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29
Apr

Street laborers’ union refuses to endorse mayoral candidate

The union that represents laborers in the city’s street maintenance division has refused to endorse either of the two candidates running for mayor on Tuesday.

The union is called the Public Association of Government Employees, or PAGE, and represents about 500 blue-collar, clerical and technical workers. It also represents laborers who were the subject of our special report last week, detailing the bullying and infighting that have plagued the streets division for years.

PAGE union President Jeff Stump

PAGE President Jeff Stump said the union doesn’t think either of the mayoral candidates is qualified.

“We feel Tammy Buffington doesn’t have the experience and her views on the commission (CIR) and unions are not something that we agree with and as far as Mayor Beutler we can’t endorse him because of issues in the street department that he has failed to address after a year and a half.”

Those issues, he said, are bullying, harassment and inadequate training — all the things detailed in our special report.

The union also declined to endorse a candidate in District 1, northeast Lincoln. Stump said they didn’t endorse Democrat Doug Emery because “he’ not a qualified candidate” and after promising not to “come after our pension” Stump said the first thing Emery did after getting elected was start working on reducing city employees’ retirement benefits.

“The first thing he came after was our pensions,” Stump said.

The union endorsed the Democrats in two districts: Jonathan Cook in southwest Lincoln and Carl Eskridge in northwest Lincoln. The union did not endorse anyone in the southeast Lincoln district, where incumbent Jon Camp is running against newcomer Bobbi Kosmicki.

“We just don’t feel that we know enough about them,” he said.

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28
Apr

More nasty Democratic mailings — who’s paying for them?

This is shaping up to be quite possibly the most negative campaign the Democrats have ever waged on Republicans in Lincoln. What do you think? I’m hearing about negative mailings going out left and right.

The Dems are now attacking incumbent Councilman Jon Camp, who is up for re-election on Tuesday. They sent out a ridiculous looking mailing (Camp mailing, address side) (Back side)Thursday with Camp apparently in some kind of Russian garb, dancing some kind of jig.

They nailed him for missing a budget meeting to take a Russian vacation and allegedly missing 16 City Council meetings (in what time frame? his entire 12-year tenure? One year? That would be good to know). I think it’s legitimate to talk about an incumbent’s attendance record, but the Russian jig thing is sophomoric. The mailer — once again, paid for by the Nebraska Democratic Party — claims Camp has the worst attendance record on the council and directs people to check out this website: here. It’s hard to know how much of this stuff is even accurate anymore, given the half-truths and exaggerations they put out in their mailing about Travis Nelson.

Camp expects more mailings targeting him in the next few days before the election on Tuesday. His opponent, Bobbi Kosmicki, had an unexpectedly strong showing in the primary election, trailing Camp by just 1,100 votes, or 15 percentage points — not bad for a virtual unknown in Lincoln politics — and the Democrats apparently smell blood. Although news of her bankruptcy last year might hurt.

An attack (img-428173755-0001) also went out hitting Republican Chad Wright, who’s running in District 4, northwest Lincoln. This mailing calls him “No Show Chad Wright” and claims he “just” moved to Lincoln four years ago, allowed radical, out-of-state special interests to bankroll his campaign to the tune of $50,000 and “didn’t have a business” in Lincoln until last year.

I can’t find any evidence of a $50,000 contribution to Wright’s campaign anywhere in state records, and a Republican official tells me Wright has had his business since 2007, although it wasn’t incorporated until last year.

Who’s paying for this smear campaign? Well, let’s see. The Lincoln firefighters’ union PAC gives the Democratic Party a whopping $30,000 in March. Another huge contributor has been Mayor Chris Beutler, who has donated at least $14,000 to the state party to make sure his fellow Democrats get elected — despite all his talk about reducing partisan rancor and his disdain for even mentioning which party council members belong to. I guess if you have nothing but Democrats on the council, that would reduce partisan bickering…

Kosmicki donated $1,500 to the Democratic party April 1, and then the Dems spent $1,500 to send out a mailing in support of her.

This all feels a little like money laundering, doesn’t it? Donate money to the party and then wash your hands of the dirty little mailings the party sends out. The mayor, Kosmicki and anyone else who donates to the state Democratic Party should own it: They’re paying for this dirty campaign, no matter how clean they think their hands are.

28
Apr

That Big Red House on O Street

image

You probably didn’t notice the big white house with a tree growing through the porch as you whizzed by on O Street. But you make take notice now.

The once-dilapidated house (apartments, actually) has been transformed into what my readers kept referring to as “that big red house” on O Street — just a few blocks east of 27th Street. They saw renovations going on, hoped the house wasn’t going to be demolished, and were relieved to see it preserved.

The home is now a two-level store called Good Things — with gifts, flowers, jewelry, food items, kitchen gadgets, and home decor — a little like Aunt Patty’s, but with more than decor. There is a full Stonewall kitchen, for example, with utensils, gadgets and upper-end food items.

The store is owned by Karolyn and Mike Howard, who also sell items wholesale and owned a similar store in Beatrice before expanding to Lincoln. The store opened on March 3 and its hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Anytime we can save an historic building from the chopping block, I call it a good thing, indeed.

28
Apr

Arena head says project is on budget; hundreds turn out looking for piece of arena work

The program manager for Lincoln’s West Haymarket arena project says the project is still on budget — disputing recent rumblings that the $340 million project is over budget.

During an open house for subcontractors Wednesday night, Mortenson Construction Vice President and General Manager of the Sports Group, Derek Cunz, said at this point it’s typical for a lot of “wish list things” to creep into a project, but he said the project is tracking on budget so far.

Jim Martin, program manager for the arena project, acknowledged that two street projects the city expected the state to do have been delayed. Those are improvements to the intersections of First Street and Cornhusker Highway and Sun Valley Boulevard and O Street. Improvements to those intersections are important to help traffic flow smoothly in and out of the newly developed area west of the Haymarket.

Martin said the city is looking at funding a “modest engineering study” to see if there are “interim solutions” to improve traffic flow at the intersections until the state can do the projects. His firm is reviewing the cost of the study, which he said would probably be less than $50,000. The Joint Public Agency which oversees arena financing and construction would have to approve the expenditure, too.

But he said the project is still on budget.

Mortenson Construction, the Minnesota-based general contractor who will be building the $168 million arena portion of the project, held an open house Wednesday night at the Cornhusker Marriott for subcontractors looking to get a piece of the arena action. Pickups with logos filled nearby streets and an adjacent parking garage, and probably 300 people filled an overheated ballroom to hear about the project. It was standing room only.

Some nuggets of news:

• Construction is scheduled to begin Sept. 16.

• Mortenson wants to begin accepting resumes (so to speak) next week for mechanical, plumbing, structural steel, structural precast, electrical and other work and award bids in June. That may be a bit too optimistic, however.

• Mortenson will open an office in the Haymarket next month. Anybody want to wager any bets on who they’ll rent from?

• Cunz said the company has never failed to finish a project on time and on budget.

• Cunz said sports projects are notorious for hitting time crunches and having long punch list items — but Mortenson’s goal is to have no punch list items by the first Husker basketball game.

• Senior Superintendent Dave Mansell said the city tried to wedge the arena between two rail lines — since they won’t be able to be moved until September 2012 — but there wasn’t enough room, so construction will go on between two active rail lines.

27
Apr

Council candidate accused in domestic incident 11 years ago

Travis Nelson is running for the City Council.

When City Council candidate Travis Nelson was targeted by Democrats for having money problems, he fought back with a press statement defending his reputation.

He also subtly launched a pre-emptive strike, in case the Dems intended to go after another blemish on his record: A “domestic” between he and his girlfriend in 2000, when they lived on 27th Street.

According to the Lincoln Police Department’s incident report, police were called to 1905 S. 27th St. after the incident at about 2:30 in the morning in mid-December.
The police report describes the incident as a “domestic argument” between Nelson and his then-girlfriend, Mary Jo Spicka, who is a Lincoln firefighter. The report says there was “pushing, scratches” and that Spicka had an abrasion on the “left forear.” Spicka is identified as the victim in the report.

Lancaster County Court records indicate he was convicted of disturbing the peace and sentenced to one year of probation. In a press statement earlier this week, Nelson said the conviction stemmed “an argument with his former wife prior to their marriage.”

Nelson served probation and completed an alcohol rehabilitation program. He has since remarried, to Ronda Smith Nelson, and has a 6-year-old son (Spicka’s son).

“I fully accept responsibility for my role in the situation,” Nelson said in his press statement. “That event made me take serious stock of my life and changed it forever, for the good.”

Nelson is running against incumbent Democrat Jonathan Cook in District 3, southwest Lincoln.

25
Apr

Nelson says Dems are wrong: he paid his child support, attorney’s bill

City Council candidate Travis Nelson released state records today that he says prove the state Democratic Party sent out a mailing that wrongly accuses him of failing to pay his child support since 2009.

Travis Nelson is running for the City Council.

Nelson released this document (nelson child support pg 1), which he said shows he has made his payments on time. He said he is considering suing the Democratic Party for “lying about my personal record of paying child support.”

“This is a false accusation against me personally,” he said in a press release. “It is untrue that I have not paid my child support for my son who is so important to me.”

Vic Covalt, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, has not returned a phone call seeking comment on Nelson’s assertion. The state Democratic Party paid for the mailing that went out late last week accusing Nelson of failing to pay child support, owing his divorce lawyer thousands and having a small claims judgment against him for money he owed Pella. Nelson works in construction. Nelson said he has also paid the attorney’s fees and Pella — which he described as a “complicated mess” because the company supplied the wrong size windows. He called the allegations “red herrings.”

A few days prior, the county Republican Party sent out a mailing pointing out that his opponent, incumbent Democrat Jonathan Cook, had failed to attend 80 percent of City-County “Common” meetings.

“My opponent was attacked on his public record of not showing up for his city council job,” Nelson said in the release. “I was wrongly attacked for things that occurred in my personal life and that is inexcusable and a below-the-belt kind of hit. My opponent has proven to voters that he doesn’t even show up for the job they elected him to do. I show up to work every day,”

Nelson said it’s not easy being a small home remodeler and contractor during a tough economy.

“Like thousands of workers in Lincoln, these are tough times and we have struggled. But I show up every day and I pay my bills. This game-playing with false accusations made against me personally are an insult to me and the voters of the 3rd City Council District.”

On another issue, Nelson today also acknowledged he was charged with disturbing the peace 11 years ago, “stemming from an argument with his former wife prior to their marriage.” Nelson served probation and completed an alcohol rehabilitation program.

“I fully accept responsibility for my role in the situation,” Nelson said in his press release. “That event made me take serious stock of my life and changed it forever, for the good.”

“My campaign has been about the issues important to voters. I’m proud of my family business, I’m proud of my family, and I’m proud of how I’ve dealt with the personal challenges I’ve had to face and conquer,” Nelson said.

25
Apr

Dems’ smear campaign begins

Well, here it is. The ugliest piece of campaign literature I’ve seen so far in this spring’s municipal election campaign: The Nebraska Democratic Party send out a mailing late last week bashing the Republican candidate for the City Council, in District 3. The headline: “Travis Nelson can’t manage his own money.”

Their evidence? He hasn’t paid his child support since July 2009. He owes his divorce attorney nearly $5,400. And he owes Pella $2,700, according to a small claims judgment in county court. Ouch.

This is the deal, folks. If you want to run for elective office around here, you’d better not have any skeletons in your closet, because they will find them. The Democrats are particularly good at digging up this kind of dirt. You may recall in the last City Council race, the Dems dogged Republican Adam Hornung for not paying the wheel tax on a pickup that he said was his father’s (who lives in another county).

I remember well the Dems’ press conference, during which they showed reporters pictures they’d taken of Hornung’s SUV in the parking lot of the law firm he works at. I wondered a) how they identified this potential chink in Hornung’s armor and b) was the head of the Democratic Party out skulking around in the parking lot, trying to get the photo?

This is what it’s come to. Somebody runs for office, and the other party sets about digging up dirt on them. To be fair, the Republicans actually launched the first salvo in the District 3 race, sending out a mailing noting that incumbent Councilman Jonathan Cook has missed 80 percent of City-County “Common” meetings.

Is that relevant? I think it is.

Is the fact that Nelson might have money problems relevant? The Dems’ mailer thinks so, asking people, “What kind of City Council member do you want? Responsible? Trustworthy? Budget Conscious? Travis Nelson IS NONE OF THESE THINGS.”

Does this mean the Democratic candidate in District 2, Bobbi Kosmicki, is not fit for office, too — given the news that she filed for bankruptcy last year?

I find it ironic that Democratic State Chairman Vic Covalt thinks it’s OK to do this kind of dirt-digging and spreading — considering he represents people in bankruptcy for a living. When I was a reporter, Covalt and I had several conversations about how The System treats poor people. I specifically remember him telling me I should go down to the courthouse every Friday and watch the parade of people who basically can’t afford to pay for things like car insurance and registration.

He fights for those people. And yet, in his other life as head of the Democratic Party — the party that ostensibly fights for the little guy — he slams a guy who can’t pay his bills for having the audacity to run for elective office.

I see hypocrisy in that. Do Vic and the Dems believe anybody who’s ever struggled financially — or at least to the point of it becoming a public record in a court of law — should not run for office? Is that the standard? Should it be? You tell me.

23
Apr

Part 3 of Special Report: Employees say safety issues ignored

PART THREE IN A SERIES OF STORIES
BY DEENA WINTER

The streets division is overseen by a man who was brought in to clean up the place about three years ago: Scott Opfer.

Before Opfer got the job, he oversaw a different division of public works, traffic operations. One day in 2008, City Engineer Roger Figard asked for a meeting with the street maintenance laborers’ union head, Jeff Stump, and the union’s attorney, Gary Young.

Figard told Young he wanted to help fix the streets division, and had just the guy to do it: Opfer. He asked the union to cooperate with Opfer, to make things easier.

Opfer would now oversee both traffic and streets. He went from supervising about 25 employees to about 125. Right away, Opfer met with all the street employees and told them he would reform the place and have an open-door policy. He assured them he would protect the anonymity of employees and protect them from retaliation.

“The employees actually believed him,” Young said in an interview.

During that meeting, a couple of employees expressed concern about unsafe, old mowers like the Heckendorn mower – an old three-wheeled mower that tipped easily, had no roll cage, didn’t always turn right and was too high off the ground to stop from tipping with your feet. The department had modified it by removing large wings on the mower, making it unstable and easier to flip, according to the workers.

“This thing was a disaster in every way you can imagine,” Young said. “Opfer promised them he’d look into it.”

Some middle managers at the meeting disagreed, arguing the Heckendorn was safe. After the meeting, two of the men who had complained were headed out on a mowing job when they were told to go back to the main streets office at 901 N. Sixth St. and mow a huge, flat compound. They were told since they “don’t like the Heckendorn,” they could use push mowers. Young said they mowed four or five acres with 1980s era push mowers in the blistering heat. They said two supervisors drove by, laughing at them.

Opfer said he didn’t order them to push-mow the compound and in any case it wasn’t unusual for the compound to be mowed with push mowers.

Trouble on the Streets of Lincoln -- a Special Report. Illustration: Idea go

Opfer has worked for the city for 26 years, and before he took over street maintenance, he’d heard stories about bullying and intimidation going on there.

“I have no doubt there were things that have gone on in the past,” Opfer said. “I’ve tried to promote management treating people fairly.”

He said he thinks he’s made progress on issues such as promotions. Laborers say managers promote people from “the family.” Opfer said he stopped that by sitting in on every promotional interview.

However, he said bullying is happening on both sides — both managers and laborers do it, particularly members of the blue-collar union, the Public Association of Government Employees, or PAGE. The middle managers are also members of a union, the Lincoln City Employees Association, or LCEA.

“Some union representatives do much more bullying than management does,” Opfer said in an interview Thursday. He said some PAGE members complain to him about the very laborers who are accusing managers of bullying. One employee recently talked to him about it during their basketball league, he said.

He said some of the laborers have done the same things they accuse supervisors of doing – such as showing coworkers sexually explicit images, as one worker, Ron Null, got fired for in 2008. But Opfer said he didn’t do anything about those other cases he’s because he would have been accused of retaliation.

“I’ve been walking on eggshells at times,” Opfer said. “We’ve been accused of turning our heads. We’re not gonna do that any longer.”

Opfer also volunteered that his daughter is good friends with Null’s wife – a well-known fact among the laborers — but said the fact that Null was fired anyway shows he’ll do the right thing regardless. But in the same breath, he acknowledged that he has publicly stated he didn’t think Null should have been fired. He said Null should have just been disciplined through the process where people get warnings first.

He said the vast majority of employees in the streets division don’t have any problems – but a small fraction take up most of his time.

“I’d like to come to work and not deal with crap,” he said – the exact same thing the laborers say they want.

As for the numerous ties between employees – whether by marriage, address or friendship – he said there is no nepotism going on, that all of the married couples met while working in the division and then got married, so there’s nothing that can be done about it.

As for the allegations that managers like Doug Hanson belittle and harass employees – sometimes brandishing a knife – Opfer said, “If I had proof that that occurred on my watch, I would definitely do something about it. They bring up things that happened a year or two, three years before I even became a manager.”

***

While Eric Kohles was on life support in a hospital, Opfer had a meeting with Kohles’ coworkers. Kohles was clinging to life after the Heckendorn tipped over and ended up on top of him in a drainage ditch just south of the Goodyear plant in Havelock.

The Heckendorn mower

He was apparently mowing near the ditch, which his former coworker, Roger Helmick, said was a bad idea, given the mower’s reputation for unpredictability and propensity to tip.

According to the laborers who were at the meeting, Opfer said, “I’m sorry I never did anything about that mower. They’re gonna pull Eric off life support. I’m very sorry.” But a few days later, Opfer had another meeting with the workers, and said he wasn’t referring to the Heckendorn mower, but a different old mower, and the fact that he should have surveyed the safety of the whole mowing program.

“I had never heard (of the) Heckendorn mower until the accident,” Opfer said. “I didn’t even know what a Heckendorn was.”

That conflicts with numerous employee accounts. The attorney for the PAGE union, Gary Young, said one of the leaders of the mowing crew specifically told Scott Opfer he should make sure that no inexperienced people were assigned to the ditch mowing operations, because it was far too dangerous for untrained and inexperienced operators.

Employees said Kohles had never been trained on the Heckendorn and had just been moved to mowing, and was sent out to the area along a steep drainage ditch without supervision. In fact, they say a little retaliation may have been involved in Kohles getting on the mower that day – the kind of retaliation routinely used – being assigned a tough job or a bad piece of equipment.

Young said employees reported that a supervisor had been complaining about a report from Kohles that another mower could not be used to complete a particular job the manager had assigned them to complete, and was angry at Kohles. The day of the accident, employees reported that this supervisor specifically ordered “make sure Eric (Kohles) is on the Heckendorn.” Employees reported that another piece of equipment that was assigned that day was to be operated by a more experienced employee, but this particular piece of equipment was very slow and would be delayed before reaching the job site.

As a result, Kohles was sent to the site to use the Heckendorn without any supervision. By the time the more senior employee arrived, the accident had already happened.

Opfer disputed that.

“Eric was not put on a crappy piece of equipment in retaliation,” he said.

Opfer also said the Heckendorn was perfectly fine to operate.

“They’re an appropriate piece of mowing equipment if you use them appropriately,” he said.

Then why did he apologize to Kohles’ coworkers?

“I went and I apologized to them because I felt very responsible for the whole thing,” Opfer said. “I just felt responsible for the fact that he was in an area that – in there where he mowed – I don’t believe he should have been mowing.”

He said normally, the workers don’t mow in that area.
“How did it get there that day? That’s a good question. I don’t know.”

To Young, the Kohles accident is emblematic of the problems in street maintenance. He represents public employee unions all over Nebraska – from cops to troopers to prison employees – and has never seen such bullying, interpersonal violence and neglect of employee safety.

“This is the worst managed operation I have ever seen,” he said. “People are bullied, retaliated against, and employees fear saying anything. It is no surprise to me that the culture that management has fostered there would lead to what happened.”

And even though the mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, told the blue-collar workers not to lose faith, that the mayor’s office would try to help, Young said, “We have asked the mayor over and over again to deal with it. We have pled with his personnel director for years now. Everyone just shrugs their shoulders.”

After the Kohles accident, 11 employees filed a grievance with the city, claiming the city had created an unsafe working environment for Kohles by assigning him to work on an unsafe mower without proper training. They also accused the city of maintaining “a working culture in which employees are discouraged from raising concerns about safety, are humiliated when raising such concerns, and are specifically retaliated against in a number of ways when raising such concerns.”

They alleged managers would retaliate by criticizing them and assigning work “in a manner to punish employees.” They called for an independent investigation into the Kohles accident and whether any managers retaliate against employees who raise safety concerns.

“We just want to do our jobs”

Roger Helmick sees Kohles’ death as an example of what can happen in a culture where certain people get certain assignments, people are not always properly trained and supervised and equipment and jobs are assigned based on connections and vendettas.

Take his own story.

Roger Helmick shows where his former coworker Eric Kohles was mowing when the mower somehow tipped over onto him in a drainage ditch.

In January, he stood up when supervisors sent workers like him home after plowing snow from streets through the night. Their labor agreement says they cannot be forced to go home to avoid getting overtime – but the managers sent them home anyway.

He and others filed a grievance – and won. But it came with a price. The guy overseeing the entire public works department, Greg MacLean, sent a letter out thanking other street maintenance workers for not filing a grievance over the snow removal issue.

A day later, Roger Helmick got called into a boss’s office. He was told he was being moved to work on asphalt. He felt they were sending him a message – especially since he’d just been outfitted with new tools and a box that would fit his truck to finish concrete all summer.

Now suddenly, the plan had changed.

He believed his days were numbered. He took a vacation day the following day, a Friday, and barely slept all weekend. The next week, he called in to a phone line he says employees are told to use to report they’ll be out sick.

However, he just left a message saying, “I’ll be out” and didn’t leave his name. He said that’s not unusual – that employees are told to call that number if they’re going to be sick. And he said since supervisors like to play the recordings for each other and critique them for fun, he wanted to make his message short.

He went to the doctor for an ear problem he’d been battling, and got a doctor’s note. He left a message five days in a row, and on the fifth day, he got a letter from the public works director, saying “You failed to report to work” for five days, violating a city code that says if an employee is absent three or more days “without authorized leave” they “shall be deemed to have resigned.”

After nine years working for the city, he was out. The last sentence of the letter from MacLean said, “We request that you return all city property immediately.” The city has denied him a chance to appeal, since city officials claim he resigned.

Last year, Helmick was praised and featured in L Magazine for heading up the street maintenance division’s drive to raise $4,200 in contributions and 3,000 pounds of food for the Lincoln Food Bank. He says he was trying to help change negative perceptions of the division.

Of the whole situation, he often says, “We just want to come to work and do our jobs.”

Instead, now he’s looking for a job.

22
Apr

Part 2 of Special Report: The mayor’s office gets involved, but problems persist

PART TWO IN A SERIES OF STORIES
BY DEENA WINTER

Word of the war going on in the streets department had made its way to the mayor’s office by 2009.

The mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, met with dozens of street employees to talk about their concerns twice in 2009. First, he came alone. A couple weeks later, he brought along the city’s personnel director, Mark Koller.

“We’re here to learn,” Koller says on a tape recording of the meeting.

Employees told them story after story about harassment, hijinks and cliques that govern the streets division. A tidal wave of angry anecdotes and sad stories poured out in the Labor Temple – again.

A new employee described how he was screamed at, berated and belittled by supervisor Doug Hanson. The attorney for the union that represents the blue collar workers, Gary Young, said multiple employees say Hanson targets, intimidates and berates employees. One employee said Hanson pulled out a butterfly knife and began to spin it in front of an employee who came to his office asking for vacation time, Young said. One man underwent a long period of personal abuse by Hanson and his “crew” and reportedly lost 60 pounds from the stress of working on the crew, Young said.

That man told his story to Koller and Hoppe at the Labor Temple that day. He said he was not trained or told what to do and was left at work sites or in shops without instruction about two dozen times.

“I’m scared to death of my job,” he told them.

Other employees said the harassers would take tools away from them and tell them to sit in a truck – to set them up to get in trouble for not working.

Koller and Hoppe were also told about how members of this ruling “family” routinely hire friends and neighbors and bowling partners and surround themselves with allies who back them up, spy on employees for them and socialize together after hours.

There are a lot of connections between employees, most prominent among them: Asphalt crew worker Gary Weger is married to account clerk Iris Weger and District Supervisor Leroy Uglow lives with boss Scott Opfer’s secretary. And public works director Greg MacLean’s executive secretary is married to Kelly Sieckmeyer, who works in traffic operations and is a good friend of Opfer’s.

Employees says “the family” shares information about employees and makes it impossible for grievances to go anywhere without everybody finding out right away. After hearing about it at the Labor Temple, the personnel director said, “It sounds to me like Doug’s damn near hired everybody in this city… it goes deeper than I wanna admit,” Koller said. “If it’s that way, then by golly something needs to be changed.”

But Koller made no promises, saying he was only hearing one side of the story and it would take time to address the problems.

At the end of the meeting, Hoppe said there were “fairly serious things going on here” and promised to have weekly meetings with union president Jeff Stump and the union’s attorney to work on the issues they raised.

“Stay with us. Don’t lose faith,” Hoppe told the laborers. “We’re gonna try to make things right and do what we can to try and make it better.”

Weekly meetings between Young, Stump and Hoppe went on for awhile, but during one, Hoppe said the mayor’s office had taken some steps (like getting safety glasses for employees, as their contract allowed) and now it needed the union to take some steps in return — by making sure employees responded when called for snow removal. The atmosphere had gotten so bad that some men weren’t too eager to answer the call to work overtime.

Jeff Stump heads up the employee union trying to fix the streets division.

But later, Hoppe told Stump that in exchange for fixing the employee abuses, he wanted the union to agree to reduce their retirement match, as the mayor had long been pushing tall unions to do. Stump refused — he didn’t think it appropriate that a union be asked to make contract concessions in order to get the mayor’s office to clean up the rampant employee bullying and other abuse in a city department.

I asked Hoppe about that on Thursday, and initially he said he never made his help conditional on the union agreeing to a less generous retirement benefit, but later he called back to say, “I did probably make the connection between getting 9-7 (a lower retirement match) and other contract issues” but only because he’d helped the union heads get new boots and safety goggles, which was in their labor agreement. In other words, both were union issues.

Hoppe said all of the laborers’ allegations were looked into, but many were years-old stories and many couldn’t be verified. He did get the man who was being harassed moved to another job, and he noted that Null was fired for showing the sex tape. And although he’d told the employees that some of the issues – such as the married people and lovers working in the same division – would be a “layup” to fix, it wasn’t as easy as he thought, because “the other people involved have union rights” too.

“I can’t just fire someone,” Hoppe said.

In June 2010, Stump said Hoppe called him to his office to talk about a possible ordinance banning married couples and live-in lovers from working in the same division – something the employees wanted.

“He looked at me and said the law department is too busy to draft that ordinance and if you want us to get rid of Opfer and take care of other supervisors, you’re gonna have to take the 9 to 7 match (lower retirement benefits),” Stump said.

“I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘No,’ ” Stump said.

He said that’s part of the reason his union decided to fight the city on the retirement issue. His union was the only union that held out on the retirement issue, and won.

But they paid a price. Talks with the mayor’s office were dead.

“It seemed like they empowered Opfer to treat us even worse,” Stump said.

The mayor’s office directed most questions to the personnel director, Mark Koller, who told me Thursday that the streets division has “far and away” the most problems of any city department. He said he’s concerned about the relationships between laborers and supervisors in the streets division.

Personnel Director Mark Koller

“I’m pretty confident that when we get an issue, we do an investigation. If there’s nothing of substance, we don’t issue a report or a disciplinary action, we just say there’s no substance to this particular issue,” Koller said. “And that’s not always well received. People want immediate satistifaction and quite honestly, that’s not always available. We just can’t go in there with a heavy handed attitude and say, ‘You’re fired, you’re gone.’ Quite honestly, you get a whole lot of strikes at the plate before you’re out.”

And while Koller seemed empathetic to the workers at the Labor Temple, he now seems to have taken the managers’ side, saying he said he thinks the laborers have “more vendetta” and live in a “gotcha environment.”
“More often than not, when we do an investigation, we don’t find anything of substance – we find a lot of accusations, whining, personal situations.”

I asked Koller how employees can prove an incident happened when it’s a “he said, she said” situation?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know the answer. When we can substantiate them, that’s when we’ll take action. If three guys say it happened – is that enough? When an accusation comes in, they all sound alike. It could be scripted. I’m all for finding out (but) when the stories sound so much alike, it sort of makes you wonder, is there a setup going on? To get rid of people.”

He said he still believes there are enough honest supervisors who would say if they saw improper things happening.

Koller said he’s tried to get union representatives of both sides – the managers belong to another union – to sit down and try to work out their problems, but he said the blue-collar union refused.

“I wish I could just gather them all in a room and say ‘Why can’t we all play nice?’ ” Koller said. “It’s really getting to be a shouting match of no substance. I’m trying to figure our way out of the bag. I don’t have a good answer.”

As for the married couples and personal relationships that are rampant in the division, he said if he moved employees around, he’d be accused of retaliation.

“It’s not happy,” he said. “It’s not a happy place. But I’m not ignoring it.”

To read the first story in this series, click here.
Tomorrow: Scott Opfer runs the place — what does he say?

21
Apr

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

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.