Kurt Karbusicky previously served as Chief Deputy Coroner for Dane County, and has also served as an elected board member for the Village of Black Earth and for Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District. He is currently retired from full-time government service, and resides in the Town of Middleton.
In a guest column which appeared in the Middleton Times-Tribune on June 9 and other local publications, County Executive Joe Parisi expressed his fear of an impending “brain drain” of county employees, which he blamed on the “reckless politics” of some Dane County employees and their union leaders. This stems from recent news stories about toxic work environments at both the Henry Vilas Zoo and the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office (DCMEO). As a former 13-year employee of the DCMEO who experienced these issues firsthand, I feel that Mr. Parisi’s column warrants a response.
First, let’s acknowledge what should already be obvious: the “brain drain” that Mr. Parisi fears has already been underway at the DCMEO for over ten years. As the recent Wisconsin Watch investigation has uncovered, there have been at least several dozen employees who have left that office (or who have declined to take employment in the first place), as a direct result of bullying and mismanagement by the operations chief and by the two medical examiners who have been in charge during this period. I personally know of at least seven people from my own time at that office who either resigned, or else changed their minds about working for the DCMEO, due to the toxic environment. Dane County has also reportedly lost contracts with other counties, due to the sour experience those counties have had with supervisors at DCMEO – and because of Dane County’s poor reputation beyond our own county line.
Second, let me be clear about something. Most of us agree with Mr. Parisi that Dane County is generally a good employer. I personally felt that the pay and benefits I received while employed with the DCMEO were competitive, and I was indeed impressed with the professionalism and dedication of county employees – including the sheriff’s deputies and other county personnel with whom I was privileged to work. And despite working 24-hour shifts (that often stretched to 30, 32, or 36-hour shifts), and despite being faced with literal death and destruction every work day, I nevertheless felt deep satisfaction in helping families through very difficult situations, and was very proud of the work that I performed.
Unfortunately, in recent public statements since this story broke, County Administrator Greg Brockmeyer and DCMEO Operations Chief Barry Irmen have disparaged former employees, by suggesting that those employees simply couldn’t handle the transition when the office converted from being a coroner’s office to a medical examiner’s office. This assertion is simply not true. Such an assertion is also disrespectful to the memories of the late John Stanley and the late Ray Wosepka. Both of these men served as elected coroners for Dane County, prior to conversion of the coroner’s office to a medical examiner system. Both men set extremely high standards for our office, and for many years the Dane County Coroner’s Office was indeed a leader in the state. When the office finally converted to a medical examiner system in 2011, the actual job of death investigation remained essentially the same. The only real differences were: a) that our forensic pathologist(s) were now in-house, instead of contracted; and, b) the boss was now appointed by the county executive and county board, versus being elected by the voters. What did change very quickly was the atmosphere, and the way employees and other stakeholders (including families of decedents) were treated.
The flow of refugees fleeing the office began during my own time there, but it has not stopped in ten years. The current crop of unhappy employees were not present during the transition from coroner to medical examiner, which undercuts the theory put forth by management. And contrary to the accusation that they are some sort of rabble-rousers, union leaders themselves are simply responding to the ongoing trickle of complaints from employees that has been going on for many years. The complaints started from the grassroots, not from “union bosses.”
Mr. Parisi is a good man, and I appreciate what he has done for our community over the years. He is also right in saying that workplace disagreements between employees and management are not uncommon. But the situation at the DCMEO has been going on for over a full decade, and has involved the loss of dozens of employees – and has involved widespread breakdown in relations between the DCMEO and various stakeholders. This is not normal.
For the sake of county taxpayers, and for the sake of the many families who must rely on the DCMEO to investigate their loved-one’s deaths, the county executive and county administrator should stop engaging in political “damage control.” They should instead allow for an independent investigation into what has been happening. The Dane County Board has already adopted a resolution to do precisely that. Mr. Parisi should not stand in the board’s way. Then, when that investigation is over, I suspect that county employees will be in a much better position to “do the people’s work” in an effective and professional manner.