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Posts from the ‘street maintenance’ Category

28
Sep

Construction around schools has drivers singing “Can’t get there from here”

Sometimes I think Lincoln’s theme song should be “Can’t get there from here” – it’s like traffic engineers gone wild with all the medians around here.

And parents of kids who go to Southeast High School, Sheridan Elementary School, Calvert Elementary School and Irving Middle School have definitely been singing that song a lot lately, as the routes to schools have dried up recently due to multiple roads under construction near those schools.

As one of my readers, Shawn Traudt, recently wrote to me,

Is it just me, or has the city stumbled upon the most sadistic way to mess with drivers who reside or commute between the areas bounded by 56th and 27th and South to Pioneers? Pioneers is or has been closed. The intersection of 48th & Pioneers, closed. Sheridan from 40th to Calvert and 27th to 33rd, closed. South Street blocked at 38th Street. I may even be missing some.

I’m one of the first to call for improvements to our infrastructure and these are needed projects, but some vision and planning around these projects would have been wonderful. The closure of Sheridan alone, has and continues to impact Calvert Elementary, Sheridan Elementary, Rousseau Elementary, Irving Middle, Southeast High, and Cathedral Schools. With all summer to have been working on these projects, they close the most critical sections during the school year!

I have two kids going to Southeast, and I can tell you, it is quite a journey getting there. Now, I strongly believe Lincoln needs to fix lots of streets – if you are a Lincoln native, you probably don’t realize just how bad of condition the streets are in here. I was recently in an oil patch – and only there are the roads this bad, and everybody is screaming about it out there.

So I asked city officials about this unusual confluence of construction around several schools. Thomas Shafer, design and construction section manager for the city, said the city generally tries not to close two adjacent streets within the same mile, which is why Van Dorn Street has remained construction free despite its condition. (There is some work being done on Van Dorn, however, but it appears to be utility-related, narrowing the street between about 26th and 29th.)

Shafer said when the projects were planned, reconstruction of the South Street bridge (as part of Antelope Valley) was scheduled to start in the fall of 2010 and be done by now. However, the first round of bidding only brought one extremely high bid, so it was re-bid. But since the electric lines (which carry our air conditioning energy) shouldn’t be out of service during times of high loads, the project then had to wait to start in the fall of 2011.

This wouldn’t have been a problem, because the city planned to have Sheridan Boulevard from 40th to Calvert complete before South Street began, but more of the underlying base on Sheridan needed repair than expected, and that project is now two to three weeks behind schedule.

Also, work on Pioneers Boulevard hasn’t gone as smoothly as hoped – as many private underground utilities are being found quite a ways from where records indicated they’d be, Shafer said.
And if that weren’t enough bad news, the opening of the intersection of 48th and Pioneers has been delayed because of the storm drainage needs discovered as the underground infrastructure gets exposed, he said.

But Shafer said two of the three north/south streets (33rd, 40th and 48th) have always remained open (never mind the east/west streets for now!) and Van Dorn has been unimpeded (well, except for those workers in orange out there) as well as “non-adjacent stretches” of South Street and Pioneers.

“While we all like to jump in our cars and drive straight to our destination, we ask for continued patience from Lincoln’s drivers has they work their way through and around the roadway construction,” Shafer said.

Traudt said this is an example of what happens with the city puts off needed infrastructure repairs for years, “and then is forced to do multiple, overlapping projects at the same time.”

“There is blame to be assigned over multiple administrations,” he said.

But Shafer is right, too: We Americans are kind of spoiled, and we definitely like to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, especially when gas is $3.59 a gallon. But we also desperately need to fix roads around here (maybe not Sheridan Boulevard, but that’s another blog), so we’re just going to have to, in the words of my mother, “suck it up.”

13
May

Mayor’s office goes on air to respond to street workers’ allegations

Illustration: Idea go

The mayor’s office took to the airwaves yesterday to give their side of the story, after KLIN’s “Drive Time Lincoln” devoted much of the previous day’s show to allegations by a city employee union that the city’s street maintenance division is riddled with bullying, infighting, threats and retaliation.

Winterized first broke this story on May 12.

The mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, was interviewed on KLIN — and defended the administration’s handling of what he acknowledges is a troubled division.

Hoppe’s take on the situation was that laborers are also at fault, however, for engaging in one-upsmanship and “gotcha” games to try to get managers into trouble.

He said managers have complained that they’re targeted by employees who want to get rid of them, and he alleged ex-wives of managers have been approached by union representatives looking to get dirt on them.

“This has become a work environment that isn’t appropriate for either the managers or the employees,” Hoppe said.

He said the blue-collar workers often dredge up incidents that happened years ago – some before Mayor Chris Beutler took office – and the administration can’t do anything about those incidents now.

In addition, employees have protections guaranteed by union contracts, so Hoppe said he “can’t just go in there and start firing people” or “ordering people around.” He said he was disturbed by the insinuation that the mayor’s office hasn’t done anything about the problems, noting that a supervisor was fired for showing a sexually explicit video to coworkers and another employee was transferred after claiming he was being bullied.

And even though Hoppe says often city officials can’t substantiate laborers’ allegations, it appears they went to great lengths to refute some of their allegations. To wit: Two workers claimed they were punished for speaking out about the safety concerns with lawn mowers by being made to mow a huge compound with push mowers on a “blistering hot” day.

Hoppe said on KLIN that records indicate those mowers are routinely used to mow that area, and that the weather in September of 2008 never got above 77 degrees.

As for a new allegation of organized gambling in the streets division, Hoppe said Police Chief Tom Casady has invited any employee to come forward with specifics about it, and police will investigate. So far, nobody has come forward, Hoppe said.
And although Hoppe spent most of the interview refuting the blue-collar workers’ claims, he said “The truth usually falls somewhere in the middle.”

“It’s pretty clear that we’ve got some problems there that we have tried to address,” he said. “If people want to sit down, the administration is happy to do it, but people need to understand that not ever issue is retaliation.”

To hear the interview, click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

In other news revolving around this issue, the union that represents the laborers voted Thursday night to appeal the city’s denial of the grievance filed by 11 employees in the wake of the death of Eric Kohles, 37, last fall in a mowing accident. The grievance claimed the city had created an unsafe working environment for Kohles by assigning him to work on an unsafe mower without proper training and 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.”

The grievance sought to have several managers removed from supervision duties.

After a police investigation into those allegations was inconclusive, the Public Association of Government Employees – a union that represents about 500 city employees – voted to appeal the issue to the city’s personnel board.

“We’ve got a bunch of legal action coming against the city so we’ll find out who’s right and who’s wrong,” PAGE President Jeff Stump told me today.

12
May

City’s dirty laundry in streets division aired on KLIN

The dirty laundry that first came out here regarding problems in the city of Lincoln’s street department were aired on KLIN on Wednesday.

Coby Mach’s “Drive Time Lincoln” spent much of the show yesterday interviewing union attorney Gary Young about the bullying, infighting and safety problems that have long plagued the street maintenance division of the Public Works department. Young told Mach — as he told me — that of all the public employees he’s represented statewide, this department is the “most poorly run” of all, and has been for five to 10 years.

(Click to play Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview.)

A dozen city employees met with Mach — as they did with me multiple times in recent years — to talk about the problems they’ve experienced. They chose to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

Part of the reason this is news is the police investigation into the death of one of those street maintenance workers last year was recently made public, and it was inconclusive. Eric Kohles, 37, died a few days after an old Heckendorn mower he was using to mow a ditch tipped over onto him. Employees say Kohles’ death is emblematic of the kind of retaliation, bullying and training inadequacy that plagues the department.

One new issue that came out on the show is an allegation that a gambling ring is operated in the department.

“It is a one in a million kind of place,” Young said on KLIN. Young said the mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, called him Wednesday and offered to meet with him and try to resolve the issues. Young said he’d take Hoppe at his word, although Hoppe has met with the street workers and union officials several times in recent years already.

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.