MO Public Safety Pay Spat Getting Ugly

JOPLIN, MO — Joplin’s finance director says critics are trying to force her out of her job, and the city manager says city employees who continue to stir rumors and act disrespectful could face disciplinary action.

City Manager Sam Anselm holds fire and police employees responsible for repeated incidents in which he said untruths have been spread and employees have acted out against other city employees, such as the finance director, and the City Council.

“The city will not be a party to the innuendos and gossip that has been circulating because an organized group of employees is not happy with their pay,” Anselm said in a statement he issued in response to a complaint against Finance Director Leslie Haase and her husband, Carl Junction police Chief Delmar Haase, as well as the city’s public information officer, Lynn Onstot.

“These tactics represent a disrespectful behavior by city employees toward our finance director and are in violation of our rules and regulations, and henceforth will not be tolerated by the city,” Anselm said.

Asked if there is a personnel investigation of the allegations, the city manager said no information would be disclosed because it would be a personnel matter.

The president of the firefighters union says the union has not been involved in asking the widow of a police officer to come forward with allegations against the Haases. He said that if individual firefighters have been involved, they have the right to express their own opinions.

The police union made no comment.

Leslie Haase on Monday night made a statement to the city manager and the City Council about recent events in which she said she has been a target. In particular, last week, Tracy Nielson, widow of police officer Tim Nielson, complained to the city manager that there had been an effort to intimidate her after she made public comments Aug. 20 for the city to raise police and fire pay.

The Globe left a telephone message for Nielson at her office on Tuesday, but the message was not returned.

The statement by Anselm was issued Friday in response to events he believes led up to the complaint.

“We continue to address the pay situation for all city employees and working to provide solutions that the organization can financially sustain,” Anselm said in a written statement. “Union personnel can accept that we’re making our best effort to address employee pay or make other choices,” adding, “I will no longer allow these groups to blame another city employee or the City Council, either directly or indirectly, because of a few of their members may disagree with the options being presented.”

Nielson, in a Sept. 13 email to the city manager and the council, said that Leslie Haase approached her in the City Hall parking lot after a council budget meeting Aug. 27 to try to persuade her to make no further public comments. She alleged that Haase’s husband later contacted her, as did Onstot.

Nielson’s husband died Sept. 13, 2004, of injuries he suffered in a house explosion when he answered a police call for assistance. She told the council that her husband gave his life for a city he believed in. But the city is risking lives now keeping public safety workers “gross and negligently underpaid” and understaffed because of turnover at the departments.

“We demand change, and we demand it now,” she told the council. “Raise their pay.” She also asked for an increase in the public safety sales tax that could be designated for public safety salaries alone.

“Raise their pay” is a slogan that has been posted on Facebook pages in support of the fire and police departments.

A week after she spoke to the council, she alleges that Leslie Haase initiated a conversation in the parking lot to say that the things she suggested to the council are unrealistic because the city has no money and that Haase felt she was being made into the “bad guy” for that.

Later that evening, Nielson said, she received emails from Delmar Haase “indicating that Leslie wishes we had more time to talk and that she recognizes the parking lot was the wrong time and place for that discussion.”

Nielson continues that on Sept. 12, she had a voicemail from the city’s public information officer, Lynn Onstot, asking if Nielson felt the Haases’ comments were retaliatory, hurtful or intimidating. “I did not feel comfortable answering that question,” Nielson said. Onstot suggested that she speak with Leslie Haase and/or the city manager to clarify what happened and what was intended. She also asked whether Nielson had been in contact with news media regarding her allegations, according to her letter.

Nielson called the alleged contacts “inappropriate.”

In speaking on Monday, Leslie Haase did not specify she was referring to the Nielson allegation but in her statement indicated that she did not initiate the conversation with Nielson in the parking lot.

“In my position as finance director, I understand that I am always in the public eye, even away from work,” she said. “I also recognize that I am open to public criticism about how I do my job and the recommendations I make. I willingly accept that responsibility. With that said, though, I also have the right to have conversations with citizens when those conversations are initiated by citizens.”

Haase said in her public statement that attacks became more personal against her after she presented a financial sustainability report to the council in June outlining changes the council could make to lessen expenses to the general fund. Those options involved police and fire benefits such as uniform allowances, take-home cars, and the reduction of police dogs that are no longer grant funded as well as the way fire department callback pay is calculated. She cited a number of issues where the city was overpaying because city policies were being incorrectly applied. Some of the options involved city employees as a whole.

In that report, she also cited an option that the city could move police and firefighters to a state pension fund and close out the city’s underfunded pension over time if a revenue source was found to pay off the benefits currently owed.

After that report, at the next meeting of the Police and Firefighters Pension Board, firefighter John Alford accused her of leading an attack on the pension plan and said she should be replaced with outside administrators instead of being an adviser to the board.

“It’s been proposed that the city wants to change our pension plan to something else,” said Alford, one of two fire department representatives on the board. “I find it difficult to stomach some of this because it is our plan administrator that is leading the attack on our pension plan.”

Alford was told that the board is the administrator, not the finance director. But at its last meeting, Alford presented cost estimates for hiring an outside administrator and/or changing the fund’s actuary.

Delmar Haase said in response to the Nielson allegations that “Direct messages were sent by me, as a private person to a person I considered a friend and held in great esteem. I have the utmost respect for Tracy Nielson. When a close friend needed services in her chosen profession, I contacted her for a referral. I knew of no animosity. Neither message was sent with any ill intent.”

Leslie Haase said in her statement that because comments have been directed at her personally, “It is apparent to me that these attacks on me and my family are calculated in nature to try to remove me from city service either voluntarily or involuntarily.”

Fire union President Jeremie Humphrey said Friday in response to Globe question that the Joplin Professional Fire Fighters Local 59 has not discussed this situation with the media.

In an email statement provided in response to Globe questions about the city manager’s statement, members of the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Local 27, declined comment.

“We fully support her and care for her deeply,” said Thomas Bowin, Fraternal Order of Police treasurer. “However, we will not be making any specific comments regarding this issue.”

Councilman Phil Stinnett said after Leslie Haase’s statement on Monday night that people may not realize she works under the supervision of the city manager and performs duties at his direction. The city manager is acting on instructions of the council, and any complaints regarding city operations should be directed to the city manager or the council, he said.

From The Joplin Globe via Firehouse.com