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Investigation into misogynistic comments in Vilas County finds complaints credible, but not cause to pursue discrimination complaint

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Ben Meyer
A Vilas County Board meeting in October 2021.

A lawyer hired by Vilas County found “no actionable causes to pursue a discrimination complaint” in regard to misogynistic allegations made last fall by seven female department heads.

But the investigation found those women to be credible in their complaints.

As WXPR reported last October, the seven female department heads accused then-board chairman Ron De Bruyne of making derogatory comments.

They felt there was a lack of response by De Bruyne and the county board. Back then, Vilas County Clerk of Circuit Court Beth Soltow told WXPR she didn’t believe their concerns were being taken seriously.

Further investigation by WXPR found that several other former employees felt demoralized by the conduct of De Bruyne and what they called a “good old boys club” in county leadership.

In late October, the county hired a Milwaukee-based attorney to conduct an “unbiased, third-party independent investigation.”

The summary of that report released this week found among other things that there is “no actionable claim for ‘hostile work environment’.”

“I am pleased with the findings of the final report done by the investigating attorney."
Beth Soltow

It did however find Soltow and the other department heads credible in their claims and that there is a perception of an ‘old boys club’ in the county.

The summary states several of those claims have been resolved due to retirements and changes in the County Board.

While his name was not mentioned by the summary, De Bruyne is one of those people no longer on the board. He chose not to run again last December.

The summary makes several recommendations. Some, like the wage study, are already underway.

Other recommendations include doing thorough investigations when a complaint is brought forth and providing conflict resolution training.

Soltow is feeling confident about the progress being made. She gave this statement to WXPR in response to the summary:

“I am pleased with the findings of the final report done by the investigating attorney. Though the summary released to the public is “watered down”, I am content that the department heads who came forward were found to be credible. Silence is not leadership. As an elected official, I will never be silenced nor allow my deputy clerks to feel they cannot speak up. I am very proud of the department heads and employees who came forward and spoke out during this process. I encourage my fellow colleagues not to sit silent, but to stand up for our employees. When employees experience something that they believe is wrong, they need to feel they can safely report it to their leadership without the fear of disrespectful backlash and belittlement. Our current board of county supervisors are striving to create a better workplace culture for Vilas County Employees. I am very happy with the positive upward trend that I have seen and experienced in the past few months. The employees are the foundation of our county. I hope that the bravery shown by the seven department heads paves a positive path for the current and future employees of Vilas County to be respected and appreciated.”

WXPR also reached out to the county for a statement in regard to the investigation summary.

Vilas County Board 1st Vice Chair Carolyn Ritter sent WXPR this statement on behalf of board leadership:

"When the allegations arose last fall, the county board was concerned and took the claims seriously.

To correctly address this, the board hired an independent investigator who did a thorough analysis of the claims.

The result of the investigation found that no actionable discrimination had occurred but there were problems in the workplace. The investigator also made recommendations to address the problems.

The board leadership will be taking steps to follow through on the recommendations, especially conflict management training, for both county board members and staff with a focus of moving forward in a positive manner."

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