What: Green Bay City Clerk Kris Teske complained of a hostile work environment created by the mayor and his staff as the city worked with left-leaning groups on the November election. Green Bay Human Resources Director Joseph W. Faulds dismissed Teske’s claims.
So What: Emails obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight appear to dispute Faulds’ findings. They show a city clerk growing increasingly frustrated by the way she and her staff were being treated by the mayor’s office, the city’s ad hoc elections committee and members of the common council. And they were concerned about what they were being asked to do.
What’s Next? Kris Teske’s emails — and perhaps her testimony — promise to be a key portion of a legislative investigation into Green Bay’s handling of its elections.
MADISON — Former Green Bay City Clerk Kris Teske grew so frustrated with the mayor’s office and left-leaning “secure election” groups meddling in her office that she quit.
But long before she resigned, Teske alerted city officials to a hostile work environment — complaints the city’s Human Resources Department shrugged off two months after Teske’s departure.
The document obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight provides an interesting window into the mounting concerns Teske raised about the treatment she says she and her underlings received from Mayor Eric Genrich and his staff, particularly the mayor’s chief of staff. In the end, Teske’s claim was dismissed in the way many members of Green Bay’s City Council are trying to paper over concerns about the city’s handling of November’s election. Those concerns are driven in large part by internal emails to and from the city clerk.
Green Bay Human Resources Director Joseph W. Faulds on Feb. 2 determined Teske’s hostile work environment claim was “unsubstantiated.” Faulds found “there were no interactions between the Mayor’s Staff or the Mayor and Ms. Teske that would rise to the level of a hostile work environment or be considered hostile, intimidating, or offensive.”
The emails, however, seem to tell a different story.
As Wisconsin Spotlight first reported, the city of Green Bay last year received a total of $1.6 million in grant funding from the Mark Zuckerberg-funded Center for Tech and Civic Life. The funding from the Facebook CEO and his wife came with strings attached, including the requirement that CTCL “partners” work with the city on election security, safety and get-out-the-vote efforts. Hundreds of emails reviewed by Wisconsin Spotlight show a “grant mentor” who has worked for several Democratic Party candidates, was intricately involved in helping Green Bay run its election. Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, Wisconsin State Lead for the National Vote at Home Institute, in many ways became the de facto city elections chief.
Teske expressed concerns from the beginning.
“I’ve been reading things on Facebook about people complaining where the million (dollar grant) is coming from. I think it might get political,” she wrote in a July 14 email to Diana Ellenbecker, the city’s finance director and Teske’s boss.
In other emails, Teske writes Celestine Jeffreys, Genrich’s chief of staff, other city officials and Green Bay’s ad hoc election committee left the city clerk out of the loop about the details of the grant and the players involved.
In early October, a couple of weeks before Teske took a leave of absence, Spitzer-Rubenstein offered the clerk’s office assistance in correcting or “curing” absentee ballots with incomplete or incorrect information.
“Can we help with curing absentee ballots that are missing a signature or witness signature address?” he wrote to Teske in an Oct. 7 email.
The city clerk declined Spitzer-Rubenstein’s offer, even after Jeffreys told her to talk to the election activist.
As the election drew nearer, Teske was losing her patience — and control of her office. Several emails show the city clerk’s growing frustration with the mayor, his chief of staff, the city’s ad hoc elections committee, and the nonprofit interlopers who were making themselves at home in Green Bay election administration.
“As you know I am very frustrated, along with the Clerk’s Office. I don’t know what to do anymore. I am trying to explain the process but it isn’t heard. I don’t feel I can talk to the Mayor after the last meeting you, me, Celestine, and the Mayor had even though the door is supposedly open,” the city clerk wrote to Green Bay Finance Director Diana Ellenbecker in late August.
On Oct. 22, things apparently reached a boiling point. Teske told Ellenbecker that two members of the clerk’s staff wanted to quit, and another was looking for a new job. They were being ignored or bullied by the mayor’s office.
“They call me crying or they say they went home crying,” the clerk said.
Green Bay Deputy Clerk Kim Wayte quit a month after the election. Teske resigned on Dec. 31.
Teske’s emails speak to a hostile work environment.
But Faulds, the city’s HR director disagrees. He doesn’t mention the emails in his report.
Faulds notes that Green Bay City Attorney Vanessa Chavez determined the issues laid out in Teske’s complaint were “primarily personnel-related issues and not legal concerns.” Faulds then met with Teske and Jeffreys, the mayor’s chief of staff, according to his report.
Faulds, Chavez and Finance Director Diane Ellenbecker chalked it up to “challenges” coordinating an election “while employees are working remotely.”
“During the meeting with Ms. Teske, she described her concerns working with the Mayor’s staff and she stated it felt it was getting to the point of a hostile work environment. Ms. Teske’s use of ‘hostile’ was in reference to how she described the lack of communication and coordination of job responsibilities between her and the Mayor’s Office,” the HR director wrote.
Faulds claims Teske and Jeffreys agreed to a plan assigning responsibilities and aimed at resolving the communication problems.
It didn’t work.
On Oct. 22, Teske was asked to meet with Faulds, the city attorney, finance director, Jeffreys and the mayor to talk about early in-person voting and Election Day. Genrich demanded the city reduce wait times for early in-person voting and an efficient Election Day. He was still smarting from his election debacle in April when voters waited five hours in the rain to vote because he drastically reduced the number of voting locations — to just two.
The HR director said Genrich’s expectations “were objectively reasonable and were appropriately communicated to the Clerk…”
That was the same day Teske told Ellenbecker that two members of the clerk’s staff wanted to quit, and another was looking for a new job. They were being ignored or bullied by the mayor’s office.
In her Dec. 7 resignation letter, the long-time city employee said she would have liked to retire with the city “…but under the hostile work environment conditions that isn’t going to be possible, unfortunately.”
Faulds saw nothing hostile in the conduct of the mayor or chief of staff. He claims this is what he told Teske:
“I never witnessed in any of the meetings anyone being abusive towards you, certainly not the Mayor. Rather, the goal to everyone present at the time was to accomplish the election process smoothly and with greater success than the April election. As I mentioned, everyone agreed at the time, including you, that there was a plan moving forward.”
Ultimately, Faulds ruled there was nothing to see here — four months after Teske’s October complaint.
Employment law demands that the behavior, actions or communication of superiors and co-workers must be discriminatory in nature. That’s the language Faulds really leans on, noting that “there was no adverse action taken against Ms. Teske based on Ms. Teske’s gender, age, or any other protected status.”
But a hostile work environment also happens when a boss or coworker whose actions, communication or behavior make doing your job impossible. “That means that the behavior altered the terms, conditions, and/or reasonable expectations of a comfortable work environment for employees.”
The internal emails certainly show a clerk struggling to do her job in a very “uncomfortable work environment.”
Teske’s communications also show a city clerk rightly concerned about the level of involvement of the mayor and his staff in the election, and the outside groups who came with hefty checks. Teske early on expressed her concerns about the integrity of Green Bay’s election in the hands of these groups. That concern only grew as the election approached.
“I also asked when these people from the grant give us advisors who is go [sic] to be determining if there [sic] opinion is legal or not,” Teske wrote in an email to Ellenbecker on July 9. “Every state has different election laws. And this group is from Illinois. They already should have pointed out that additional in-person early voting sites can’t happen because the deadline has passed.”
“I don’t understand how people who don’t have knowledge of the process can tell us how to manage the election,” she wrote in another email.