Archived Story

Road chairman removed

Published 6:58pm Thursday, September 13, 2012


ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Road Commission, expected to explain itself to the Board of Commissioners on Thursday, voted 3-2 Wednesday to oust Chairman Robert Forker Jr. and replace him with Louis Gibson.

Gibson, Chuck Collins and Larry Merritt voted for the move, with Forker and James H. Daniel in the minority.

“The hostile work environment is still going on at the road commission,” Eau Claire foreman Greg Trail apprised county commissioners. “There’s still turmoil and fuses are getting short.”

“I hope you’re going to act quickly,” shop foreman Dave McIntyre said. “The three board members behind all of this ganged up on Bob Forker and demoted him. I understand it was pretty ugly. I have seen the report written by Char Wenham. People are out of patience. There are still wrong things going on and people huddled in corners conniving and trying to continue what’s been going on.”

“Give us seven days,” administration committee chairman Mac Elliott said.

It was reported to commissioners that when Forker read the notice about Thursday’s meeting, two road commissioners indicated their participation hinged on being paid.

County commissioners could remove road commissioners over their handling of 20 allegations made by 13 non-union road workers June 6.

“In terms of harassment, there was no illegal behavior identified,” according to Wenham’s report. “However, there is behavior that is unprofessional and inappropriate for the workplace.”

She found “pervasive” vulgar language sufficiently severe to create hostility and “neither saw nor heard evidence of leadership, clear reporting lines or efforts to develop any kind of team spirit … There is ample evidence of lack of direction impacting the work environment. This, coupled with the use of inappropriate language and fear for one’s job, does create hostility.”

“Virtually all witnesses reported fear of retaliation,” the report stated. “The environment is one in which people are afraid to exercise judgment for fear of making a mistake and then being berated or, worse yet, being targeted to lose their jobs. The general atmosphere is pregnant with discontent and people in the office whisper so as not to ‘rock the boat.’ ”

In general, Wenham encountered a “negative culture where negative management behavior sets the tone for the organization.”

Lori Drews, a 29-year employee in payroll administration, said Thursday that the report validates concerns.

“Char’s report does not support the public statement dated Aug. 29 by (road commission attorney) Michael Kluck and presented to employees and your board. The two do not go together. Our board has shown total incompetence in dealing with this situation. Larry Merritt said yesterday, ‘We are going to fail when we go over to the county board.’ He is wrong. They already have.”

In her conclusion, Wenham  wrote that a pall of suspicion lies over each of the three members of management, including former managing director Rhonda Hildebrand, maintenance superintendent David Fritz and traffic services manager Kevin Reed.

“I would add commissioners Collins, Gibson and Merritt,” Drews said.

A common complaint against Hildebrand was she would not take calls from township officials or the public in general, putting the office staff in the position of making excuses which, from their perspective, meant lying.

There is fear of accomplishing even routine tasks, with every statement, question or move considered a risk, the report said.

“Choose a side and choose wisely” was an expression heard frequently.

St. Joseph assistant city manager Derek Perry has been brought in for interim leadership.


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