Ward County employee gets turbulent 10 minutes

Jill Schramm/MDN County Commissioners Alan Walter and Shelly Weppler listen to testimony at a personnel committee meeting Tuesday.

A grievance hearing is to be continued for a Ward County building maintenance employee, who described Tuesday’s handling of his complaint by the personnel committee as “comical.”

John Roll, a 17-year veteran of the building department, filed a grievance to object to a negative 2017 performance evaluation from Facilities Manager Leona Lochthowe.

His representative, Larry Hellie, spoke remotely from Washington state during the 10 minutes allotted by the committee for Roll’s presentation. Hellie, a human resources consultant, protested the time limit given to respond to voluminous evaluation report that he said was “dumped on John” just before Christmas.

Hellie said after the meeting that he plans to file another grievance on Roll’s behalf related to the conduct of the committee. He also planned to update complaints already filed with the North Dakota Labor Department and federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over abuses that Roll alleges in the facilities department.

Hellie referred to Lochthowe’s fault-finding with Roll’s performance as “entrapment.” He said it was apparent the manager had Roll under surveillance during the course of the year.

“The supervisor started taking pictures and making notes in January of ’17,” he said. “She did not bring it to John’s attention until December, when she handled him this pile of over 60 pages and said, ‘Here’s your review.’ Now that is not the purpose or the reason set forth in your employee handbook for evaluations. You are not allowed under your own ethics code and employee codes of the state of North Dakota to play ambush games on employees.”

Hellie added the charges against Roll involve nitpicking and minutiae. The concerns focused on issues such as Roll’s performance in maintaining jail cleanliness and in performing building repairs as well as sleeping during staff meetings. Roll has stated that he was judged for uncleanliness of restrooms he had not yet cleaned and mocked for his repair methods when he’s had to employ temporary measures while getting tools or parts for more permanent repairs.

“It’s a travesty that you would allow this kind of a document to be placed in an employee personnel file,” Hellie said. “If you don’t correct this grievance process – start treating your employees with respect – as required in your code of ethics and your handbook, you are certainly going to have more problems and more grievances, more issues.”

Former Ward County deputy Tim Poston and his wife, Toni, also appeared with Roll to support him. Poston previously filed grievances against the sheriff’s department, claiming a hostile work environment and discrimination. He was fired last month.

“This is insane,” Toni Poston exclaimed after the committee shut down the discussion after 10 minutes of Hellie’s presentation.

“I suggest you take those smug looks off your faces and start fixing these problems,” she said. “Your blatant disrespect for the law and your employees is disgusting. The public needs to know about this, and I am going to make sure that every single person I know is at these meetings from now on to hold you guys accountable.”

County Commissioner Alan Walter, who chaired the meeting, ended that portion of the meeting without further discussion at the advice of the county’s Bismarck attorney, Scott Porsborg, who was present. The committee briefly addressed juvenile detention and sheriff’s department staffing before devoting 13 minutes to discussion with the assistant engineer on a pay grade cap affecting two highway department employees.

Returning to the grievance , the personnel committee asked Lochthowe about meetings she had with Roll over the past year to talk about deficiencies in his work. Lochthowe said she spoke with Roll a number of times, producing several pages that she said was documentation. Rather than review it, committee members Walter and Shelly Weppler said they had questions they planned to address privately with Lochthowe before reconvening the committee at a future date. Weppler was serving on the committee as alternate member because County Commissioner Jim Rostad was unavailable to attend.

Roll said afterwards his impression of the meeting was that it was comical.

“I just think it’s wrong for them to do that to an employee,” Roll said. He added, however, that he appreciates the help of the Postons and Hellie in getting grievances he has had for years finally before the county commission.

Roll has alleged he and another employee have been physically struck by Lochthowe. He said his work has been sabotaged and new procedures implemented that impede efficiency, making it difficult to complete tasks so he can be criticized for falling behind.

Roll at one time had served as lead worker in the department and assisted in the transition when Lochthowe took over the department in 2013. His personnel file shows a solid evaluation review initially from Lochthowe but gradually slipping marks in the past few years.

A second employee in the facilities department who recently spoke to the Minot Daily News backed up Roll’s complaints and cited similar situations occurring with other employees, which reportedly caused one employee to resign.

Lochthowe declined to respond to the allegations at this time.

Roll filed a discrimination and whistleblower complaint in November 2016. The whistleblower complaint dealt with the county’s improper disposal of light bulbs. The North Dakota Labor Department closed the discrimination file after being unable to informally resolve the issue. The EEOC has yet to act on the complaint filed with its office a month later.