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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Allegations fly at Madison Water Utility
Complaints accuse city officials of harassment, retaliation
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Larry Nelson: What did he say, and where did he say it?
Larry Nelson: What did he say, and where did he say it?

City of Madison Water Utility employees have filed a series of complaints alleging harassment and retaliation, Isthmus has learned. The targets include City Engineer Larry Nelson and Human Resources Director Brad Wirtz.

"We've still investigating," says Lucia Nuñez, who heads the city's Department of Civil Rights. She confirms her agency received multiple complaints, but says some have already been dismissed. Meanwhile, the office of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is conducting its own investigation.

Ald. Brenda Konkel has been told that eight complaints have been filed by six Water Utility workers in recent months. Nuñez says her department plans to release copies, with some information redacted, late this week or early next week. In the meantime, Nelson and Wirtz are being given an opportunity, per state law, to include supplemental information.

Wirtz, a former city labor negotiator hired as HR head in July 2007, calls the allegations against him "completely false," saying they were made by people based on second- or third-hand information.

Nelson, Madison's longtime city engineer, says he's cooperated fully with the investigation, but beyond that declines to comment. "I'm looking forward to the time we can speak much more openly about this personnel matter." Asked when he hopes the investigation will be complete, Nelson deadpans, "Last week."

Two of the complaints, filed in November, allege that Nelson and Wirtz openly speculated about a sexual relationship between two Water Utility employees. One of the employees further alleges that she was transferred to another city agency after she and others complained.

This employee, whom Isthmus is not naming to protect her privacy, sent a rambling email to the Water Utility Board last month. It alleged that Nelson "yelled" what she called "slanderous and malicious statements of a sexual nature" about her in a hallway by an open elevator. The employee does not claim to have heard this personally.

Wirtz knows of no such thing. "I had a conversation with Larry Nelson [and another city official] with respect to some inappropriate conduct," he says, adding that this took place in an office. "I've never had a conversation with anyone [about this] in a public place."

In her email to the Water Utility Board, the employee says she confronted Wirtz about this matter, and he shrugged it off.

"These men in their very high-ranking and high-paying positions with the city should have more important things to be doing than talking (and yelling) about the sex lives of Madison Water Utility employees," the woman wrote. "I cannot put into words what comes to mind now, knowing that Larry Nelson thinks about me and talks about me in this regard.It all makes me sick to my stomach."

Ald. Konkel is concerned about what may have transpired.

"At best, Larry Nelson and Brad Wirtz had an inappropriate conversation in front of staff, and at worst they have engaged in sexual harassment," she says. "I'm looking to get more facts, 'cause I'm not sure what happened, but I know it's being taken seriously."

The employee, in her email, says she was abruptly reassigned two days after the man with whom she allegedly had a relationship met with the mayor's office regarding Nelson and Wirtz. She was purportedly pulled off projects on which she was deeply involved and not even permitted to remove personal items from her work area. Her new assignment: doing what she feels are low-level assignments with the city engineering office, headed by Nelson.

"Clearly, I am being punished by Larry Nelson," the employee wrote. Sources say the employee is now facing disciplinary action from officials at city engineering.

Last month, a group of 30 Water Utility employees signed a letter to the mayor and city council, complaining about the woman's transfer: "The whole thing stinks, and we want to know why Larry Nelson is allowed to do whatever he wants."

Rachel Strauch-Nelson, the mayor's spokeswoman, says chief of staff Janet Piraino has investigated the complaints and is preparing a report. Beyond that, "I'm not able to discuss the details."

The Water Utility is perhaps Madison's most tempestuous agency, long known for internal discord and management that has failed to inspire confidence.

Its last manager, David Denig-Chakroff, stepped down in August 2007, following months of turmoil. He was replaced this August by Tom Heikkinen, formerly chief of plant operations for the Suburban Sanitary Commission in Washington, D.C.

"My view is that he's doing wonderfully," says Jon Standridge, president of the Water Utility Board, which played a role in the selection process. He credits Heikkinen with being "communicative and knowledgeable" and responsive to employee and community concerns. "I haven't seen too much I don't like."

Predictably, not all Water Utility employees think this highly of Heikkinen, with some saying he operates too much in the shadow of Nelson, who served as the agency's interim director. Says one, "Heikkinen has not been able to demonstrate his own managerial style because of Nelson's overinvolvement, with the mayor's blessing, at the Water Utility."

As for the complaints alleging harassment and retaliation, Standridge is "vaguely aware" of them but feels these are outside of the board's purview.

"If things fall apart, the board will have to step in," he says. "But at this point, we need to let the process work."

Ald. Michael Schumacher, a member of the Water Utility Board, agrees.

"Usually this kind of stuff I prefer gets handled by management and Human Resources," he says. He adds that the Water Utility has a lot of issues with its employees, some of whom feel that "they should run the shop."

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