Bonnie J. Bertrang

City of Mondovi opts to settle lawsuit with former police officer

 

by Beth Kraft

 

At the direction of its insurance company and in an effort to avoid “protracted litigation,” the City of Mondovi announced last week its decision to settle a sex discrimination lawsuit brought by a former Mondovi police officer.

The city’s insurance carrier will pay out $325,000 to Bonnie J. Bertrang to settle the suit filed in September 2015 against the city and former officials claiming she was denied a promotion based on her sex and subjected to a hostile work environment with the Mondovi Police Department.

Bertrang’s suit named former mayor Treig Pronschinske and former police chief Scott Smith as co-defendants. She blames them for the fact that she was passed over for the position of Mondovi Police Chief nearly four years ago, claiming she was discriminated against based on her sex. She also claimed actions by both Pronschinske and Smith made her uncomfortable.

A statement from Mondovi City Administrator Bradley Hanson on Wednesday, March 27, said the $325,000 to be paid to Bertrang and her attorney will be covered by its insurance company, Allied World Insurance, in its entirety; no taxpayer dollars will be used to fund the settlement.

The agreement includes attorney fees, alleged damages and back pay to Bertrang, who resigned from her patrol officer position in June 2015 after just two years as a full-time officer with the MPD.

During Bertrang’s time with the MPD, the city underwent a long process with input from numerous parties to select a new police chief following the retirement of longtime MPD chief Terry Pittman in August 2014.

“Throughout this lawsuit, the City has reiterated it passed Ms. Bertrang over for promotion in favor of more qualified candidates and that it never subjected Ms. Bertrang to a hostile work environment or sex discrimination,” a press release from the city states. “Despite settling the case, the City continues to deny any and all wrongdoing, and the settlement agreement specifically disclaims any liability on the part of the City and other defendants.”

The parties reported to U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb in February they had reached a settlement. On Feb. 27, Crabb dismissed without prejudice Bertrang’s suit against the city, Pronschinske and Smith.

Bertrang initially filed the suit with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s equal rights division a few months after she resigned from the MPD.  Reps for Allied World Insurance requested that Crabb dismiss the suit. Crabb subsequently threw out Bertrang’s due-process claim, but allowed the claims for sex discrimination, hostile work environment and constructive discharge to go to trial, which was scheduled for Sept. 9.

Reports picked up by regional news outlets over the past week reference in disturbing detail an August 2018 order by Crabb spelling out the various pieces to the suit, including what appears to be a flawed police chief hiring process by the city.

However, a simple check of records from numerous public meetings held to discuss the hiring of a new police chief reveal numerous inaccuracies in the factual content of the suit and arguably calls the validity of other details contained in the suit—and the complaint as a whole—into question.

Reports from City Council meetings show Bertrang was initially recommended in Sept. 2014 for the position of new MPD chief by a three-member police chief hiring committee made up of outgoing chief Pittman and City Council members Galen Hagen and Bob Holden. The committee initially decided to hire from within and interviewed Bertrang and Smith for the position.

It was then up to Pronschinske to confirm the committee’s appointment of Bertrang, which would have triggered a vote by the Council to solidify her hire. But Pronschinske opted not to make an appointment and questioned the process and qualifications used by the committee.

At an Oct. 28, 2014, Council meeting—well-attended by local residents who also expressed concern with the police chief hiring process—Pronschinske asked the hiring committee to publicly summarize the qualifications of both candidates.

Bertrang at that point had been a sworn officer for less than two years while Smith had spent 27 years as an MPD officer. Bertrang does, however, have a law enforcement degree while Smith does not—a deciding factor for the committee.

According to Wisconsin state statutes, officers hired prior to Feb. 1, 1993, are exempt from the 60 college credit standard required for law enforcement officers. Officers like Smith are grandfathered in.

Attendees at that Oct. 28 meeting also scrutinized the hiring process, which drew from a decades-old, vague city ordinance, and questioned whether Pittman’s involvement in choosing his successor was a conflict of interest.

Committee members also admitted they made the decision to recommend Bertrang following only 10 minutes of discussion after interviewing both candidates. Furthermore, committee meeting minutes didn’t address how Bertrang’s performance would have been evaluated following a three-month probationary period that would have led to her elevation to full-time chief in Jan. 2015.

But because Pronschinske halted the process out of concern for the aforementioned issues, the city—with support from many citizens—took a hard look at its hiring process and went back to square one.

A citizen participation committee was formed—consisting of then-Councilman Dan Johnson, current Councilman Greg Bauer, and other city residents in Darin Loomis, Branden Rud and Jolene Vinck—and held two well-attended public meetings in November 2014 to take input on the hiring process, police chief qualifications, and whether or not to do an external search.

The City Council wound up revamping the city’s police chief hiring ordinance, adding several steps to the process. The number of people on the hiring committee was increased and a list of requirements for the position—similar to those of other area cities—were defined, including one that asked for candidates to possess a minimum of seven years of experience as a sworn law enforcement officer.

A new police chief hiring committee—consisting of Buffalo County Sheriff Michael Schmidtknecht, Wisconsin DOJ special agent Cindy Giese, and city residents Brian Bollinger, Rick Christianson, and Sara Erickson—was appointed by Pronschinske and unanimously approved by the Council in February 2015 to help the city select its next police chief.

In the meantime, Smith was given power of authority over the MPD in November 2014 by Pronschinske—another move the Council agreed with—to provide leadership for the department in the absence of a full-time chief, since Pittman had retired by that point.

Smith was ultimately named the full-time chief following his recommendation by the hiring committee. His subsequent appointment by Pronschinske and ensuing confirmation by the Council via a unanimous vote on April 28, 2015, brought the saga to a close.

Bertrang’s suit alleges the new qualifications were designed by Pronschinske and Smith specifically to exclude her, but the months-long process the city underwent involving two committees and numerous meetings to ensure a fair, effective hire would be made indicates otherwise.

Upon Smith’s retirement in late 2017, the city utilized virtually the same process laid out in the ordinance to hire current MPD Chief Colin Severson.

Bertrang’s suit further claims the city had to hire a sergeant to assist Smith due to a lack of skills and training.

Again, public records show otherwise. City leaders discussed bringing the sergeant’s position back to the MPD after a 16-year hiatus at a Jan. 13, 2015, Council meeting—more than three months prior to Smith’s official promotion—to act as a second-in-command when the chief is not available and to assist with officer supervision.

Current MPD Sergeant Tim Hollister started full-time with the MPD in May 2015. He came with 10 years of law enforcement experience, seven as a sheriff’s deputy, and was promoted to sergeant a short time later.

Bertrang applied for the sergeant’s position, but was again excluded, her suit alleges, by the qualification of a minimum of seven years experience written by Pronschinske and Smith. She resigned from her position with the MPD in June 2015, citing unfair treatment by Pronschinske and Smith and the belief she would not advance while employed by the city, the lawsuit claims.

The city’s response to the initial DWD complaint, submitted in Dec. 2015 by attorney Lora L. Zimmer of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP, notes the City of Mondovi denies Bertrang’s sex had anything to do with the fact that she was not promoted to the positions of chief or sergeant at the MPD, but rather because she “was simply not qualified for either of these leadership positions due to her lack of experience.”

An alleged “smear campaign” examining the contents of Bertrang’s Facebook page—both on social media and publicly—and how they might relate to her abilities as police chief were also addressed in the Dec. 2015 response.

Speculation on Bertrang’s appearance and/or activities “were not taken into consideration at any point in the hiring process,” the city contended. “Any public comments questioning her ability to be chief were related to her lack of experience and not her sex.”

Bertrang’s suit also attacked personal conduct by Pronschinske and Smith.

She claims Pronschinske regularly drove past her house, initiated conversations with her and appeared to be monitoring her while on patrol. Bertrang perceived those advances as attempts to form a relationship with her, the suit says.

Pronschinske regularly drove past Bertrang’s house because, Zimmer explained, the two lived on the same street, plus Pronschinske’s job as a contractor required him to work at two residences in that neighborhood during the time period referenced.

Though the city denies Pronschinske monitored Bertrang’s work, he did request her probation be extended after she allegedly warned a resident Pronschinske was watching him due to reports of drug use by the individual.

Reached by phone on Monday, Pronschinske said the allegations against him in Bertrang’s suit are defamatory in nature and denied any allegations of discrimination.

“After thorough investigation by the DWD equal rights division, no probable cause was found and the case against me was dismissed,” Pronschinske stated. “These are baseless claims from trial lawyers who wanted to profit from the case,” he said of Bertrang’s lawsuit.

Of the total settlement amount, $200,000 will go to Bakke Norman Law Offices of Menomonie, Bertrang’s attorney, while $125,000 was awarded to Bertrang—$100,000 in compensation and $25,000 in back wages, Hanson advised. 

Pronschinske further defended the city’s police chief hiring process, noting it simply came down to a 20+ year police veteran who deserved the job over an officer with just 18 months of full-time experience as a sworn officer.

“There was an unfair process in the beginning, and in the end we had a fair process,” Pronschinske said.

The city was prepared to try the case to clear the defendants’ names, Hanson stated, but “at the direction of its insurance carrier, which bore the ongoing cost of defense, trial, and potential appeal” the City Council agreed to settle “after much discussion and debate.”

The potential burden a trail would place on members of the community who participated in the 2014-15 police chief hiring process was also a consideration for the Council, Hanson said.

“I think it was a business decision by the insurance company,” Pronschinske added.

He served as Mondovi Mayor from 2014-18 and has represented Wisconsin’s 92nd Assembly District since 2016.

Bertrang continues to work in law enforcement in Wisconsin.

Hanson says the city is pleased to move forward from the matter. The city has also updated its employee handbook and policies to reflect a commitment to “equal opportunity employment”—among numerous policy and ordinance updates for the city in recent years.

“It (the city) does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind,” Hanson stated.

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