Nobles Co. administrator is under investigation
WORTHINGTON -- After months of remaining silent, Nobles County commissioners have now hired an attorney to represent them in a case regarding allegations of an adverse work environment in county offices.
Jessica Schwie, a partner with the Lake Elmo law firm of Jardine, Logan & O'Brien, PLLP, was hired by the county in recent weeks to "address certain concerns that have been raised by the staff and officials in the county regarding management and operations" according to a press release her office issued to the Daily Globe this week.
While the release doesn't specifically mention Nobles County Administrator Melvin Ruppert by name, at least two county employees have confirmed on the record that he is under investigation.
The case dates back to early October, when Nobles County commissioners met in closed session during the Oct. 4 board meeting. No information was provided during the open meeting regarding that session, other than it was to address a complaint.
Two weeks ago, the Daily Globe learned commissioners actually took board action in that Oct. 4 closed session -- a potential violation of the open meeting law -- when they voted to hire an attorney to investigate the allegations. The vote was 4-0, with Commissioner Vern Leistico absent from the meeting, according to Nobles County Attorney Gordon Moore.
Moore and then-board chair Diane Thier selected Michelle Soldo, with Soldo Consulting, P.C., of Woodbury, to conduct the investigation. Numerous phone calls to Soldo's office have gone unanswered. According to her website, Soldo specializes in labor and employment law, employment investigations and professional training and development.
In a Dec. 29 phone call to Thier, she said she had "no comment about what's going on until we find out more about it." She also said the claims against Ruppert were "allegations -- there's no proof, no nothing."
According to some county employees, Soldo started investigating the case in October.
Nobles County Assessor Byron Swart, who retires later this month, was interviewed on Oct. 27. He said he was told by the investigator that "there was a grievance filed and the board decided an investigation needed to be done."
Swart said the questions focused on the working relationship between himself and Ruppert, which he said has been good. Other questions had more to do with morale around the government center -- what Swart had seen and what he'd experienced. The interview was conducted at the Prairie Justice Center.
Sheriff Kent Wilkening, while also a department head, is an elected official. He was contacted by Soldo on Nov. 11.
"All of the questions she asked were geared at Mel Ruppert," Wilkening said, adding that he was specifically told by Soldo the county hired her to investigate Ruppert.
Wilkening said Soldo's questions had a lot to do with the working relationship between him and Ruppert -- how Wilkening was treated by him and how Ruppert treated employees.
"She didn't ask me my opinions -- just first-hand experiences with him," Wilkening explained.
The results of that investigation are expected to be presented to Nobles County Commissioners by the end of February. Commissioner David Benson, elected board chair at the Jan.3 meeting, said the report will be on the agenda for the Feb. 20 board meeting, although he didn't know if the information would be presented in an open or closed board session. He also said he was instructed by their attorney, Schwie, to not speak of the case with anyone at this time.
In an email sent to the Daily Globe by Schwie on Wednesday, she wrote, "On behalf of Nobles County, I am asking that you discontinue the repeated communications with staff and/or officials as it is posing a disruption to the carrying out of county affairs, including the provision of services to the public."
Her press release begins by stating that "Nobles County is going in a new direction in 2012." It includes one paragraph about the investigation -- stating that "staff and officials have been patient during this process, continue to maintain professional relations and continue to work together to deliver efficient and quality services to the public."
The remainder of the release details ongoing board discussions, including plans to construct a new library, implement recommendations from an energy assessment and continue investigating feasibility of county-based purchasing.
Readers can reach Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer at 376-7330