Kendall Hallett is the kind of character people come to associate with Madison. He's the downtown parking enforcement officer who wears a white safari hat and sports "an Amish beard." He also sometimes gives errant parkers a break, like if they come back just as he's writing them up.
"I see my job as a teacher, not a revenue producer," says Hallett, 44. "All the college students who come to town eventually pass my class. The tuition is higher for some than others."
But Hallett is now in deep doo-doo with his employer of 11 years, the Madison Police Department. He's serving a 30-day unpaid suspension, and was summoned last week to a pre-disciplinary hearing he believes will lead to termination. "They want me gone," he says. "I think that's the goal."
The suspension, which began Oct. 24 and runs through Dec. 5, is for several infractions: 10 days for missing a training session, 15 days for missing a court appearance, and five days for writing an email to co-workers - in his capacity, he says, as a union steward - that "fire and brimstone will be forthcoming" if payroll problems persist. This was deemed contrary to MPD policy requiring that messages be courteous and deal only with official business.
Hallett's union, AFSCME Local 60, has filed a grievance, saying his suspension "lacks just cause." David White, a staff rep for Council 40, which includes the local, says the MPD "seems to be taking extraordinary action against this employee" over minor matters. (A past disciplinary action against Hallett also drew a union grievance, set to go to arbitration early next year.)
"We think he's being singled out," says White, who speculates that the MPD doesn't think Hallett is writing enough tickets. "But rather than deal with his performance, they've chosen to go after these other issues."
Of particular concern to the union is a memo written by MPD Capt. Cameron McLay ordering Hallett not to have unapproved "telephone or email contact" with co-workers during his suspension. White calls this "completely outrageous," especially given Hallett's role as a steward. "I think it's plainly an over-the-top violation of law."
Hallett says this "cuts me off from normal routes of communication with co-workers I represent." The grievance asks that the MPD rescind this "gag order" and "cease and desist from interfering with and discriminating against union stewards in the future." White also plans to file charges against the city with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.
Capt. McLay is taking a rain check: "This is an open and pending discipline case so it would be inappropriate for me to comment in any way, tempting as that might be."
According to Hallett, more trouble is brewing. He says last week's pre-disciplinary hearing concerned his posting of MPD memos on his website (kendallhallett.com). This includes a spreadsheet that lists month-by-month citation numbers for the city's 29 parking enforcement officers, for 2007 through the end of September. He says he did so to show his numbers were not unacceptably low.
These, of course, are clearly public documents, subject to records requests.
Hallett says the MPD wants to fire him because he stands up for fellow workers and lacks "a good healthy fear of police administrators." White agrees: In a department like the MPD, which has a "quasi-military structure," he says, "somebody who speaks his mind is often subjected to extraordinary scrutiny."
All Pete Vickerman wanted was a list of his prescriptions for 2007. But when he asked the Dean Clinic Pharmacy in Sun Prairie for it, he was told to fill out a form and send it into Dean's central office. He says both the pharmacy and Dean's patient advocate explained that federal law required this, to protect his privacy.
Vickerman, a retired Sun Prairie police officer, didn't understand. How exactly would his privacy be compromised by giving him his own records in person on request? But Dean reps kept insisting it would, and were "somewhat frustrated by my inability to see the wisdom of Dean's policy."
So to prove a point, Vickerman had a friend go to the Dean Clinic, claim to be him and report a change of address - to the friend's own. A subsequent email request led to medical information being mailed to this new address.
"Dean has enacted a policy to protect my records that fails to do so," Vickerman says. In fact, he maintains, requests via mail are less secure than a face-to-face exchange where ID can be verified.
Paul Pitas, a spokesman for Dean Health System, says federal law requires a signed form. (Actually, the relevant federal law, HIPAA, says providers "may" require this but mandates only that they verify identity.) And Dean prefers that these requests go to its central office, due to the volume. But, adds Pitas, "There's no reason a person coming to the pharmacy in Sun Prairie shouldn't be able to sign the form and get the information they want onsite."
In the end, after he complained, that is what Vickerman was allowed to do. Pitas says the episode may point up a need to "better educate staff." Let the educating begin.
You heard it here first, but shouldn't have
Bobby Peterson calls it "the American Family effect." Earlier this month, a federal appellate court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit against the Madison-based insurer and the company it picked to administrator health insurance benefits to its workers. The suit was brought by lawyers for Peterson's Madison nonprofit, ABC for Health, on behalf of Sharon Mondry, a former American Family employee here.
At issue was the companies' alleged failure to provide documents regarding the denial of benefits to Mondry's young son, diagnosed with autism. ABC for Health purportedly made "at least 38 requests" for these records, which were mostly ignored.
At the oral arguments, American Family denied it had a duty to dictate how its administrator behaved and noted that (the oft-overturned) Judge John Shabaz earlier ruled in its favor. But the three-judge panel responded skeptically. One scolded, "What American Family seems to have done is just throw up their arms and said, 'Well, we can't help you.'" The court's ruling is pending.
ABC for Health put out a press release on the case (see the related downloads at top right), which it says could "create excellent case law" regarding insurers' obligations. It noted that the oral arguments can be heard online. (A large MP3 file is available here.) But no media outlet picked up on the story.
"American Family is a big player in this town," says Peterson. "They just funded the Children's Hospital [in Madison], and here they are denying children's benefits."
Hope springs eternal
What's that they say? It's always darkest before the dawn?
Last week Tuesday, as Isthmus went to press (a day early, due to Thanksgiving) with a fine article entitled "Prospects Dim for Campaign Finance Reform," Jay Heck of Common Cause in Wisconsin had an encounter that let in a crack of light.
"I was summoned to [Gov. Jim Doyle]'s office to begin discussions with his staff about possible campaign finance reform legislation that the governor is in the process of formulating," Heck reports. "This is just the beginning of talks and...nothing [is] decided, but discussions with the governor's office are far better than being ignored."
Yes, maybe now, as he completes his fifth year as governor, Doyle will spend his political capital making dramatic progress toward what he promised as a candidate in 2002 would be a top priority. Watch also for flying pigs.