but was mowing it in the wrong area.

In November, at the mayor’s request, the Lincoln Police Department began an investigation into the Kohles accident. Initially, the police chief said the investigation should take 30 days. Five months later, the police have still not released their conclusions.

Helmick was one of three employees who filed a grievance in January, when employees were forced to go home after a night of snowplowing so they wouldn’t get overtime. That went against the labor agreement, and the city eventually paid all the employees for eight hours of overtime they didn’t work.

But public works director Greg MacLean side-swiped Helmick by sending a letter to the employees who did not sign the grievance thanking them for “taking the high road” by not being part of the grievance.

A couple days later, Helmick’s name showed up as a witness in a case against Doug Hanson, a supervisor in the streets division who Helmick and other employees say targets, intimidates and berates employees. Two days later, Helmick was “put on asphalt” duty.

Within a week, he would be out of a job.

Tomorrow: The mayor’s office gets involved.

64 Comments Post a comment
  1. YouGlow
    Apr 21 2011

    Thats what happens when you buck city management!

    Reply
  2. coach
    Apr 21 2011

    This is sad!

    Reply
  3. Concerned Citizen
    Apr 21 2011

    The facts in this article are not surprising considering the large number of uneducated employees and supervisors in the street department. When someone has an education at a Junior High level, you expect juvenile antics. The city needs to be proactive in hiring people who have higher levels of education and experience and fire those who have sub-par work performance.

    Reply
  4. porcupine
    Apr 21 2011

    Where is Colby Mack on this one? Sounds like a good house cleaning is in order.

    Reply
  5. YouGlow
    Apr 21 2011

    Some people just never learn to play ball.

    Reply
  6. Eric Bahm
    Apr 21 2011

    Wow concerned citizen sounds like someone who has never worked a day in their life. This behavior happens at all levels of education in the work force. I would argue it is much worse in the puplic sector where tax dollars fund your pay check and not a service or supply and demand business. Many of these city workers are very intelligent and even harder working at a job that must be done. The details my not be the same but the results of the same behavior happens with the teaching staff of our publicly funded schools everyday including the U where they should be the most educated pros in the work force.

    Reply
  7. Batman
    Apr 21 2011

    Sooo that makes that type of behavior acceptable sounds like maybe u should have stepped up 2 the plate& had the backbone 2 spearheaded some type awareness to this ongoing toxic culture instead of stuffing your head in the sand!!

    Reply
  8. Concerned Citizen
    Apr 21 2011

    Porcupine – Where is Colby Mach? The better question to ask is, “Where is the mayor on this issue?”
    U-glo – “Some people just never learn to play ball.” This sounds like the type of attitude that condones this culture of intimidation, humiliation, nepotism and retaliation.
    Eric – The title of this article should have been an indication that the story is specifically about the turmoil in the Lincoln City Street Maintenance Department. The article expands on the hostile work environment within the street department, not the U or other public learning institutions and that is why I only referenced employees and supervisors of the street department in my comment.

    Reply
  9. YouGlow
    Apr 22 2011

    Condone it?I thrive in it and so do many others.
    Some people just cant leave well enough alone and you get a situation like this.

    Reply
  10. billy
    Apr 22 2011

    The part that is sad is that part of this is fact and part fiction. Articles like these cause more division where it is not needed. I d like to see this stop but until people can learn to let some things go, it wont.

    Reply
    • real world%%%
      Apr 22 2011

      none of it is fiction the union has the audio recordings to back it up

      Reply
  11. Apr 22 2011

    Great story, great series, thank you for writing it

    Reply
  12. Karen Stump
    Apr 22 2011

    It’s about time this all comes out. Come on Koller-stop talking out both sides of your mouth. Ever think these stories sound scripted? They are multiple instances of the same abuse time after time? This isn’t sour grapes, this is a large group of people that are finally standing up to a corrupt group of management people that think abuse and intimidation is ok because they hold a title. It’s going to take a lot bigger broom to sweep this under the rug. As for getting people moved because they are married or living together, it is not retaliation, it’s common sense-you as a Personnel head should know that.

    Reply
  13. coach
    Apr 22 2011

    This sounds like a very bad situation for a lot of people. I just hope the citizens of Lincoln don’t have to pay the price. Meaning, services the city is payed to provide, lawsuits the city may accrue. Does anyone know if these people that are being bullied and harassed are able to strike? If so, then why haven’t they?

    Reply
  14. coach
    Apr 22 2011

    One more question. Does anyone have any information on any lawsuits being filed?

    Reply
  15. Batman
    Apr 22 2011

    Where’s the accountability by upper management multiple concerns raised 2 yrs ago , two unjustified firings & 1 dead sicking jst know this comes to light. If this is the way city entities are allowed to conduct with no recource by those singled out for standing up against clear outright abuse of power & manipulations of rules how ever they see fit. Definitely sways my vote!!

    Reply
  16. Ivy Harper
    Apr 22 2011

    Deena, this series shows just how critical watchdog journalism is to a community.

    I remember wondering what the back story was with respect to the death of Eric Kohles. His is the true tragedy here; a man is dead while warring factions bicker and engage in petty workplace feuds. It’s sickening.

    As a consummate safety advocate, I recall wanting to pull over my car, on occasion, driving down 56th Street; stop, get out, and warn city mowers that the angle at which they were working appeared dangerous.

    Several times, I remember thinking, “Where are city supervisors?” What these workers are doing, seemed to me, not to be safe.

    Since I’d already challenged NU and been bullied and marginalized, I thought of the adage, “You can’t fight City Hall” so I never did stop figuring that, perhaps, the mowers had special powers of aerodynamic design and control that I didn’t know about.

    Where was Eric Kohles working when he was killed?

    Reply
    • real world%%%
      Apr 22 2011

      on the bike path west off north 56th street by the old goodyear plant

      Reply
  17. YouGlow
    Apr 22 2011

    Billy I know you mean well but,youd better let me handle this.

    Reply
  18. billy
    Apr 22 2011

    I am appalled that things like this need to be blown so far out of poportion. A guy lost his job by his own arrogance which is unfortunate. This all needs to stop. I dont understand why people cant do there 8 hrs and leave work behind them.I am sorry for Rogers family and hope he finds work soon.

    Reply
    • real world%%%
      Apr 22 2011

      well you were going to be his new boss kosner so why dont you spread the stories more

      Reply
      • Bold Wife
        Apr 22 2011

        Paaaaalease! This all happened for a reason..getting the wives an families involed is irrevelant. Grow a set and quit name dropping & giving this wana be publicist credit. If the real truth be told the story is one sided. Roger instilled fear more then any supervisor could with his “gang”. Do something better with your time…like LOOK for a job!

        Wana drop?

        Thanks,
        From this jounior high drop out

  19. in the middle of it
    Apr 22 2011

    Rodger is no saint and what was done to him wasn’t right by any means, but that is what happens when you make your self a target. For anyone who has worked for the city they will tell you it is really hard to get fired and now two people have lost their jobs in the last two years.
    Ask Rodger why he wasn’t a steward when’ve was fired and why the majority of his former coworkers didn’t want him to come back to the shop he was fired from. I will tell you why. Backstabbing like a junior high school student.

    Reply
  20. YouGlow
    Apr 22 2011

    Billy, Just remember a good athlelet has a short memory and Roger did have some help going out the door!

    Reply
    • real world%%%
      Apr 22 2011

      leroy leroy you can just stop twisting things

      Reply
  21. Batman
    Apr 22 2011

    Yeah it’s called a corrupt upper management who lie & deciet to silence the upstanding workers forced to endure such a dispicable work enviroment. As for the classless act of a select few who chose in secretly to pass around a bogus petition what goes round comes atound!

    Reply
  22. billy
    Apr 22 2011

    I know what you are saying Youglow. Personally I havent felt intimidated or bullied by anyone in mnagaement. I was a bit shocked when the union steward called all his coworkers cowards at the last shop meeting. Again that type of attitude IS the cause of the division. We need to grow up and realize things arent perfect.

    Reply
    • real world%%%
      Apr 22 2011

      to late for that when one is dead and two others fired without cause steve

      Reply
  23. in the middle of it
    Apr 22 2011

    Not a petition batman a letter of concern get your facts straight.

    Reply
    • real world%%%
      Apr 22 2011

      well gary you and iris started it with scotts ok

      Reply
      • Gary
        Apr 23 2011

        Scott knew nothing about it until after it was written and signed. I voiced my concerns and opinions, which several other employees at the shop agreed with. Look up definition of “petition” before you run off at the mouth.

    • porcupine
      Apr 22 2011

      That should be the personal director job. So who are the shot callers and how are the soldiers?

      Reply
      • real world%%%
        Apr 22 2011

        opher and his web of lies and upper management who believe them because it is easier than looking for the truth

  24. YouGlow
    Apr 22 2011

    I think the one thing we all can agree upon is that the relationship between managers and workers in st.maint. has really gone down hill in the last 3 years………what happened other than Ronnie showing those videos of him and Amber?

    Reply
    • real world%%%
      Apr 22 2011

      opher took over

      Reply
    • Gary
      Apr 23 2011

      Ronnie “showing” this alledged video was not the downfall of the relationship between the workers and managers.

      Reply
  25. YouGlow
    Apr 22 2011

    Yeah real world,there is some truth to that…….but,he has made me into a better leader and he treats my old lady good at work.

    Reply
    • Steve
      Apr 22 2011

      Why are you guys trying to put my name in this convo?
      I am stong enough to sign my name in something I believe in.
      Best wishes to you and your family.

      Reply
  26. red ice
    Apr 22 2011

    wasnt it roger that lead the the food drive the last 2yrs put article in Lmagazine talking up the city employes trying 2 stick up for the guys being bullied always makeing jokes with guys thats right it was oh yeah he also put his supervisior in for the mayors award maybe the people that dont like him are the people that are the ones that come in late all the time and there supervisors dont do anything bout it there supervisors dont say anything when there crews takes 3 or 4 breaks a day reck there vehicles with no accident reports and lets them sleep in there truck and push it under the rug like it never happened things will never change while there are supervisors and personal like Mark K around and the place will only get worse with Scott O Andrew E leading the show

    Reply
    • Gary
      Apr 23 2011

      For your FYI red ice, Roger didn’t head up the food drive. He was the head of his shops contributions, but there was an entire committee who worked on the food drive and each shop/site had there own leaders which had nothing to do with Roger.

      Reply
  27. Harrison
    Apr 23 2011

    You have got to be kidding me is this what it has come down to? Everyone hiding behind made up names to cover their own butts or making up names to bash others. This is my name, I’m not going to hide, and if you have a problem with me or my views then lets talk. I’m tired of all the petty BS that is going on at the city shops. Are we not grown men and women? I come to work and put in my time the same as everyone else, but yet am treated like a second class citizen because I haven’t been there for 10 years. Sure I have made mistakes and was reprimanded for them accordingly as everyone should be. I feel as if I’m back in school when I was young and everyone had their “group”. Where were our supervisors promoted from? They came from within the ranks of us the common folk, the EO2s and the like. So what I am led to believe is that once they were promoted a catastrophic change occurred in their person and they were reprogrammed to mess with all of those underneath them? I hope not because there are a lot of really nice guys who will some day be promoted and I would hate to see them change that drastically. Let’s all grow up, put this petty bickering behind us, and do what we were hired to do.

    Reply
    • porcupine
      Apr 23 2011

      How did you get your job at the City? How many times did you apply before you were hired? Are you man enough to tell the truth?????

      Reply
      • Harrison
        Apr 23 2011

        I applied for six positions over the course of two years in november of 2008 I was granted an intreview. Wes, john, and doug interviewed me I was asked to take a drug test. Took the test and pasted it. I started work on dec. 1 2008 in the south street shop. Two months later I was transfered to baldwin where I am today. So what is the big deal?

      • Harrison
        Apr 24 2011

        It just dawned on me that you are referring to the rumor that since I bowled on the same league with Doug Hansen I was handed my job on a silver platter. There was over 100 people in the league and I wasn’t on Doug’s team. It wasn’t until after the interview was finished that we figured out how we knew each other. I applied for the position i was hired for before league even started and I got the job because I was qualified for it. Also I would like to add that I was fired from the private sector job I held for five years before I came to the city. Why was I fired? The owner of the company and I didn’t see things the same way so I was fired just like that. In my interview for the city position when asked about this I told the truth and still was hired. So I guess this answers the question if I am man enough to tell the truth. Are you man enough to tell the truth?

      • porcupine
        Apr 24 2011

        This replay sounds scripted !!!

      • Harrison
        Apr 24 2011

        Then look in to it and prove me wrong.

      • porcupine
        May 17 2011

        Its obvious how this Harrison guy gets by, just look at his blog.

      • May 18 2011

        What blog is that?

  28. Batman
    Apr 23 2011

    That’s exactly what happens most interviews r set up for the supervisors & departmemt heads a#@ kissers who drop alittle birdseed in their lap & peck around to get favors ie interview questionairres that can b recited word for word, preferencial treatmemt leading u to interviews not giving to all applicants. Then once in place the puppets carry out uppermangement’s bidding to create a axis of evil for yr’s to come & keep the good ol’ boys connection going & people are sick& tired of it so LET’S GET IT ON!!

    Reply
  29. Honest-injun
    Apr 23 2011

    Harrison,
    You can blame the culture of st.maint on Bub Edwards and Scott Opfer.
    A culture that promotes bullying and intimidation.

    A culture that in which if you suck up to the boss and are one of the good ol boys and comein drunk,you just get a vacation day and the boss puts you on the street in your personal car and tells you to go home.

    A culture in which Roger H was railroaded out the door and Bub/scott were the engineer and conductor!

    Mark K and the rest of the good ol boys in personel were more than happy to through in with these dirtbags and help them with the dirty work.

    Deena has done this article because its big news when you have this type of corruption in city goverment ,because when city goverment is this corrupt it needs to be exposed.

    Reply
    • Harrison
      Apr 23 2011

      Both Rodger and Management were conducting their own trains, unfortunately they were both on the same track and on a collision course. Obviously management’s train was the winner in that collision and Rodger and his family are paying the price.

      Reply
      • porcupine
        Apr 24 2011

        How would you know anything about it if the family did not tell you, you are proving their point

    • Iris
      Apr 23 2011

      If Deena wanted to report a responsible story, it wouldn’t be so one sided. What about the people that has been harrassed and bullied by these group of individuals that like to tell half truths and have been known to make up out right lies.

      Hey YouGlow, I know for a fact you’re not LeRoy. Won’t you let us know who you really are? I guess if you did that you couldn’t ramrod another person in secret, which is what you all like to do.

      Reply
      • YouGlow
        Apr 24 2011

        She is reporting both sides,have you noticed shes interveiwing people from management and labor both???

        The reason it looks one sided is because management is so dirty.So naturally that comes out in the story.

        i

  30. Honest-injun
    Apr 23 2011

    Bold wife,

    Its obvious that your an un-educated idiot and married to the same.

    You and your like prosper from the corruption in st.maint or you wouldnt be on here bashing Deena for exposeing it.

    The only “GANG” is the one that exists in management and the drug infested boot lickers you run with.

    There is a band of decent people that stick togther.try to do the right thing and are looked down upon by management and the boot lickers because being a decent person is a threat to them and the corruption they wallow in.

    Reply
    • gary
      Apr 23 2011

      I find it fun that you have to resort to insulting people and calling names. I know alot of people who have several degrees and the are very well spoken. Thay actually argue their points with out being a mud slinger. I guess it must depende on where you get your education. And if you have to resort to name calling than there is only one thing to say. I’m rubber your glue everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.

      Reply
      • Honest-injun
        Apr 24 2011

        Gary,
        I always thought you had the mentality of a 14yr old but,I was wrong……its more like 7yrs.

  31. Neal R.
    Apr 25 2011

    hello folks this is neal, just wanted to say sorry to all my co-workers who i called cowards im an idiot i know, and also wanted to comment on the photo’s roger posed for, i thought they were delightful!
    once again im an idiot
    thanks, neal

    Reply
    • jeff stump
      May 6 2011

      this is clearly not Neil talking I know the man and he would not say any thing like this the city street dept. is in such a mess on the truth will solve the issues if any one has the stones to tell me the real story call me

      Reply
  32. Read this
    May 8 2011

    I cant believe you people are eating this crap up! Do you believe everything that is written on the internet? Talk about uneducated. Anyone can start a blog and write whatever they want. The author of this blog was fired from the journal star and now shes trying to write “the story that gets her back on the map” with bias opinions and discredited sources. She has not interview any of the management, she has taken what she has read in the newspaper and put her own little twist on it. And there is no bullying going on in the st. maint department. The guys were upset because they had to do work they didnt like to do. NEWSFLASH! ITS YOUR JOB! If you dont like it, QUIT! I know everyone has heard the stereotype of the “lazy city employee”…well these sources are just that…lazy. I’ve never read a more bias peice of crap “sob-story” of a blog in my life!

    Sidenote: Im betting this comment is removed from the page by the author because ITS THE TRUTH and it make her look bad….just watch!

    Reply
    • May 9 2011

      You better check your sources, pal: I did not get fired, asked to leave, or even so much as get disciplined in my entire time at the paper. I chose to leave to get away from a situation about as screwed up as your street maintenance department. OK, well maybe not THAT bad. Also, I called every manager involved, offering to hear their side of the story. The mayor’s office decided to have Personnel Director Mark Koller speak for the administration. Scott Opfer talked to me, and the mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, too (as you’ll see in part 2 and 3). The others did not.

      Reply
    • Don
      May 9 2011

      YOUR THE ONE FULL OF IT.

      Reply
      • Don
        May 9 2011

        The comment is for Read this.

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