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.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.
“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?