Commissioners debate investigation process

Staff Writer
Ken Francis
In a split vote last week, the Sherburne County Board decided to compile a list of all internal investigations that took place in every county department over the past three years.
That decision came after a 45-minute discussion between the commissioners about potentially having outside counsel review internal investigations to determine whether county policies were followed.
Without referring to any specific incident, Commissioner Felix Schmiesing said he wanted the board to consider doing a review of the internal investigations done over the last three years.
“I have been contacted by some folks that have questions, that are former employees. I think they need to be reviewed outside of what we do here,” he said. “I know that we have a process for doing it. My hope would be that we could do a review with outside counsel and our administrator taking the lead on it.”
He said a report could be made back to the county board with the results to make sure the policy was followed.
“And then we move forward by determining whether our policy is adequate,” he said. “If it isn’t, then we change the policy to make sure the right people are doing investigations, the right people know about the investigations and that we’re being as transparent and as fair as we can as we do these investigations.” 
Commissioner Bruce Anderson questioned Schmiesing’s request.
“Are you saying any investigation with any department?” he asked. “What would we get out of that?”
“Hopefully, that we’re doing things just the way we should be,” said Schmiesing. “I’m not so sure we are, but I hope that would be the case.” 
Commissioner Rachel Leonard felt the process might end up being more than just a review.
“What if they discover that they didn’t dig deep enough and do a good job?” she asked. “Do we re-visit it all and dig deeper because the investigation wasn’t as complete as it should be.”
“If that is the case, then we would have to discuss it at the time,” said Schmiesing. “I don’t think we can make any presumptions.”
“So if that’s the case, we may have to have a re-investigation and it could be very harsh on the people who were investigated,” said Leonard. “Are you saying we should do more?”  
“Yes,” said Schmiesing.
“I just think you’re opening up a can of worms,” said Anderson. “I don’t know if we really want to go there.”
“I think for the sake of transparency we have to do that,” said Schmiesing. “Hopefully, we’re free and clear - that we’ve acted appropriately. But how do we repair what we’re doing if we don’t know what we’ve done in the past.”
Anderson said the county already has a policy and competent people to handle investigations.
“These procedures have been in effect for many, many years,” he said. “We’ve got the appropriate people in place to handle these matters and make recommendations to this board.”
Leonard reiterated her concern about where the review might lead. She felt the county might have no choice but to do follow-up investigations if new evidence was discovered.
“Legally, how can you say it just stays internally,” she said. “I don’t think it just stays internally. I wonder if it’s a wise thing to do.
I think we should delay to see if we can use outside counsel for this.”
County Attorney Kathleen Heaney asked Schmiesing to clarify the scope of the review.
“Are you talking about every department, every complaint? I don’t know how other departments are handled,” she said. “But every complaint that comes in to me is investigated. If someone says an attorney was rude to them in the courtroom, I go out and do the investigation and document whether it’s substantiated or not substantiated.” 
Anderson said there are investigations and disciplinary actions in every department that are already being handled by department heads, human resources and the administrator’s office.
“You’ve got elected officials that don’t report to us. They do on the budgets, but they do a lot of discipline and things within their office,” he said. “Are we going to move into that territory?” 
Schmiesing said he was concerned that the commissioners were not informed about actions being taken.   “Part of the reason I asked for this is I have no idea how many investigations have been done. I have no idea what the results of them have been,” he said. “I’m hearing things  on the street and I just want to clear it up. And I think the only way we can do that is to take a look back, see where we are, what we’ve done, and come up with some ideas.”
Anderson said the county would spend a lot of money to open up old investigations.
“Again, I think this is ridiculous. You’re giving some indications that there’s some issue with department heads or elected officials. As far as I’m aware there’s no issue,” he said. “You’re throwing money out the door. We’ve got the appropriate people in place. It’s just a waste of money.”
Schmiesing said he still had no way to know whether the policies had been followed without reviewing the investigations.
“Maybe we have followed this (policy). Maybe we have not followed this,” he said. “As a commissioner, no one has ever made any reports to me about what has gone on. I hear it from the background. Let’s clear this up.”
When a vote was taken to review the investigations, Commissioners Schmiesing and Ewald Petersen voted in favor. Anderson and Leonard voted against. Commissioner John Riebel abstained.
When Schmiesing made a second motion to compile a list of internal investigations that have been done in the past three years, four commissioners voted in favor and Anderson voted against the motion.


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Ronald D. Wobbrock
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