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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.


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.


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


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?

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