Linn County Commissioners Jim Johnson, from left, Danny McCullough, and Jason Hightower discuss how to handle two grievances filed against the commission on Monday, Aug. 7. (Screen capture/Linn County Live Stream)
By Charlene Sims, Journal staff
MOUND CITY – After coming out of executive session on Monday, Aug. 7, the heated discussion among the Linn County Commissioners from last week spilled over into this week’s meeting.
County Counselor Gary Thompson told the commissioners that two grievances had been filed against the Board of County Commissioners specifically aimed at one commissioner and outlined the procedure the county needed to take.
Thompson said that because the grievances were a confidential matter he could not go into detail about what they contain. He said that while they were separate grievances they both come out of the same incident and both grievances are aimed at one of the commissioners and one grievance is filed by another commissioner’s wife.
In the July 31 meeting, Commissioner Jim Johnson charged Commissioner Jason Hightower with nepotism because his wife, Jessica Hightower, holds multiple roles in county government including economic development director and assistant public works administrator.
Commissioner Hightower countered that Johnson was only appointing friends and supporters to county committees, and that met the definition of nepotism. He also charged that Johnson wanted the commissioners to interview candidates for the vacant road supervisor post with the intent of choosing Johnson’s handpicked candidate.
In most instances, county employees are interviewed by department heads, who then recommend hirings to the commission. (For more on this story, click on this link to read the article published last week in the Journal.)
On Monday, Thompson gave advice to Johnson and Commissioner Jason Hightower to recuse themselves from the action on these matters.
Thompson explained what the county’s policy book says that when a grievance reaches the commission they have the following options:
To act as a grievance board by doing the investigation and making findings.
Appoint a disinterested investigation office to do the investigation and make findings and then bring them back with a recommendation.
If a commissioner is unable to participate for any reason, the board may appoint another elected official to sit on the grievance board if that official was not involved in the matter.
Thompson told the commissioners that these were the three options in the policy book.
Thompson went on to say that in the past it has been the practice for the commissioners to ask the county clerk and himself to do the investigation and bring recommendations back to the board.
Thompson went on to say, “In the present case for various reasons, two of the commissioners have conflicts making it impossible for them to serve on the grievance board or for them to do the investigation.
“County Clerk David Lamb and I may both be witnesses in the matter so I have a recommendation to make. I recommend the commissioners authorize the county clerk, as the chief personnel officer, to obtain an outside firm to investigate the grievances and make recommendations to a grievance board.
“Second, I recommend that they (the commission) authorize the creation of a grievance board, which would be different than our normal policy, a special grievance board made up of the county commissioner, who is not conflicted out, and two elected officials who are not involved in the matter.
“Third, authorize a special grievance board to receive the result of the investigator and take any necessary step allowed under the personnel policy and is recommended by the investigation.
“Fourth, to acknowledge that henceforth Mr. Johnson and Mr. Hightower are recusing themselves from further action on these grievances.”
Thompson told the commissioners that those were his recommendation and it was up to them to decide what they want to do.
Commissioner Danny McCullough asked the other commissioners if they agreed with that.
Johnson asked, “Who gets to pick them, David (Lamb)? If he is a conflicted person, how can he pick them?”
Thompson said Lamb was not conflicted because he was involved with this thing, he’s conflicted because he was a witness.
Johnson asked how Lamb could pick the two if he was a witness.
Hightower suggested that McCullough could pick the other two.
Johnson said, “He’s not conflicted either? Everybody’s is involved. This has been going on for quite some time. We talked about this before the situation was set up, multiple times.”
McCullough asked Thompson if he had checked out the situation of Hightower being commissioner with the attorney general.
Thompson said that they said there was no violation of law involved in how things are going. He said that the attorney general’s office said if the county had any questions about whether it violated state ethical constraints that we had to contact the state board of ethics.
Thompson said that he had sent the board of ethics a letter but had not heard back from them.
McCullough said that they could put the names of the four county officials in a hat and draw and then ask the person that was drawn whether they wanted to be on the grievance board.
The four remaining elected officials would be the sheriff, the county attorney, the register of deeds, and the treasurer.
McCullough asked if the other two commissioner were good with that. Hightower said he was.
Johnson said, “You guys are in charge.”
McCullough said that the county had to move forward on this .
“We just kick the can down the road a lot of times, we’ve kicked it down the road quite a ways,” said Johnson.
“I don’t know what you are referring to. We are talking about the grievance,” said McCullough.
“Really, I am talking about kicking the can down the road,” said Johnson.
Hightower made a motion that the commission authorize the county clerk to retain an outside investigator with experience in these type of investigations and that they authorize McCullough to recruit two county officials to serve on a special grievance board and authorize the special grievance board to receive the investigation and to make the final decision regarding the grievances and acknowledge the Johnson and he must not be involved. The motion passed two to one with Johnson voting against it.
Johnson said that he had multiple people ask him this week what Hightower said about me not getting my guy and about the direction the county was headed.
“Could you answer them for me, I don’t know what you were talking about,” said Johnson.
Hightower said that Johnson had insisted the commission be involved in the interview for shop foreman so that a certain person could be hired.
Johnson asked, “Who?”
You know who, said Hightower.
Johnson told Hightower that the commission changed our rules for him when he won the primary last year for the commission seat. “We changed our flow chart for you,” said Johnson.
Hightower said, “And it did not correspond with your agenda, is that right?”
“We changed the flow chart; the way the county operates is because of you,” said Johnson.
McCullough asked how the commission did that.
Johnson said, “Because the commission changed where Economic Development Director Jessica Hightower was. We put her under Shaun (West). We changed our flow chart to satisfy this commissioner.”
Johnson asked, “Did we not change it, Gary?”
Thompson answered that the policy says an employee cannot report directly to a relative and Jessica Hightower was reporting to the commissioners. He said when Jason Hightower won the primary and it appeared he would have no contest in the general election, the commissioners put Jessica Hightower under Public Works Director Shaun West.
Johnson told Thompson, “It wasn’t because of us, it was because of you.”
Thompson explained that at that time he told the commissioners they had a problem and that would be a way to solve that problem.
“You told us that was what we had to do,” said Johnson.
“There’s not very many times I make the board of commissioners do anything,” said Thompson.
“That’s what you told us we had to do,” said Johnson.
“I did not realize I was that powerful,” answered Thompson.
McCullough said that this was ridiculous, and if the commissioners were not going to discuss any more county business, he was going to adjourn the meeting. He said he was tire of listening to this. He said he listened to (last week’s meeting) from Florida and it was a joke.
The meeting did not adjourn but went into budget information.
The above is an excerpt from the Linn County Commission meeting on Monday, Aug. 7. To listen where this article begins click on this link go to the 3 hour 6 minute mark.