Board Chair De Bruyne’s ‘appalling’ conduct hurting morale, costing Vilas County employees
The words, actions, and attitude of Vilas County Board Chair Ron De Bruyne appear to be costing the county experienced employees.
Meanwhile, some employees who remain on the job told WXPR they’re demoralized by the conduct of De Bruyne and by what they call a “good old boys club” in county leadership.
At least one former employee called Vilas County a toxic work environment.
De Bruyne accused of derogatory language about female employees
In early August, Ron De Bruyne allegedly called a group of seven female department heads “f****** c****,” a highly derogatory, sexualized term, in a conversation with Corporation Counsel Jack Albert.
That’s according to the department heads, who say Albert relayed the conversation to them. Albert had no comment to WXPR.
“good old boys network” among County Board leadership. The group wrote its members had experienced or knew of similar unprofessional interactions with De Bruyne. That group includes ADRC Director Susan Richmond, Clerk of Court Beth Soltow, Land and Water Director Carolyn Scholl, Zoning Director Dawn Schmidt, Social Services Director Kate Gardner, Public Health Director Laurel Dreger, and Tourism Director Cindy Burzinski.
In a response approved by De Bruyne, the county called the allegations defamatory, libelous, and untruthful.
But since the women’s letter, WXPR has spoken with several current and former Vilas County employees who experienced other similar actions by De Bruyne.
When asked, Deb Priebe, who served as Human Resources Director in 2018 and 2019, said she believed the women one hundred percent.
Priebe said she enjoyed working for the county but was present on occasions in which De Bruyne and others made derogatory comments about women. Priebe said she had to tell them to refrain from that kind of language.
She said Vilas County would be better off with someone else leading the county board. De Bruyne has served on the Vilas County Board since 1995 and has never faced an opponent for reelection. He has been the Vilas County Board Chair since 2014.
Forest administrator resigns, cites berating emails from De Bruyne
De Bruyne’s complained-of unprofessional conduct played a role in the loss of at least one male department head this fall.
Two weeks ago, Forest Administrator Al Murray resigned from his role, citing a “total lack of respect to employees.”
He said he was berated by De Bruyne, who had employees “walking on egg shells due to veiled threats and fear for their jobs.”
In an early-October email to forestry department staff, De Bruyne called staff members “low level pencil pushers” for failing to secure public funding for beaver abatement on a recreational trail maintained by a private club.
De Bruyne wrote “NOW I’M NOT THREATENING ANYBODY BUT…” before demanding that someone other than club volunteers deal with the issue.
Murray told WXPR he first wanted an apology from De Bruyne and a recusal from the issue, but now Murray believes De Bruyne needs to step down.
Workplace ‘toxicity’ cost Sheriff’s Office an experienced deputy
Murray left his Vilas County job in October, while Joy Kohegyi resigned in June.
She had been a deputy in the sheriff’s office since 2010, serving as a detective the last three years before her resignation.
“It wasn’t the job. It wasn’t my coworkers,” Kohegyi said in an interview. “It was the environment, the politics, and the crap that came with it. Enough’s enough.”
With a better working environment, Kohegyi said, she’d still be working at the sheriff’s office.
“The county, the environment in which I thought was the cat’s pajamas of working for, the toxicity that ran rampant was now, the lightbulb turned on like, holy cow,” she said. “I never realized this.”
Kohegyi blamed the toxicity on a trickle-down effect from De Bruyne and the county board, using a term WXPR heard a lot in this reporting – the good old boys club.
“The good old boys club ultimately is, [in] my opinion, those that have been there so long [that] it’s their way or no way,” Kohegyi said. “They have the support from others that, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back and let’s not ruffle any feathers outside of that.”
Kohegyi felt like she couldn’t speak up with her complaints and concerns for fear of retaliation, a sentiment also echoed by one current employee who spoke with WXPR.
“Ultimately, if you’re a female, you really have [not] any sort of say in what goes on,” Kohegyi said.
De Bruyne needs to step down, Kohegyi believes, or Vilas County risks losing more employees.
De Bruyne uses derogatory remark to refer to tribal community
One example of De Bruyne’s interactions with the sheriff’s office happened in 2019.
It ended with De Bruyne yelling at Sheriff’s Lt. Dale Soltow and calling him a “dumb skull,” according to Soltow’s report.
It started with De Bruyne’s discovery of an abandoned car from Lac du Flambeau at the mobile home park De Bruyne owns in Arbor Vitae.
Apparently frustrated, De Bruyne communicated with Vilas County dispatchers four times over three days. You can listen to an excerpt below.
“I’m going to be real mean now,” De Bruyne told the dispatcher during the final call. “I’ve been at this game for 50 years. This is not the first time I’ve had a Flambeau Flyer dumped in my driveway.”
The dispatcher told De Bruyne she was not familiar with the term “Flambeau Flyer.” But multiple Lac du Flambeau tribal members confirmed they considered it to be a derogatory term about either a certain type of person or car from the reservation.
De Bruyne seemed to want Sheriff Joe Fath to know it was the County Board Chair calling with a complaint.
“You might want to tell Joe Fath that I’m not real happy,” he said. “You might ask him to educate you on what a Flambeau Flyer is, okay?”
“Yeah, I’m not familiar with that, but thank you,” the dispatcher responded.
“Yeah, and tell him Ron De Bruyne was the complainant, okay?” De Bruyne said before ending the call.
Employee policies, complaints, and investigations
The Vilas County Employee Handbook, which applies to elected officials, includes a section on harassing conduct.
Violations of the policy include offensive name calling, slurs, threats, and bullying.
Before appealing to the entire county board and the public, the seven female department heads mentioned at the beginning of this story first attempted to go through the county Executive and Legislative Committee to take action against De Bruyne. On Sep. 23, the committee voted three to two that “there is no corroborating evidence that would permit the committee to proceed with an ethics violation charge.” That finding came after four closed-session meetings.
At Tuesday’s Vilas County Board meeting, Supervisor Bob Hanson tried to read a new letter written by those same women.
The letter details allegations against De Bruyne in his original conversation with Corporation Counsel Jack Albert and Albert’s actions since then. You can read the letter here.
Hanson was stopped by First Vice Chair Jerry Burkett.
“Please, I feel that reading that letter today – this is not the place for it. It is in poor taste,” Burkett said.
Burkett said the county board meeting wasn’t the right setting to air grievances.
Hanson ultimately backed down, but didn’t drop the issue, asking the county to start an investigation.
On Thursday, Vilas County Clerk Dave Alleman informed the seven women, De Bruyne, and others via a letter that the county had retained an attorney to conduct an “unbiased, third-party independent investigation.” Alleman wrote Milwaukee-based attorney Laurie McLeRoy would begin contacting parties next week.
When contacted by phone, Vilas County Board Chair Ron De Bruyne declined to comment for this story.