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County settles wrongful termination suit for $125k


 By Michael Howell

Ravalli County has settled a lawsuit filed in federal court by former Road Department Supervisor David Ohnstad. It will cost the county $125,000. The county also agreed that it will refer any contacts from prospective employers about Mr. Ohnstad to the Ravalli County Human Resources Director, who will respond with Mr. Ohnstad’s beginning and ending dates of employment, his beginning and ending job titles, his beginning and ending salary, and that he is eligible for rehire. The HR Director is instructed to keep a log of the date and time of all such contacts, and will preserve any written or electronic communications about them and make those available to Ohnstad upon request.

Ohnstad’s trouble with the county commissioners began when he was instructed to make improvements to the road accessing a subdivision in the Eight Mile Road area at the north end of the valley. Ohnstad argued that the improvements being requested by the developer would basically undo a settlement agreement reached between the developer and the county under the previous commission. Many of the same improvements were initially sought by the developer in that lawsuit. But those requests were specifically excluded in that agreement. He did not believe the county should be making the improvements simply at the request of the developer when the issue had already been settled.

The Commissioners ordered the improvements to be made anyway, at a cost of about $50,000. They did it at a meeting found by the court to be in violation of state laws concerning public notice and open meetings.

Later, after receiving a complaint by the developer, Ohnstad was questioned by the Commissioners at a few meetings about the alleged removal of some existing culverts and the failure to place new culverts and several other issues. At one point, he was accused of lying to the commissioners about the culverts.

Efforts to terminate him started out on the wrong foot. Ohnstad had just left on a scheduled vacation to visit his mother. On a Friday evening, he got a call saying that a meeting had been scheduled to consider his termination and it was scheduled for the next Monday morning. When he told them that he could not possibly make the meeting, they suggested that he participate by telephone. Ohnstad contacted an attorney who contacted the commissioners and that meeting never took place.

When he returned from vacation the termination process was begun and the Board of Commissioners ultimately decided to fire him in January 2011. All the commissioners agreed that Ohnstad had lied or something like it. But the vote to terminate him was split. Commissioners Greg Chilcott and J.R. Iman voted against the termination, arguing that it was too severe considering the nature of the infraction. They suggested he be reprimanded and given an opportunity to improve his performance. Ohnstad had a clean personnel record at the time and support from almost all of the Road Department employees at the time. Commissioners Matt Kanenwisher, Ron Stoltz and Suzy Foss voted for termination.

Following termination, Ohnstad filed his lawsuit in federal court, alleging wrongful termination, violation of his civil rights and violation of the open meeting laws.

The $125,000 settlement agreement was signed on May 1, 2014.

The commissioners previously paid a $35,000 settlement to Ohnstad’s Road Department secretary, Jackie Johnson. She filed a human rights complaint, alleging wrongful termination and age discrimination. Ohnstad said that the commissioners ordered him to fire her.

A few months after Ohnstad’s termination, a new administrator, Danielle Senn, was hired. A few months later Dusty McKern was hired as supervisor. Senn’s job was terminated and she has filed a human rights complaint against Ravalli County, arising out of the allegedly discriminatory behavior of her supervisor, McKern. She has also alleged that the county’s Human Resources Director, Robert Jenni, engaged in retaliatory conduct in connection with the termination of her position.

The Bitterroot Star currently has a request pending before the state’s Department of Labor and Industry’s Hearings Bureau to get copies of the complaint.

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