TOWNSEND — Innuendos and accusations flew during an emotional Broadwater County Commission special session Wednesday after one commissioner tried to close the meeting to the public but the citizens said they wouldn’t leave the room.
“I’m refusing to leave and refuse to accept that there is a closed-door meeting, unless I’m physically removed by law enforcement,” said Bill Davis, a Broadwater County resident. “We are taxpayers and I will not leave.”
Faced with the hostile crowd, Commission Chairwoman Elaine Graveley abruptly adjourned the meeting, and shortly afterward Commissioner Laura Obert left the room while Graveley and Commissioner Franklin Slifka stayed to discuss the citizens’ concerns.
Earlier, Obert said they needed to meet privately with County Attorney Karla Bosse to discuss “legal strategy” regarding ongoing personnel matters.
“We have a very serious piece of evidence we need to hear today,” Obert said. “It would jeopardize employees’ standing … we need to hold a hearing to protect them, then open the door.”
But Slifka noted that the person in the middle of the personnel issue, finance officer Natalie Wenzel, had waived her right to privacy and requested that any personnel discussions involving her be done in a public forum rather than behind closed doors.
“I see a personnel problem here, but it is not Natalie Wenzel,” Slifka said. “I’m not going to point fingers, but I see there is a problem.”
Slifka said the dispute centered over Wenzel’s wish to give up her administrative assistant duties, which she took on when initially hired as finance director about a decade ago without additional compensation for the extra work.
He said the commission is meeting much more often than it used to now, and taking time away from Wenzel’s financial duties, so the easiest way to alleviate the situation leading to the closed-door meeting request was to hire a part-time secretary.
Wenzel reminded Graveley that last September the commission had promised they would hire someone within two months to take on the administrative duties.
Graveley acknowledged saying that, but added that she wasn’t ready to make that decision today until she knew more about how much an extra employee might cost the county.
Bosse said it was her understanding that the personnel matters surrounding Wenzel came from “about 20 county employees,” and she wanted to advise the commission on how to proceed.
“My understanding is that your concerns go beyond the scope of her job performance,” Bosse said. “I have put together a document for your review, all in keeping with personnel properties.
“… This is not just about one employee, but many employees and potential causes of litigation against this county.”
Slifka countered that they didn’t have any pending litigation in this matter, so under state statutes they couldn’t close the meeting to discuss legal strategy.
“The commissioners can only study, review, evaluate and weigh the evidence after they’ve given her a complete copy of the charges and all the evidence, both against and in support of her,” Slifka said as Wenzel sat next to him. “Bottom line, the commissioners cannot use other person’s right of privacy to close a meeting …
“I strongly request the commission open this legal strategy meeting to the public.”
Bosse said that while her clients are the 5,600 or so Broadwater County residents, it’s also her job to keep the commission from getting sued as a way to protect her clients and she was invoking “lawyer-client privilege” in speaking to the commissioners privately.
That prompted Tim Ravndal, one of almost 20 people crowded into the meeting room, to question whether Bosse was contradicting herself and had a conflict of interest.
“The county attorney just said she represents ‘We the people’ and we the people are here,” Ravndal said. “There’s no reason for we the people to be excluded from the representations of our attorney.
“I implore the commission … there is a constitutional provision that calls for an open process and our right to participate is a big part of this.”
Bosse countered that Ravndal was only one citizen, and those in the room didn’t “have the right to invoke or waive the confidentiality of the county commission.”
“The county attorney makes that recommendation,” Bosse said. “I might understand the law better than any citizen.”
Wenzel said that the meeting was only the latest flare-up in a long-simmering dispute and that she’s being targeted for political reasons. Wenzel said that a year ago, when she sided with the sheriff’s department over raises for deputies and detention officers, she was reprimanded for insubordination, failure to perform her job in a satisfactory manner and improper conduct. She received a written notice for her personnel file, which was signed by Obert, who was chairperson at the time, as well as Graveley and former Commissioner Gail Vennes.
“But I came back and proved those accusations are false,” Wenzel said. “I’m not here for a personality contest. I do my job well and while that may make some employees uncomfortable, I would like to share with the public that this is purely a political agenda.”
Mike Meloy, an attorney for the Independent Record, wrote an opinion that was read at the meeting warning the commission that closing a meeting to discuss litigation strategy could subject them to a lawsuit.
Shortly afterward, Graveley adjourned the meeting, saying she had more investigating to do, but no one left initially. Instead, both Wenzel and Slifka talked about “harassment” against her and asked for it to stop.
Wenzel added that words and actions can be twisted to give them different meanings than intended.
“There better be proof — solid proof — if you’re accusing me of wrongdoing,” Wenzel said, looking at Obert. “… I’ve been down this road before with the accusations. The same thing was going to happen today.”
That prompted Obert to gather her belongings and walk out of the room. The two other commissioners stayed for about 10 minutes, listening to public comments, before Graveley said she just needed to read the county attorney’s report before any further action was taken.
“I appreciate both of you staying here and talking to us,” said Mike Wenzel, Natalie’s husband.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Eve on Twitter @IR_EveByron