WABASHA, Minn. — In 10 months as a Wabasha County Commissioner Deb Roschen overstepped her authority by implying she would cut the county sheriff’s department’s budget after the sheriff did not support state legislation she favored, and sought to terminate a county social services employee after the employee blamed county budget cuts for a delay in services, according to documents and county officials.
She also formally accused the sheriff of harassment in September, then abruptly halted the ensuing investigation by declining to participate in it.
Roschen’s actions are detailed in emails and other documents obtained by the Daily News through a public-records request.
In an interview Wednesday, Roschen denied that she suggested she would cut the sheriff’s department’s budget and that she tried to fire the social services worker. She said some of the allegations are “issues taken out of context,” while others are “completely false and inaccurate.”
“I have not ruled out the possibility of seeking legal counsel against certain individuals,” Roschen added, but declined to elaborate, saying that public comments could jeopardize any potential case.
A petition released last week by a group seeking to recall Roschen accuses her of overstepping her authority in additional ways, alleging that she made defamatory comments about a county highway worker and attempted to circumvent open meeting and data practices laws. Those allegations are based on disputed minutes prepared by County Administrator David Johnson.
The minutes don’t attribute any statements about the highway employee to Roschen, though they do say she tried to introduce and pass cost-cutting measures without proper public notice.
A disagreement, then a harassment claim
In mid-September, Roschen sent Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsh and County Attorney Jim Nordstrom a letter alleging that Bartsh had been acting in a “discriminatory and harassing” manner.
Roschen claimed Bartsh had “boasted” to different people that his request for public data about county commissioners would be destructive to her. She wrote that she would take legal action if necessary.
Bartsh responded with a letter to Nordstrom calling Roschen’s actions “a terrible game she is playing with my career and reputation.”
The letters detail a strained relationship dating back to April, when Bartsh declined to support state legislation Roschen was promoting as a way to save county money.
In Bartsh’s letter, he wrote that his data request was made “so that I would know going forward who I could trust and who I couldn’t.”
When Nordstrom attempted to investigate, Roschen declined to participate. The investigation was never conducted.
Roschen declined to comment Wednesday, calling it a “private matter.”
Bartsh said he never harassed Roschen. He admitted to telling people he made a data request, but said he never boasted about it.
Bartsh said Tuesday that “I absolutely want no more correspondence” with Roschen.
Bartsh said that in April Roschen implied she would cut his budget if he chose not to support a bill in the Minnesota Legislature that would have removed state mandates for staffing county jails and given authority to county sheriffs.
According to Roschen, Bartsh originally showed support for the bill, authored by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa — for whom Roschen once worked as a campaign manager — then declined to testify in support. Bartsh said Wednesday he never supported the bill.
Roschen wrote him an email in April to express her disappointment. In the email, she wrote that it “seems to me that it would be prudent for the Sheriff to support this bill in order to save tax dollars. Without these measures County Boards will certainly need to look at where we can cut expenses.”
“Without the cooperation from department heads on opportunities like this the cuts will likely need to be deep and painful,” she wrote. “Something for you to ponder while there is still time to do the right thing!”
Roschen said Wednesday her message was meant to encourage cooperation, and that all departments had equal likelihood of facing cuts.
“That’s not a threat, that’s economics,” she said. “That’s me saying we have budget concerns and we need to work together or cuts will be made.”
In a email to Bartsh the next day, Roschen apologized for being “too quick to anger” and stressed the need to work together.
Bartsh said he originally read Roschen’s message as a direct threat and felt “bad things would come my way” if he didn’t cooperate, an interpretation he continues to stand by.
‘An offense subject to termination’
In June, Roschen attempted to fire a county social services employee after the employee told a client that services had been delayed due to recent county budget cuts, according to County Administrator Johnson, emails Roschen sent to County Attorney Nordstrom and the recall petition.
The employee told the client that the office was understaffed and dealing with an overwhelming amount of applications, and that the client should call a county commissioner if they had complaints.
Johnson said Wednesday that Roschen told him to fire the employee.
A series of subsequent emails between Roschen and Nordstrom that month show Roschen wanted the county board to discuss taking possible disciplinary action against the employee. Nordstrom’s reply said the county would need to investigate first, and he said this week that the county normally handles disciplinary matters at the department level without involving the board.
“Keep in mind, the board action is not what is being called into question,” Roschen wrote in one email. “It is the behavior, response and motivation from an employee who acted unprofessional and with a perceived destructive agenda against management.
“My HR experience is that this is an offense subject to termination.”
Roschen declined comment Wednesday on the matter, saying she was afraid of hurting the worker’s reputation. She said discussions with the social services department revealed “coaching issues” that were resolved.
No disciplinary action was taken against the employee, according to the county attorney’s office.
Two additional allegations
Two other allegations against Roschen, both raised by the recall petition, rely on the accuracy of Johnson’s minutes at board meetings.
The petition alleges that Roschen made defamatory statements against a county employee at a public meeting — comments not recorded in the minutes — and attempted to pass 69 cost-saving measures without proper public notice.
Both allegations stem from comments and motions made at strategic planning sessions this summer. While most public board meetings are recorded on video, the strategic planning sessions were not. Johnson took minutes at each of the sessions, and said Wednesday he would swear to the accuracy of his notes in court.
“Are they unfair? No. Are they accurate? Absolutely,” he said.
The board has not approved the minutes because some commissioners dispute their accuracy.
“Anyone reading (the minutes) can see the bias,” Commissioner Merl Norman said at a Nov. 1 board meeting.
Roschen said at the same meeting that Johnson’s minutes “read like a letter to the editor” and some things are “pretty shaky.”
Commissioner Rich Hall said Wednesday he hadn’t read the notes and didn’t have an opinion. Other commissioners could not be reached.
According to Johnson’s minutes of the Aug. 9 planning session, Roschen attempted to introduce 69 cost-saving measures, which she and at least two other commissioners had indicated preference for. Nordstrom replied that the items couldn’t be voted on without public notice, according to the minutes.
“When you go through strategic planning, it does no good unless you go through with it,” Roschen said Wednesday.
Another allegation isn’t supported by Johnson’s notes.
According to the petition, Roschen said a county highway employee was “overweight, had poor work ethic, stole County property several years ago, and falsified time cards.”
Roschen said Wednesday she made no such statements. She added that she remembered hearing someone talk about theft of county property, but couldn’t remember who.
The minutes don’t attribute any statements about the employee to Roschen.
The recall movement continues
Last week, a group calling themselves Wabasha County Citizens for Responsible Government began circulating a petition calling for Roschen’s recall.
If the petition can gather at least 415 certified signatures from registered voters in Roschen’s 2nd District, the petition could lead to a hearing.
If Roschen is found guilty of committing malfeasance in office — a lengthy and complex process that could take several months — it could lead to a special removal election.