County board limits Groh’s contact with finance director after verbal abuse accusations

Published 10:40 am Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Mower County Board voted unanimously to limit contact between Auditor-Treasurer Doug Groh and Finance Director Donna Welsh after an argument Tuesday.

Both Groh and Welsh accused the other of being verbally abusive after an altercation when Groh asked Welsh to provide records on school taxes for an audit.

Welsh told the Mower County commissioners Tuesday morning that she was verbally abused by Groh earlier that day, and that it has been an ongoing problem.

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“He was getting verbally abusive, and everyone knows that this is not the first time, but it will be the last,” she said. “This reign of terror must stop. He needs to go.”

Following legal counsel from County Attorney Kristen Nelsen, commissioners voted to limit contact between Groh and Welsh to emails or letters, with a human resources or county administration representative present during face-to-face meetings.

Groh — who was not present at the meeting and was informed of the board’s decision after 2:45 p.m. — disputed Welsh’s claim. In fact, he said Tuesday afternoon that Welsh verbally abused him, something he reported to a county commissioner.

“I did not say anything to her that would be construed to be verbally abusive, either in tone or action,” Groh said. “What I received from her was the verbal abuse.”

Welsh told the board Groh, whose office is on the main floor of the Government Center, went to Welsh’s basement office — where he hadn’t been in years — to corner her.

“In my estimation, it was an attack,” said an emotional Welsh, who raised her voice as she addressed the board.

Groh was also emotional during a phone interview with the Herald, accusing Welsh of being uncooperative. He said he emailed Welsh asking for the documents a month ago, but after he had not received them he asked for them in person.

“It was four weeks; I’ve been patient,” Groh said.

The school tax reports in question are available online, according to both Groh and Welsh.

Both Welsh and Groh described the altercation as a power play or control issue by the other. Certain duties now overseen by Welsh were once completed by the auditor before the position merged with the treasurer, but Groh’s predecessor delegated those duties to the finance director — a decision made before Welsh and Groh were in their current role. Even though he doesn’t complete the tasks, Groh said, it’s still in his authority based on state statute.

Welsh also unsuccessfully ran against Groh for his position in 2006.


‘This has been an ongoing problem’

The board acted quickly Tuesday, passing the motion limiting Groh’s communication with Welsh.

“We need to do something to protect our employees,” Commissioner Polly Glynn said.

Commissioner Tim Gabrielson said this is not the first time someone has brought a conflict with Groh to county officials’ attention.

“This has been an ongoing problem,” he said. “We’ve talked about doing something about it previously.”

Apart from the motion, there’s little the county can do. Because Groh is an elected official, the county board cannot fire him. He was last elected in 2010, when he ran unopposed. He is up for re-election in 2014.

According to County Coordinator Craig Oscarson, the board’s authority is limited to salary and department budget when it comes to an elected department head.

The board could notify Nelsen to see if further action is warranted, according to Oscarson. Groh said he expects there will be an investigation. Board Chairman Jerry Reinartz acknowledged it’s a difficult situation for the board.

“It’s an uncomfortable situation for all of us,” he said.


Continued tensions

This is not Groh’s first run-in with the board. At the base of the tension is a disagreement between Oscarson, Groh and the board over the authority of Groh’s and other offices.

On July 30, the board voted unanimously during a public meeting to have the county recorder’s office take over vital statistics records — records of births, deaths, marriages and other information — from the auditor-treasurer’s office. Groh accused the board of attempting to diminish his office to try to remove him.

In July, Groh said he has allowed the board to walk over him long enough and plans to speak out more. On Tuesday, he did. Groh feels intimidated at work and thinks County Coordinator Craig Oscarson is taking steps to isolate his office.

“This has always been a hostile workplace for me,” Groh said.

Groh also accused Oscarson of overstepping his authority and said the county board and Oscarson want Groh’s position appointed rather than elected.

“They want total control,” he said.

Oscarson has said he believes the issues between Groh, the board and himself are about differing opinions on each office’s authority. He said the county could potentially solve the issue by bringing in a mediator to hash out each group’s authority and responsibilities, but all three parties would have to agree to mediation.

Groh said the public knows the history and that it weighs on his side.

“I think the people understand in this county,” he said.