LTE – Steven Renfree – 1-17-2018

Due Process was at the Heart of my Decisions

Handling an event where an employee is accused of a criminal offense is not something I expected to address as the Executive Director of the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts.

[emember_protected] The Mabel Tainter does not have a policy for situations involving criminal allegations or workplace investigations.  I used my best judgment, taking direction from the Menomonie Police Department and communicating matters with the MTCA Board president concerning the investigation and my subsequent decisions. 

On December 9, the Menomonie police summoned me to the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts to explain the allegations leveled against a Mabel Tainter employee. The police officer gave me his card and phone number, and he instructed me not to approach our employee about this matter until they finished their initial investigation. The police stated they would contact me when they were finished. 

Upon learning about the employee’s alleged assault, I immediately contacted the Board President, Marni Waznik, communicating as many details as I had been given by the Police Officer, including his instructions to not address the employee about the situation.  I decided to follow the officer’s directions so as not to interfere with the investigation process. I took very seriously the nature of the allegations against the employee, not without considering the alleged victim.

For the next ten days, Marni Waznik and I were in close communication, exchanging informative emails daily. We agreed I should keep in touch with the police to learn the details of the case that would be shared with the Board. 

Because the alleged crime was related to the employee’s off-duty conduct, I determined that the charge would not influence the suitability of the employee to do his job. I monitored the employee every day and provided the Board president with a daily evaluation of the employee’s behavior and demeanor. The police department, Marni Waznik, and myself never sensed or expressed safety concerns for Mabel Tainter patrons or staff. 

As a result of management decisions and police guidance, due process for the alleged victim and offender took place. Marni Waznik and I teamed up the way a Board president and an Executive Director should during a crisis.  We were two individuals working together on a very difficult and delicate issue.

On December 18, the police called me to say their initial investigation was complete, no charges or arrests were made, and no details about the case could be shared.  I relayed this to Ms. Waznik and on December 19, we met with the Board and shared the details of the case.

Board members Andrew Mercil and Charlie Huff believe I was negligent in my duties because I did not conduct an internal investigation by interviewing the employee. Taking into account the complex arena of unprecedented issues that I had been dealing with, I did not expect the abrupt notification over the holidays that I was fired. 

Charlie Huff refers to the Board’s decision to fire me as “overwhelming”.  However, it has been reported that three of those Board members have resigned already since the decision.  I came across another board member in town a couple of days ago, who said that they were “on my side.”  I have been bombarded with letters and phone calls of community support, especially in regards to the manner in which the new MTCA President (Mercil) handled the press. 

I would never want to put the Mabel or anyone at risk; and I sincerely apologize if I did so. I believe that I acted with good judgment regarding this extremely difficult situation; and to be honest, it never crossed my mind to disobey the recommendations of the Menomonie Police Department.  I heeded the advisement of the MTCA president, direction by the police department, and my own judgement in the absence of company policies, procedures or protocols on the matter.

I have learned from various law firms which specialize in employment law that “the decision whether to initiate an internal investigation is sometimes extremely difficult to make”; “employers should seriously consider the nature of the allegation when determining whether to launch a full-blown investigation”;  and employers should “proceed with caution where the police are or might become involved in the matter.”

While I do not agree with the decision, I accept my termination as Executive Director.  I am at peace with my decision-making process regarding this complex situation.  I have served the Mabel Tainter faithfully for three years, and I am grateful for the opportunity.

Steven Renfree,
Former Executive Director of the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts [/emember_protected]