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Sauk County's last two top administrators dismissed under similar circumstances
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Sauk County's last two top administrators dismissed under similar circumstances

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Brentt Michalek

Brentt Michalek sits at his desk after he was named Sauk County's director of conservation, planning and zoning in May 2011.

A newly released document shows parallels between the dismissal of Sauk County government’s last two chief administrators, and the use of “separation agreements” to keep the public in the dark.

The document raises new questions about the recent ousting of Sauk County Administrative Coordinator Renae Fry, who left after only 8 months on the job.

Following a two-hour discussion last week that took place behind closed doors, the Sauk County Board voted to approve a separation agreement with Fry. The agreement has not yet been finalized, but if Fry does sign, she would be the second administrator to do so in the last five months.

Her predecessor, Interim Sauk County Administrative Coordinator Brentt Michalek, signed a separation agreement with the county June 17. The county released the agreement Monday in response to a records request from the Baraboo News Republic.

“On the record, I’m not going to say too much, other than something fishy is going on,” said Supervisor Nathan Johnson of La Valle. “Some of the issues involving both cases were very similar.”

Agreements hide conflicts, allegations

Such agreements can hide the true nature of an official’s departure from the public. They prevent information that could embarrass a government agency from coming to light, while also giving the employee in question an opportunity to seek new employment with a clean record.

The agreements can cost taxpayers in the form of salary and benefit payments to the released employees. But they also can save the employer and employee from costly litigation.

In Michalek’s case, the county agreed to place him on paid leave for two months, and he agreed to resign Aug. 24. The county also agreed to give Michalek accumulated vacation pay.

It’s unclear exactly how much Michalek was paid under the agreement. Sauk County Controller Kerry Beghin could not be reached by phone or email Tuesday.

The agreement also called for the county to provide Michalek with a letter that stated he resigned from the position. The letter was to list his dates of employment and include a list of mutually agreed upon accomplishments.

The signed agreement says Michalek and the county shall “not make any disparaging statements or remarks regarding the other to any third persons or the media.”

Michalek said Tuesday he could not answer questions about the agreement. However, he did say that he was hired less than a month after he signed it as a permitting manager with Mobilitie Management LLC. He is now living and working out of his home town of Green Bay.

“The terms of my severance agreement prevent me from speaking negatively about the county, so I speak very little of the situation to avoid violating that agreement,” Michalek said. “I am proud of the work that I did for Sauk County, including bringing in numerous conservation grants, assisting in the reopening of relations with the Ho-Chunk Tribe, facilitating a balanced budget, and reorganizing and streamlining the department of Conservation, Planning, and Zoning.”

Agreement followed performance review

Michalek was the county’s Conservation, Planning and Zoning Department Director until May 2015, when the county board voted unanimously to appoint him to the position of interim administrative coordinator. He served in that role for nearly a year while the county searched for a permanent replacement for longtime Administrative Coordinator Kathy Schauf.

As he worked in an interim role, Michalek applied to be Schauf’s permanent replacement, and was picked as one of the finalists for the position. But he was passed over for Fry, whose contract was approved in March of this year. Michalek then went back to being a department manager.

Three months later, on June 9, the county board’s Conservation, Planning and Zoning Committee met in closed session to conduct Michalek’s annual performance review. Five days later, Michalek signed the separation agreement.

It remains unclear how the agreement came about.

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Committee wasn’t in the loop

Members of the oversight committee say they were not consulted about a separation agreement, and were not aware that one was in the works.

Supervisor Dennis Polivka of Spring Green, who chairs the committee, said he was not familiar with the agreement.

Polivka said he was aware of “a couple” allegations against Michalek, but that he could not discuss anything that was said during the closed session performance review.

Johnson, the La Valle supervisor who also sits on the committee, said he was never informed that the county had offered Michalek a separation agreement. “That happened outside my knowledge,” he said. “That was a complete shock, I’ll say.”

Supervisor Connie Lehman of Reedsburg, another committee member, said she was never consulted about whether the county should enter a separation agreement with Michalek. Lehman said that after the June meeting, the committee had tentatively scheduled another meeting to discuss Michalek’s performance review, but the meeting never happened.

“I asked and was told it wasn’t going to happen,” she said. “I was told there was possibly a resignation in place, or being negotiated, and therefore we weren’t going to move ahead with the meeting.”

Lehman said that information came from Sauk County Board Chair Marty Krueger of Reedsburg.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Krueger adamantly denied that he had any special knowledge of negotiations between the county and Michalek. And he took issue with Lehman’s recollection.

“I don’t recall making that statement, because I had nothing to do with his resignation,” Krueger said. He declined to answer additional questions.

Chair, former administrator had dispute

Kreuger sparred publicly with Michalek during a September 2015 meeting over an allegation that Krueger told Michalek that he should not apply for the administrative coordinator position.

“Does anybody in this room think I’m that stupid?” Krueger said during the meeting.

Krueger then openly asked Michalek whether such a conversation took place. Michalek, who seemed to be caught off guard, initially said no. But he later told the committee that the two did have a conversation.

He said his conversation with Krueger involved whether Michalek should apply for the administrative coordinator position or return to the Conservation, Planning and Zoning Department after his service as interim chief.

Fry signed previous agreement

Michalek’s separation agreement was signed by the person that replaced him, Fry. Reached by phone Tuesday, Fry said she could not comment on the matter.

She now finds herself in the same situation.

Fry’s six-month performance appraisal took place Oct. 26 and Oct. 31. At the end of those meetings, the board’s Executive and Legislative Committee recommended that her contract be extended for three months. But that never happened.

Two days later, Krueger’s office scheduled a special meeting to consider whether Fry should be placed on paid leave. That meeting was canceled, and the full board met Nov. 21 to hear complaints against Fry in closed session. It voted 20-9, with one supervisor abstaining, to approve the separation agreement between Fry and the county.

Oyvind Wistrom, the Milwaukee attorney hired to represent the county in the employment dispute, said Tuesday the agreement with Fry is still in the works.

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos

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