GREEN BAY – Without notifying the County Board, the Brown County executive quietly agreed in March to pay a settlement of almost $61,000 to a department head who apparently hadn’t done county work in a month.
The agreement was signed March 18, but supervisors didn’t know until they were told by a reporter last week that former Corporation Counsel Juliana Ruenzel was given a payment worth six months’ salary, plus an amount that would cover Ruenzel’s health, dental and vision coverage for nine months. As part of the $60,578.71 settlement, Ruenzel – the county’s chief legal officer — received a letter of recommendation.
She agreed not to sue the county. Executive Troy Streckenbach signed the agreement.
Two months after the agreement was signed, however, the factors that led to Ruenzel’s departure remain undisclosed even to colleagues and County Board members. Administration officials have brushed off some questions about her settlement, and provided limited answers to others.
County department heads and other officials said they were told to direct legal questions to Kristen Hooker, who was Ruenzel’s deputy, or to another attorney in the office. But some people in key positions are raising concerns that her absence affects aspects of county government.
The county’s Board of Health, for one, has been wrestling for more than a year with complicated legal questions related to the Shirley Wind Farm, which some neighbors complain is making them ill. Throughout 2015, Ruenzel repeatedly spent hours behind closed doors with the board as its lone legal adviser. But when members met last week, they had no attorney present.
“This is a real issue,” said Dr. Jay Tibbetts, who heads the county Board of Health. “I had a question I was going to put to corporation counsel recently, but then there wasn’t any person in that job. I don’t really know what we’re supposed to do.”
Department heads also say they weren’t told why Ruenzel had departed, only that she was no longer employed.
‘Not our policy’
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin requested the settlement and Ruenzel’s most-recent performance review via a Wisconsin Open Records Law request on April 11. Records were provided on May 3, though the final page of the settlement is illegible. Hooker, who provided the records, said “the copy you received is the only version we have.”
When the newspaper contacted Streckenbach for comment, he referred questions to Human Resources Director Brittany G. Zaehringer. She initially would not answer questions — including one asking simply about whether the settlement had been paid yet.
“It’s not our policy to talk about personnel matters,” she said, citing “the advice of legal counsel.” She called back later the same afternoon to say that the settlement was paid on April 1, and that the money was taken from the salaries line in the Corporation Counsel’s budget.
She said she did not know whether she is allowed to divulge the name of the person who provided that advice.
Ruenzel did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Supervisors contacted by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin were initially shocked to learn of the settlement and said they are frustrated that the administration has not provided an explanation.
“To this day, I don’t have a single piece of paper (from Streckenbach) about this,” Board Chairman Patrick Moynihan of Ashwaubenon said Thursday, six weeks after the settlement was paid to Renzel. “This seems oxymoronic: ‘You’re resigning, but we’re going to pay you nonetheless?’ ‘You’re doing great work, but we’re showing you the door?”
In an email Friday, Zaehringer didn’t answer a question about why the administration made a $60,000 payout to an employee who resigned, except to say it was a mutual agreement so “both parties could move forward.”
“The County will not comment further on the specific legal/employment matters,” she added.
Streckenbach and Administration Director Chad Weininger were aware of the Board’s interest in the Ruenzel situation because supervisors had questioned Streckenbach when Ruenzel missed two of the Board’s monthly meetings earlier this year. Streckenbach said Ruenzel was “on leave,” but deflected other questions about why she wasn’t around.
The separation agreement includes a three-paragraph letter of recommendation signed by Weininger.
“It has been clear to me that Ms. Ruenzel enjoys her work and is very dedicated to her employer, always working for efficiencies and cost-effectiveness in her position with the county,” the letter states. “She is a wealth of knowledge.”
Nearly perfect review
County department heads viewed Ruenzel as businesslike and generally eager to assist, though she occasionally could be difficult to get in touch with, according to several who spoke to a reporter in the past few months. More telling was her most recent performance review, in which she received 24 of a possible 25 points.
The unsigned review gave Ruenzel maximum scores in four areas: her performance, the department’s performance, “meeting county executive’s goals” and “items submitted on time.” In the remaining category, “department on track with goals,” she earned a 4 of 5.
“Overall, the office has been able to demonstrate a high level of competence and has protected the County by winning or negotiating” under Ruenzel, according to the unsigned review. The county provided the document in response to a request for her most-recent review. It’s dated Nov. 26, 2014, but Zaehringer said Friday it is actually Ruenzel’s 2015 review.
The document was not shared with leaders of the County Board, Moynihan said.
Ruenzel is a Green Bay resident who was Manitowoc city attorney for nine years before coming to Brown County. She holds a law degree from Hamline University in Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
As corporation counsel, she supervised staff attorneys and handled duties from helping the Board of Health navigate legal issues surrounding Shirley Wind to advising the County Board on basic matters of parliamentary procedure. Other legal matters, including the handling of a lawsuit filed by a fired public works employee who claims she was the victim of discrimination, were handled by outside attorneys under contract with the county.
The settlement says Ruenzel will not seek employment with the county, except possibly as a guardian ad-litem, which is a court-appointed attorney for vulnerable children.
She was paid $106,000 by Brown County in 2014.
Before she resigned, Ruenzel had not been in the office for weeks, according to people in the county administration. A co-worker said boxes appeared in Ruenzel’s office one work day, and her work was divided among the other attorneys. Her staff was told only she was “on leave.”
Feb. 15 was the last day Ruenzel was in the office, and the last day she did county work, Zaehringer said in an email Friday.
Ruenzel and top county officials had been negotiating her departure for at least a month before the resignation became official, according to documents. Ruenzel rejected an initial settlement offer before accepting the one she signed in March, according to records provided by the county.
Supervisor Patrick Evans of Green Bay said the board and the public are owed answers about Ruenzel’s departure and why she is being paid to not work. Unlike other county department heads, Evans said, corporation counsel is responsible both to the executive and the County Board.
“Plain and simple, these issues need to be shared with the County Board,” he said Thursday. “There has to be more to this situation than just a person resigning.”
An official with the Wisconsin Counties Association said Streeckenbach was within his right to negotiate the settlement without involving the County Board.
“Unless there are some internal processes I am unaware of, it is clearly a function of the executive branch,” J. Michael Blaska, the group’s chief of staff, said in an email.
It’s not entirely clear, meanwhile, how the county would pay Ruenzel’s successor. The corporation counsel salary account is funded through year’s end, but the county would essentially be paying two people until Ruenzel’s payments end in September.
If more money were to be needed, Zaehringer said, the administration would look to cover the cost by tapping another account. That could be problematic if it involves a budget transfer, since such an action would require County Board approval.
The county has posted the job opening,
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