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Vilas County department heads question County Board Chairperson’s ability to lead after alleged ‘misogynistic’ comment

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The Vilas County Courthouse where County Board business is conducted in the conference rooms.

Several female Vilas County departments heads don’t believe their concerns about the County Chairperson’s ability to lead are being taken seriously.

They point to an alleged comment by Chairperson Ron De Bruyne as a demonstration of De Bruyne’s “misogynistic sentiment.”

The seven women are leading an effort within the county to make it a healthy and positive work environment. That’s something they feel is not the case for everyone who works there right now.

Where it started

The issue started back in July.

Several department heads had concerns about Human Resources Manager Richard Kipley. They sent a letter in August to the Vilas County Human Resources Committee. The letter was signed by Susan Richmond with Vilas County ADRC, Beth Soltow who is Clerk of Circuit Court, Carolyn Scholl with Vilas County Land and Water, Dawn Schmidt with Vilas County Zoning, Kate Gardner with Vilas County Social Services, Laurel Dreger with Vilas County Public Health, and Cindy Burzinksi with Vilas County Tourism.

They listed five areas of concern they had about Kipley. Beth Soltow told WXPR the committee heard their concerns. She believes the committee is working with Kipley to resolve them. As far as she’s concerned, that matter is on its way to being resolved.

Ron De Bruyne

But these women’s issue with De Bruyne stemmed from the original letter about Kipley.

According to Soltow, after learning of the letter, De Bruyne went to Vilas County Corporation Counsel Jack Albert and said, “What are we going to do about these f*****g c***s?,” referring to them as a derogatory term for female genitalia.

WXPR left a voicemail for De Bruyne and sent two emails with no response.

“The first time that I heard it I wanted to confirm that it was said. I did so, by speaking with Attorney Jack Albert, Vilas County Corporation Counsel, who confirmed that Ron De Bruyne made these statements directly to him,” said Soltow.

WXPR also reached out to Albert to confirm that conversation. He had no comment.

The same women who wrote the initial letter regarding Kipley found the comments by De Bruyne alarming and appalling.

The response

They wrote a second letter to the County Executive and Legislative Committee, saying in part, “We are appalled by this unabashed expression of misogynistic sentiment and believe that if it is representative of all Vilas County leadership, that leadership needs to be re-examined to see how deeply entrenched and pervasive it is.”

The department heads report to the board which De Bruyne leads.

The committee held four closed session meetings to look into the incident.

Soltow said one of those closed sessions involved talking individually with each of the women who signed the letter.

During her meeting with the committee, Soltow said she was asked only six yes or no questions. She was directed back to a yes or no response if she tried to expand beyond that.

According to minutes of the last meeting, the committee voted 3 to 2 that “there is no corroborating evidence that would permit the committee to proceed with an ethics violation charge.”

The minutes don’t list De Bruyne as the subject of the closed session meetings, but multiple sources confirmed they were. He was excused from the meetings.

Walter Maciag and Joseph Wildcat, Sr. were the two to vote no.

In a phone call with WXPR, Maciag said he was not pleased with the process and did not agree with the motion.

Vilas County Clerk Dave Alleman told WXPR the issue was resolved.

Demanding action

Soltow said she and the other department heads don’t feel their concerns were taken seriously and that the committee didn’t do enough to look into the matter.

“I’m very disappointed with how it was handled. I thought the initial questions were just that, initial. I thought there would be more investigating to be done,” said Soltow. “I feel the county is not taking the discrimination seriously.”

Soltow said she and other women want a work environment where they feel they are respected. She doesn’t believe that’s possible with De Bruyne leading the county board.

“At the end of the day, what we would expect from a situation like this at this point is for Ron De Bruyne to step down or be removed from his position from county board chair,” said Soltow. “I don’t find it appropriate that the person at the head of our county, running our county is treating county employees the way that he is. I find it completely inappropriate it and unacceptable.”

According to Soltow, De Bruyne has not addressed whether he made the derogatory comment to her or, to her knowledge, any of the other women.

While disappointed with the committee’s actions, Soltow says the department heads are not stopping.

The group did speak with a lawyer about potentially filing a lawsuit but decided that was not the best route.

“Our intentions with this situation were basically to earn the respect and to be able to work in healthy, proper work environment like everybody should be allowed to do,” said Soltow. “We’re not looking to finically gain in this whatsoever. We’re doing this for the current employees, for future employees that deserve to be in healthy, positive work environment.”

According to the Vilas County website, roughly half of the departments are led by women.

Soltow said the group of seven women who have sent the letters plan to file a complaint with the state Department of Workforce Development.

“I love working for Vilas County. I don’t think that a few bad eggs really can tarnish and shadow the prestige of being a county employee and working for the public of Vilas County as well,” said Soltow.

She still hopes that the County Board will take action to remove De Bruyne from his position as board chair or that he will step down.

After recent stories in two local newspapers, the group sent a letter to the editors to clarify their position. The letter was also mailed to each member of the Vilas County Board. You can read it here.