Heron Lake Watershed District administrator files suit against board member

HERON LAKE -- Jan Voit, administrator of the Heron Lake Watershed District, has filed a lawsuit against one of the members of the watershed board. In documents filed this week in Jackson County District Court, Voit is pursuing judgment against Ro...


HERON LAKE - Jan Voit, administrator of the Heron Lake Watershed District, has filed a lawsuit against one of the members of the watershed board.
In documents filed this week in Jackson County District Court, Voit is pursuing judgment against Roger Hartman on claims of defamation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, intentional infliction of emotional distress and abuse of process.
Hartman has served on the HLWD board of managers since early 2012. He was appointed to the watershed board by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
In May, Hartman sent letters to Jackson, Murray, Cottonwood and Nobles county commissioners, as well as the offices of the Minnesota Attorney General and Minnesota State Auditor, alleging Voit overpaid her family’s health insurance premiums to the tune of more than $45,700.
That accusation is untrue, according to Voit.

Source of contention

A personnel policy adopted by the HLWD on or about Feb. 11, 1988, states the watershed would pay 100 percent of the single coverage health insurance premium of any employee employed more than 61 days; and would pay 100 percent of the single or family coverage health insurance premium for any employee employed over 20 years.
A provision of the policy indicates the watershed district shall pay no more than $7,500 in annual premiums per employee/family per year; and no more than $4,200 shall be paid into employee/family health savings accounts per year.
A second provision states, “Nothing contained herein shall be construed to constitute a contract, either expressed or implied, and the Heron Lake Watershed District reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to modify, change, or disregard the policies and procedures herein contained.”
The lawsuit against Hartman states the HLWD paid Voit’s health insurance premiums as part of her employee benefits package, and the board of managers approved all payments of premiums for health insurance coverage.
“From 2007 through 2012, due to the increasing cost of health insurance, the annual premium for (Voit’s) health insurance exceeded $7,500. HLWD, acting through its board of managers, elected to disregard the provision contained in the Personnel Policy which would otherwise limit such payment to $7,500 annually,” the lawsuit states.
During that time, HLWD managers authorized the full payment of Voit’s health insurance premiums, having full authority to take that action, the document continues. It also states the premiums were not paid to Voit, but rather to her health insurance provider. Each of those payments was made from the HLWD checking account and required two signatures.
Hartman began investigating the HLWD’s payment of employee health insurance premiums in 2012 after a March 5, 2012, incident documented by the district in which Hartman’s conduct at the HLWD office was “belittling and disrespectful” toward Voit and another watershed district employee.
By November 2012, the HLWD board of managers revised the personnel policy to include full payment of Voit’s health insurance premiums.
Seventeen months later, in April 2014, Hartman made allegations about overpayment of health insurance premiums within the district to the Jackson County Attorney’s office.
The allegations led to a search warrant and search of the HLWD office in August 2014, during which an investigator with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office confiscated the district’s personnel policy, payroll sheets from 2011-2014, treasurer’s reports from 2008-2014, board meeting minutes from 2006-2014 and proposals made by the personnel committee regarding insurance and wages.
No further action has been taken by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office or any other government entity, the lawsuit states.

Defamation claims

Voit’s claims of defamation, emotional distress and abuse of power are based on what Hartman has done to spread inaccurate information about her and the money paid for her insurance premiums.
The lawsuit identifies Hartman’s letter to the Office of the Minnesota State Auditor, in which he wrote in the subject: “Misappropriation of public watershed funds by an employee,” and the letters to county commissioners in the four counties the HLWD boundaries fall within, as being accessible to the public through the Jackson County, Minnesota website.
“(Hartman) knew, or reasonably should have known, that the letters (he) submitted to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners would be made public, would be further disseminated and would be read by newspaper reporters and others who follow the agenda and activities of that county board,” the lawsuit states.
The Jackson County Pilot published a story based on Hartman’s allegations that made no reference to HLWD treasurer’s reports and board minutes contradicting Hartman’s claims of misuse of funds. The story was reprinted in the Lakefield Standard, Tri-County News and Fulda Free Press.
The lawsuit states Hartman has made other claims - in addition to those relating to insurance premiums - including allegations Voit didn’t properly account for her time.
As a result, Voit filed the suit stating the letters, articles and statements of Hartman are defamatory, exposing Voit to hatred, shame, contempt, ridicule, disgrace and obloquy. Further, the suit alleges Hartman’s conduct is “extreme and outrageous in that it is atrocious, exceeds the bounds of decency and is utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”
“(The) Plaintiff (Voit) has suffered severe emotional distress as a result of (Hartman’s) conduct including inability to focus on job duties, strained relations with board members, anxiety before opening mail, fear and anxiety in going to the HLWD office, and upset, anxiety and fear of further accusations and harassment by (Hartman).”
Hartman is summoned to reply to the suit within 20 days and, if not, will lose the case.
Voit seeks judgment against Hartman in excess of $50,000, along with her costs, disbursements and attorney fees and any other or additional relief as the court deems.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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