A proposed policy that would give the Kenosha County executive the power to terminate the employment of division heads will go before the County Board Tuesday night.
The board’s Finance and Administration Committee voted 6-1 Thursday night to repeal Resolution 12, a measure in place since 1996 that had created a new class of non-represented employees, namely division heads. Supervisor William Grady cast the dissenting vote.
At the time it was set up, the administration and County Board approved it in an effort to hire and retain “experienced” and “high caliber” division leaders that supported their ideas, directions and plans.
The proposed policy, which if approved by the board would pertain to current and new employees, drew a number of concerns from members of the public at last week’s committee meeting.
Jim Foster of Pleasant Prairie, a long-time physician who has been on the county’s Board of Health for 17 years, said he believes the policy could lead to stifling the professional expertise of division heads, particularly Jen Freiheit. Freiheit, the division’s director and the county’s health officer, whose recommendations followed the CDC’s strict masking guidelines and promotion of vaccinations especially in high-risk COVID-19 communities, has drawn criticism from those who’ve questioned whether the measures work and viewed the health Initiatives as affronts to their personal liberty.
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“I do think it’s imperative that the health officer-director have the ability to always feel comfortable saying whatever they truly believe are the best medical practice and the current guidance based on the science,” Foster said.
He said his concern wasn’t with County Executive Samantha Kerkman, rather the policy change being recommended. “I do have unease where the county executive can dismiss one or more directors,” he said.
Foster said he believes, if the health director were to lose her job, “it would not be a position to replace.” He added he had no reason to think it would occur.
“But if whoever was being recruited, for any position, knew their job could end in four years, I think that it would also impact someone trying to recruit the best and most qualified people,” he said.
He said he also had concerns about the job of Clara Tappa, the county’s human resources director.
“If that individual was to be removed at the pleasure of the county executive … in my opinion it could create real, or just perceived, conflicts of interests and risks of favoritism,” Foster said.
Geraldine Connelly of Kenosha, a retired human resource professional, said she was “very surprised” the proposed policy made no mention of performance measurements with the county executive given unilateral powers to fire division heads.
“There should at least be in place, as with Policy 12, performance measurements and steps that are required before the county executive can just, at a whim, fire somebody if the division head or department head doesn’t agree with her politics or she doesn’t like the way they look that day,” she said.
Connelly believes both the divisions head proposal and Policy 63, which would allow individuals other than law enforcement to carry firearms and electronic control devices in some county buildings, — which will also be voted on by the board Tuesday night — have created an “very unfriendly work atmosphere.”
Marieta Huff said she did not think the measure was necessary because there were already other ways to fire division heads, including for insubordination, staff downsizing and unsatisfactory performance reviews.
“How many more ways do you need to fire someone?” she said.
She agreed that a county executive, who is elected every four years, should have employees who facilitate the administration’s agenda given the relatively short time in which to carry it out.
“Maybe firing one or two people will put the rest into line so that they will do the bidding of the county executive,” she said. “But what kind of collaboration do you think you are going to get from the rest of the crew if they know that if they do something that may not be popular with their county executive, they could be fired.”
Supervisor David Geertsen, who was the county’s finance director as a department and division head, said he supported the policy but felt it needed additional vetting and sign-off from corporation counsel, human resources and the administration, including Kerkman.
Grady, who voted against the repeal, opposed it because “we’re concentrating power.”
“When I look at this, this smacks of big city politics. This is what you see in Milwaukee. This is what you see in Chicago,” he said.
“Whether you agree or you don’t agree about how the health department handled the COVID crisis, isn’t really the question. The question is, that person did their best for what was appropriate at the time,” he said.
In the case of an employee who could be fired at will, Grady said the policy concentrates power with the county executive and it raises a red flag.
“And it’s not just for this county executive,” he said.
Supervisor Terry Rose, committee chairman, said he wanted to clarify that the policy did not pertain to any particular person nor was it targeting anyone.
“It’s a policy that I think it’s a good policy. It’s one that held true under the 12 years with John Collins,” said Rose, referring to the former county executive.
He further noted that a similar policy is currently in use by the governor of Wisconsin and the president of the United States.
“Cabinet people don’t hold office indefinitely, be it in the president’s cabinet or the governor’s,” Rose said. “And I don’t see why that isn’t true here.”
The Kenosha County Board meeting begins at 7:30 pm, at the Kenosha County Administration Building, 1010 56th St., in the County Board chambers.
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