Report Says State Agency Dysfunctional, Divisive

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — The Montana agency that responds to natural disasters and emergencies is a dysfunctional, divisive workplace with a climate of fear and the perception of bullying by some managers, according to an internal report conducted last year.

The three-page report by independent communications consultant Julie Benson-Rosston outlines employee fears of retaliation, sexual discrimination and possible theft and mismanagement within the state Disaster and Emergency Services, a division of the Department of Military Affairs.

But it does not qualify as a hostile work environment, the April 2012 report concludes.

“The workplace does NOT appear to qualify as a ‘hostile work environment’ as it is defined legally. The workplace does, however, greatly lack civility and teamwork,” the report says.

The report was made public Feb. 27 after a legislative panel threatened to subpoena the department and the report’s author to produce the study. Members of the appropriations subcommittee expressed disbelief at the report’s conclusion.

“My first thought was, I’m not sure what a hostile work environment looks like if this is not one,” Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, said Monday. “I believe it’s probably still a mess over there.”

Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, another member of the panel, said he is concerned the strife may be hurting the state’s ability to respond to emergencies.

“My major concern is if this office is as dysfunctional as what we’re hearing, are they going to be able to respond to a real disaster or is everything just going to fall apart due to internal conflict?” Olson said.

DES director Ed Tinsley did not respond to a call and email request for comment. Brigadier Gen. Bradley Livingston, the assistant adjutant general, told the appropriations subcommittee on Feb. 27 that Benson-Rosston accurately reflects “it was a dysfunctional workplace.”

Livingston told lawmakers things may have improved since then and a new investigation will be conducted in the coming months.

Maj. Tim Crowe, the spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs, said his interpretation of the report was that better communication was needed between employees and management, not that the division was dysfunctional.

The department has responded efficiently when called upon, and its response to the floods of 2011 and wildfires of 2012 minimized the potential of loss of life, he said.

The report was made public a month after a former DES employee filed a lawsuit claiming that her position and that of her supervisor were eliminated in 2011 after they complained a temporary employee was receiving special treatment in exchange for sex with DES Chief of Staff Paul Grimstad.

At least two other lawsuits claiming workplace harassment have been filed, and former interim Adjutant Gen. Joel Cusker said there have been a total of eight lawsuits filed against DES related to a reduction in the division’s workforce in 2011.

The Department of Military Affairs has declined to comment on active litigation, but Crowe said the allegations are unsubstantiated, inflammatory and he encourages the public to withhold judgment until a decision is made.

Cusker ordered the workplace climate survey conducted by Benson-Rosston last April after he learned of the lawsuits and after a current DES employee approached him with allegations of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.

Benson-Rosston’s report is based on voluntary, confidential employees with the division’s staff. It outlined concerns expressed in the interviews and made recommendations. But in most cases, it did not detail the allegations made against the division’s managers.

The complaints she heard were that there was an air of fear, retaliation and “walking on eggshells” in the office, that it was a dysfunctional workplace with bullying, a lack of trust, disrespectful communication and a high level of gossip.

Employees found a romantic relationship among the staff uncomfortable and possibly damaging to their jobs and there was a perception of favoritism toward certain employees. The report did not name any staffers involved.

Benson-Rosston also found high levels of office gossip, swearing and the perception of bullying by some managers.

“The areas of gender-specific profanity, comments about looks and sexual orientation must discontinue in order to prevent an actual ‘hostile work environment,'” the report says.

She also wrote that mismanagement and theft of property may be occurring, but she did not detail those allegations.

Livingston told the appropriations subcommittee on Feb. 27 the department has found no evidence of theft. There was no sexual discrimination found either, Crowe said.

No employees have been disciplined, but the department is following through on several of the report’s recommendations, Livingston said.

Among them, managers are now signing position descriptions, giving annual performance appraisals and working on intra-office relationships and communication.

By the time the report was completed in May 2012, Gen. Matthew Quinn had taken over as the permanent adjutant general and Cusker had been involuntarily separated from the Montana National Guard. Benson-Rosston gave Quinn and Livingston her report orally.

Benson-Rosston also described what she found to Cusker in a phone conversation, but he turned her away when she presented him with a three-ring binder filled with documents from her study, saying she had to turn them over to Quinn, he said.

Cusker said he was surprised when the finished product given to legislators turned out to be just three pages long.

“It looked more sanitized than what I was led to believe in the phone call I had with her,” he said.

Benson-Rosston did not return phone or email queries about the report.

Edmunds said he and former Rep. Wayne Stahl requested the document a year ago, along with other information from the division, but the legislators were “stonewalled.” He said it took the appropriations subcommittee threatening a subpoena to force the public release of the report.

“When we request information from a department, especially a department under my purview, I should get some answers. I got none. Not one single answer,” Edmunds said.

Edmunds and other lawmakers met with Tim Burton, Gov. Steve Bullock’s chief of staff, earlier this month to voice their concerns.

“We strongly urged them to take a look at what’s going on and make changes as necessary,” he said.

Bullock spokeswoman Judy Beck said Monday the governor’s office already has requested an internal review of DES.

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