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Cieslewicz's office closes door on Water Utility complaints
Finds there were loose lips, but no need to sink ships

Nelson gets a talking to, for giving others something to talk about.
Nelson gets a talking to, for giving others something to talk about.
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The office of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz today released the findings of its internal probe into allegations that two high-ranking city officials, City Engineer Larry Nelson and Human Resources Director Brad Wirtz, inappropriately discussed an alleged sexual relationship between two Water Utility employees.

The probe, by chief of staff Janet Piraino, concluded that a conversation to this effect did occur, and was possibly inappropriate, at least on Nelson's part. Afterward, Nelson also discussed the matter in an elevator, where it was overheard and "spread further" by other Department of Human Resources staff. But she declined to recommend disciplinary action against Nelson or others.

"In conclusion, I believe Mr. Wirtz handled the situation appropriately," Piraino wrote in a 12/30/08 memo to Cieslewicz. "Mr. Nelson may have tested the bounds of confidentiality by discussing a confidential personnel matter in a public venue and with individuals not directly involved. He is very aware of where these boundaries should be after your conversation with him."

Elsewhere, Piraino's memo (PDF) tells Cieslewicz, as if he didn't know, that he met with Nelson and "discussed with him the importance of keeping personnel matters confidential and discussing them only behind closed doors and only with appropriate staff."

The probe was prompted by complaints (PDF) to the mayor's office from the two employees, whose names are redacted from the released memo and complaints. (The names were included in an email that one of the workers sent to the Water Utility Board in November, but Isthmus is withholding them to protect the workers' privacy.)

One of the employees said he was "told directly" by three people that Brad Wirtz was proclaiming that he and a female Water Utility employee were having sexual relations. He accused Wirtz of having started this rumor -- implying that it is, besides an inappropriate topic for public discussion, not true. The next day, the employee changed his account, saying it was Nelson who was spreading this rumor.

The female employee, who wrote the email to the Water Utility board, alleged in her complaint to the mayor that Nelson and Wirtz made "inappropriate, harassing, discriminatory and slanderous conduct in loud discussions and comments." In her email to the board, the employee had claimed Nelson "literally yelled" about this alleged relationship.

Wirtz has told Isthmus that he never discussed this matter in a public setting, as the investigation seems to affirm. Nelson declined comment while the investigation was underway.

But in a supplemental response to a released copy of the man's complaint to the city's Department of Civil Rights, Nelson "denies any intent" to discuss the matter with anyone other than Human Resources staff, which he said was appropriate because "a relationship between supervisors and subordinates can be detrimental to the interests of the city." (See "Bias Complaints at Madison Water Utility Circling the Drain," 1/9/08). (The man's complaint was dismissed but one from the woman remains under DCR investigation.)

The mayor's office is apparently not so sure. "The city does not have clear, specific policies regarding sexual relationships between city staff, even if there were a direct reporting relationship between the two parties. [By the way, sources tell Isthmus there wasn't.] Thus, even if the rumors of a sexual relationship … were true [sources tell Isthmus it isn't], it would not likely be a violation of city policies."

Piraino takes it a step further, making it a wee bit harder for this issue to permanently fade into oblivion: "I would recommend that you [Cieslewicz] ask your HR director and the City Attorney to review this issue and make recommendations to you on whether such a policy is warranted, and if so, what I should look like."

In her memo, Piraino says that neither of the Water Utility employees who complained were willing to provide the names of employees who allegedly heard Nelson and Wirtz loudly discussing this alleged relationship. Her investigation found that Nelson did talk to Wirtz about "rumors" that the two were having an intimate relationship, and "inquired as to city policies on sexual relationships between staff."

This conversation took place "behind closed doors" -- apologies to Charlie Pride -- in an HR office. But subsequent to that, Nelson had another conversation on the subject with an unspecified other person in an elevator and the doors opened, in Nelson's words, "at an inopportune time." Thus "comments that should have been confidential were overheard when the doors opened."

Nelson purportedly couldn't remember what was said or whom he was talking to. He did not immediately respond to an email from Isthmus seeking any additional perspective he cared to provide.

Subsequent to this accidental breach, Piraino found, rumors of this relationship were spread further by HR staff, but Wirtz was reportedly unable to find out who did so.

"It is not unusual for HR overhear conversations about, or have some level of involvement with, confidential personnel matters," Piraino wrote. "When you met with Mr. Wirtz, you directed him to remind his staff of the importance of keeping personnel matters confidential."

Ald. Brenda Konkel, who reviewed the released documents, tells Isthmus she is concerned that employees who allege retaliation seem to have nowhere to turn. The Division of Civil Rights dismissed six complaints it received from employees, mostly on grounds that they did not allege discrimination. But some of the complaints did allege retaliation.

In releasing redacted copies of these complaints, DCR director Lucia Nunez wrote that the names of the employees would be subsequently released, due to the public interest in "assessing the credibility of those who may be using our complaint process for inappropriate purposes."

Says Konkel: "These employees use the only system they have to report, and they get accused of misusing it."

Indeed, the woman Water Utility worker was reassigned to city engineering. Nelson's department, shortly after the first complaint on the matter was filed. Nelson said in an earlier response that this was long in the works, but the woman's supervisor, Dennis Cawley, told Isthmus he had no advance knowledge of it.

The woman is now facing disciplinary action for alleged conduct that occurred at city engineering. Says Konkel, "It seems like they're trying to intimidate her."

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