Supporters of Sheriff Nancy Hove lined the Pierce County Board room on Tuesday, Nov. 29 during special Finance & Personnel and County Board meetings. Screenshot courtesy of Pierce County
County Board votes 11-5 to authorize lawsuit against Sheriff Hove

Hove supporters irate at ‘waste of taxpayer money’

The Pierce County Board voted 11-5 at a special meeting Tuesday, Nov. 29 to authorize litigation against Sheriff Nancy Hove in order to “enforce, preserve and protect Pierce County’s rights regarding recruitment, hiring and promotion of sheriff’s office deputies.”

Hove is accused of not following county personnel policy in regards to filling positions within the sheriff’s department.

Supervisors Dean Bergseng, Sheila Lorentz, Angela Mathison, Melissa Petersen and Mel Pittman voted against the resolution. Supervisor Rod Gilles abstained due to a possible perception of “legal conflict of interest.” His son Colin is a Pierce County Sheriff’s Office employee.

The county board room was filled with Hove supporters at both the special Finance & Personnel committee and county board meetings. About 25 people viewed the meeting online while roughly 25 attended in person.

Pierce County filed suit against Hove Nov. 7 in Pierce County Civil Court, claiming she has no constitutional authority to hire sheriff’s department personnel without input from other county departments and employees, and if she does so, it’s violating county policy.

When The Journal asked who or how the county decided to file suit against Hove, County Corporation Counsel Bradley Lawrence referred to paragraph 7 of Resolution 22-27 in a Dec. 1 email to the Journal. The paragraph states: “Given the position and actions taken by Sheriff Hove in refusing to comply with County policies and the law, and her efforts to continue recruitment despite the County’s efforts, time was of the essence making it necessary for the County to immediately take action to enforce its rights and policies consistent with the law, to preserve and protect the rights of the County now and moving forward, in the form of seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief to preclude Sheriff Hove from unilaterally recruiting, hiring and promotion.”

At the Nov. 29 F& P meeting, Hove read a statement declaring her innocence.

“I have not violated a law or a policy. I just asked to see if we had anyone inside that was interested in this position so I would know how to proceed with the request to move on,” Hove said. “I did not have them fill out an application, there was no interviews, there was no hiring. Look at the policy and please tell me where it says that asking for interest is a violation.”

Hove said she has not continued efforts or actions for recruitment over and above a letter of interest. At 10:23 a.m. Oct. 20, Hove sent an email to Human Resources Director Allison Preble asking her to send “what you have on the last posting for a Patrol Lieutenant Position. I would like to get it posted.”

Preble answered at 11:31 a.m. Oct 20: “If I recall we just did an internal recruitment and required a letter of interest to be submitted. So we wouldn’t have to post externally unless you want to go external with it. I know I was on the interview panel but I think JoAnn (Miller, former county administrator) handled the posting piece. How do you want to post it? I can create an ad for either internal or external.”

Hove replied five minutes later: “I have plenty of people internally that would be great at it. I can do a posting with a letter of interest to submit to me and then we can set up the interviews.

I can send all letters to you also if you would like.”

Preble responded at 11:50 a.m. “Sounds good! I think that’s how it was done last time because I am not finding any documentation on it in my files or JoAnn’s files. Just make sure to do the official request to refill from Jason and we will be good to go! Thank you!”

F& P approved the refill of the chief deputy, patrol lieutenant and other management positions within the sheriff’s office Nov. 7. At that meeting, Hove had said “I was elected by this county to run this sheriff’s office and I feel it’s part of my duty to fill these positions and keep people safe.”

When Chair Jon Aubart asked if it was her intent to follow county policy and procedure when filling those positions, she said she didn’t know if she would “follow it all the way,” that she had to look at the policy.

“So that means no,” Aubart said. “I didn’t say no, I just said I need to look at it,” she answered.

County Administrator Jason Matthys said in a Nov. 8 email to the Journal that the county’s personnel policy provides direction on how positions are to be refilled. The process begins with a department head making a recommendation to the administrative coordinator to refill the position, who can authorize it or recommend the staffing plan be amended and/ or recommend the revision of the position description.

“Sheriff Hove had contacted Human Resources to inquire about the position posting of the Patrol Lieutenant position from a recruitment in 2017,” Matthys said. “Human Resources was able to resurrect that posting and provided that to Sheriff Hove. The following day, Administration learned that Sheriff Hove had disregarded the County policy and had posted for the Patrol Lieutenant position internally, without making the recommendation/request to the Administrative Coordinator nor discussing the recruitment process which, by policy involves the Human Resource Manager, Administrative Coordinator and at times, the Committee Chairperson, particularly with the refill of key management positions.”

Matthys said the recruitment process must consider outside recruitment and internal candidates. It also requires a job application, resume or letter of interest, which in some cases can be done if the position is only offered to internal candidates, and whether the process would require a written test. He said there is a screening process that is included in the refill/recruitment policy, and the policy provides which county staff are to be involved in the interview process.

“I had emailed Sheriff Hove on Oct. 21 advising her that the current recruitment for the Patrol Lieutenant was not consistent with policy and that it could not be authorized until such time as the policy was followed,” Matthys said. “I also provided her with the specific and relevant policy language regarding position vacancies and recruitment, both of which the Sheriff is familiar with and has followed for the last 15+ years as Sheriff until this situation.

“After not receiving any response from Sheriff Hove I emailed the Sheriff again on Oct. 26, this time including staff persons within the Sheriff’s Office who may be qualified or interested in applying for the Patrol Lieutenant position so they were aware the process was not authorized.”

Hove told F& P members Nov. 29 that she never received a phone call from Matthys or Lawrence, “just threatening emails making accusations before learning what or why this was being done.”

“I have been without a Chief Deputy for 15 months,” Hove said. “The lieutenants have been essential in filling vital duties and responsibilities to ensure safe, efficient public service, safety and protection.

“If I was trying to skip the procedure I would not have reached out to HR in the first place.”

At a motion hearing held Nov. 16, Judge Ramona Gonzalez ordered the county’s attorneys, Kraig Byron and Joseph Rolling, to bring forth a full Pierce County Board decision authorizing litigation. She gave them until Dec. 1 to bring the proper resolution and expressed surprise that they had not done so.

“We were advised by Corporation Counsel that the county board chair and vice-chair had authorized the litigation to go forward,” Byron told the judge. “That’s – and I’ve informed Corporation Counsel that there should be a ratification of that by the full body, but I’ve been provided with assurances that the whole body is aware and is…” Gonzalez cut Byron off. “Not good enough. Not good enough,” she said. “If you don’t have ratification from the Board of Supervisors, this lawsuit cannot go forward.”

Hodsdon said he scoured county board and F& P minutes to see if the full board approved a motion to bring the lawsuit, but he found nothing.

“I’m not as familiar with what the sheriff’s personal appointments may be statutorily, but what I do know is that it is the county that hires and pays; and it is the county that would be on the hook for illegal hiring practices which is why we have HR manuals and ordinances and the like; and so if the sheriff is willing to abide by all of those while exercising her constitutional right to have around her her administrative staff that she chooses, I’m not seeing that there’s a lawsuit here,” Gonzalez said.

Open meetings law dispute

At the Nov. 29 meetings, Hodsdon contended that the county board and F& P meetings were in violation of a county ordinance that requires a written request for a meeting by the board chair, approved by the F& P’s board chair in writing. In Pierce County, Jon Aubart holds both those positions.

“You are moving to break the law and violate the ordinance that you enacted as an entity,” Hodsdon said.

Lawrence told The Journal by email Dec. 1, “I respectfully disagree with Mr. Hodsdon’s assertions. It is my legal opinion that the meetings were in complete compliance with Wisconsin’s open meetings laws, Secs. 19.81 – 19.98 Wis. Stats.

The board voted to waive a special meetings rule (Pierce County Code Sec. 4-4(E) that states “the board may be called into special session by the written request of the County Board Chairperson with the approval of the Finance and Personnel Committee or upon written request of a majority of the members of the County Board. Such written requests shall be delivered to the County Clerk and shall specify the purpose and time of the meeting. The date of special meetings shall not be less than 48 hours from the date of the delivery of the written request to the County Clerk. Upon receiving the request, the Clerk shall forthwith mail to each Supervisor notice of the time and place of the meeting. In the event of an emergency, the Chairperson of the County Board may, by written notice to the County Clerk, convene an emergency meeting of the County Board. The notice shall specify the time and place of the meeting and the subjects to be considered. The time of the meeting shall not be less than 12 hours from the filing of the notice. The Clerk or, if not possible, the Sheriff shall immediately notify the media and each Board member in person or by telephone of the time, place and purpose of the meeting.”

Lawrence stated Aubart “simply scheduled the special meeting in response to the Court’s request to receive the Resolution to authorize the litigation by Dec. 1, 2022. The board meeting was publicly noticed by way of a meeting agenda that was posted Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, eight days in advance of the meeting. The Board Supervisors were also provided with the meeting agenda and agenda packet on November 21, 2022. That meeting agenda and packet set forth in detail the subject matter, date and time of the meeting.”

On Nov. 29, Hove emailed County Clerk Jamie Feuerhelm asking for a copy of the written request for the special board meetings. Feuerhelm replied that he did not have a “physical written request (including email) for the meetings you stated.”

Board reaction

Before the board went into closed session, several citizens asked the county board to vote no on the litigation.

“Awhile ago we had a number of meetings to do with AZ Snyder and the expansion of her duties, about 150 people, another had 300+ people,” John Danneker of Maiden Rock said. “All wanted you to vote no and you ignored the people. And it appears you’re going to do the same thing, even though you’re ignoring your own rules. Look at the people who are asking you not to go through with this. You’re not voting for us, you’re voting against us.”

Petersen and Lorentz voted against going into closed session.

“I have not been privy to a lot of this stuff,” Petersen said. “The first time I heard about this lawsuit was after it occurred. You can find it online.”

Hodsdon maintained that Hove has documentation establishing her compliance “The record of this very body shows that that’s not true,” Hodsdon said. “F& P authorized going forward with the hiring.”

Upon returning into open session, Petersen wanted to know why the lawsuit wasn’t authorized by the board in the first place.

“I’m concerned with what we did with this, whether there’s going to be repercussions that we waived the rule and did not establish this meeting … ” she said. “I do not agree with the verbiage in the resolution. I don’t like the way that it’s written. We don’t even have the emails that might resolve it. We’re making a decision on something we don’t have all the information for. Even if the lawsuit is justified, there’s no reason to waste money on this. We can all work together. We all civil people.”

Pittman echoed Petersen’s concerns and said better communication is needed on both sides.

“I’m not here to point fingers and blame, but I too find that this lawsuit is not necessary.

I believe she had stated that she had to look at the policy. She may not have been totally up to speed on the county code. Sometimes we change code. Communication could have resolved this matter. The thing that bothers me a lot is that the county filed this lawsuit before the F& P on Nov. 7, before they had approval on F& P. I find that troubling,” Pittman said.

Supervisor Neil Gulbranson, a former PCSO chief deputy, said the comments that the board is against the sheriff’s department are wrong. He cited six or seven votes this year that have supported PCSO equipment purchases and staffing.

“We have a professional HR department here and there are a lot of federal laws to be followed,” Gulbranson said. “The way I look at this, there’s two sides here and no one is going to agree to this. There’s a pile for each on a judge’s desk in La Crosse. Let that person decide … It has nothing to do with the sheriff’s department as a quality group. They’re a good bunch. We have to follow the rules or we’ll get sued. I’m trying to protect the taxpayers. If we do not follow the rules and we get sued because of something we violated, well, I guess I’m done.”

Gulbranson also said the law firm from Madison representing the county is one the county uses for labor disputes. Lawrence said since the lawsuit was just filed, the amount of money spent on lawyer’s fees is not available at this time.

A court hearing is scheduled at 1:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9 in the Pierce County West Courtroom.

December 6, 2022