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MT Dept of Corrections reorganization: Streamlining the agency – or retaliation?

This is the first of a two-part series on changes within the MT Department of Corrections

HELENA – A Department of Corrections reorganization announced this fall has been touted by its director as a cost-saver that created a more efficient, streamlined agency.

But former employees told MTN News the changes are largely retaliation against people who challenged or questioned the new director, Reg Michael – including accusations of sexual harassment or discrimination.

Three experienced top employees were fired or laid off, or quit, this summer and fall, including Kila Shepherd, the agency’s veteran human resources director. She filed a human-rights complaint against the agency in August, saying her dismissal was retaliation for both complaining about sexual harassment and asking for an investigation early this year of harassment complaints against the director.

Other top employees have been reassigned and the agency currently has no chief financial officer or government-relations person.

“Never in my life have I worked in a setting like that, ever,” said Cindy McKenzie, the former head of the department’s Youth Services Division, which was eliminated in the reorganization. The 29-year veteran of the department resigned and retired in October. “I’ve had good bosses and not-so-good bosses in the past, but this was like a step beyond that. … It was the most stressful, stressful place I have ever worked.”

Former employees also worried the turmoil is jeopardizing the implementation of “justice reinvestment,” a set of landmark sentencing reforms passed by the 2017 Legislature. The new laws are meant to save money and reduce the amount of criminal offenders in prison or under state supervision, by reducing crimes committed by former inmates.

Reg-Michael
Montana Department of Corrections Director Reg Michael (MTN News photo)

They said the agency appears to have no strategic plan to reach those goals and has made decisions they believe will end up costing the state more money.

“What’s heartbreaking is, I used to tell people I would be able to point back to the work we were doing at Corrections and say, `I was part of turning that ship around,’” Shepherd told MTN News last week. “And that’s not happening anymore.”

In a statement provided to MTN News this week, Corrections Deputy Director Cynthia Wolken said the changes under the reorganization are “in line with the principles of justice reinvestment” and will reallocate personnel and resources to probation, parole and other areas to reduce repeat offenders.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s office wouldn’t allow top Corrections officials to be interviewed for this story, instead fielding most questions itself.

It said the reorganization “has positioned the (Corrections) Department to fulfill its mission, complete justice-reinvestment efforts and operate in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Michael, a former federal probation supervisor from Florida, was appointed by Bullock as director of the Corrections Department in mid-2017.

Michael announced the reorganization Sept. 26 – the same day top DOC employees learned the results of a “climate assessment” of the agency’s work environment.

Bullock’s office ordered the climate assessment in March, in the wake of the sexual harassment and other complaints within the agency. Officials from other state agencies conducted the interviews for the assessment, wrote the report and then recommended the reorganization, the governor’s office said.

The reorganization “sets (the agency) on a path to be more successful in a lot of areas, from personnel to management,” and aligns its structure with that of other agencies of similar size, said Amber Conger, spokeswoman for the Department of Administration.

Conger told MTN News that the reorganization “was in no way” to retaliate against any employees.
The governor’s office also said the state Human Resources Division investigated sexual-harassment and discrimination complaints against Michael this spring and “concluded that there were no legally supported grounds for disciplining the employees subject to the allegations.”

Kila Shepherd
Kila Shepherd, former personnel director at Montana Dept of Corrections (MTN News photo)

Under the reorganization, several bureaus or divisions within the department – personnel, budgeting, information technology – were folded into one division, which is now headed by the agency’s chief information technology officer.The Youth Services Division was eliminated. Adrianne Cotton, the agency’s government-relations officer, had her job eliminated and was laid off. She was among several women who made sexual-harassment complaints about Michael. Other employees on the “leadership team” were reassigned.

“Of the 12 leaders within the central office, eight of them had voiced concerns (about management) and six of them faced retaliation,” Shepherd told MTN News last week.

Shepherd said those conducting the assessment had been told the poor work environment was because many top Corrections officials didn’t support the justice-reinvestment initiatives and were resisting budget-cutting decisions.

“I explained that there was nothing further from the truth,” Shepherd said. “They’re the ones who initiated 90 percent of the (justice-reinvestment) proposals, in the past four years.”

Cotton told MTN news that staffers who had their jobs eliminated or reassigned had spent “countless hours” analyzing data and proposals that led to the justice-reinvestment plans, and that she wrote and acquired nearly $500,000 worth of grants to help the initiative.

At the Sept. 26 meeting, the leader of the climate assessment – a personnel officer from the Department of Environmental Quality – told people at the meeting they had poor communication, were resisting change, and hadn’t been welcoming to the new director as he learned the ropes, McKenzie said.

“Everyone was so angry, you could have cut the tension in the room,” McKenzie said. “The issue with change was the change of leadership style that was so totally ineffective, compared to the leadership style we had before. … (The assessment) was basically just a cover-up for the director.”

Cindy McKenzie
Cindy McKenzie, former head of Youth Services Division in Montana Dept of Corrections (MTN News photo)

She told MTN News that many at the meeting thought the assessment’s conclusion was wrong – and that the real problem was poor leadership from Michael and Deputy Director Cynthia Wolken, who had been hired early this year.

Wolken, an attorney and former state senator from Missoula, carried several of the justice-reinvestment bills at the 2017 Legislature.

McKenzie, who was head of the agency’s Youth Services Division, had submitted her resignation two days before the meeting, after learning she’d been left out of the decision to close the Riverside Recovery and Reentry Program in Boulder – a program within the division she supervised.

She then learned that under the reorganization, she would have been laid off, because her division was eliminated.

McKenzie said she asked to be allowed the additional benefits available to someone who was laid off, rather than if they resigned. That request was denied.

Shepherd, McKenzie and others said they began losing faith in top management in the wake of two incidents and their aftermath: Harassment complaints brought against Michael early this year and the closure of the Youth Transition Center in Great Falls, a state facility for juvenile male offenders.

Shepherd, who had been the Corrections Department’s top personnel officer since 2014, believes her actions pursuing the internal harassment complaints led to her firing in August. She filed a discrimination complaint with the state Human Rights Bureau a week after her firing, making that claim. The bureau is investigating.

Shepherd said she went to Deputy Director Wolken in late February to complain about Michael’s “bad behaviors” toward a half-dozen female employees in the central office, saying he treated them in a “demeaning, degrading or patronizing fashion.”

Department policy requires that an investigation start within 10 days of a sexual-harassment complaint, Shepherd said.

But Shepherd said she had to ask Wolken twice over the next seven weeks before an investigation would begin.

Shepherd said the day after she checked the second time, in mid-April, she was removed from the selection committee choosing a new State Prison warden and relieved of her labor-relation duties.

The next month, Shepherd said was placed on administrative leave, accused of breaking state law by tape-recording a Feb. 28 meeting with an employee without the employee’s knowledge.

“It was essentially cooked up,” she said of the charge.

That meeting involved Shepherd, Michael, Wolken and McKenzie – who was being questioned about her role in the potential closure of the Youth Transition Center in Great Falls.

Shepherd said it was standard practice to record meetings with employees who might be disciplined, and that when she arrived in the office for the interview, she assumed that Michael and Wolken had informed McKenzie the discussion would be recorded.

McKenzie told MTN News she had not been told about the recording.

The department formally fired Shepherd in early August, because she had allegedly broken the law by recording an employee without permission.

The governor’s office told MTN News Shepherd was “terminated for cause” and had no further comment, saying the matter is under litigation.

The decision to close the Youth Transition Center as a budget-cutting move was made by the director in early February, McKenzie and Shepherd said.

But two days later, when McKenzie was scheduled to go to Great Falls to tell YTC staff of the decision, she said Michael called her and Shepherd and said to cancel the meeting. Union officials representing the employees had called the governor’s office, which said it had not signed off on the decision, McKenzie said.

McKenzie said Michael and Wolken then tried to take back what they’d said at the meeting two days earlier, asserting they had not ordered the closure and that McKenzie had improperly notified YTC leaders about it.

“I was in shock,” McKenzie said. “I said `That is not at all what I remember.’ We had clear statements of closing YTC and we talked about the dates.”

Shepherd said she had drafted the letters telling employees about the closure, at the direction of Michael – but that the director then tried to insinuate that Shepherd had “gone rogue” and acted without his permission.

With YTC’s future uncertain, McKenzie sent an email to probation officers who handled juveniles, saying they shouldn’t place any more kids at the Great Falls facility while its status was under review.

McKenzie said that email caused her to be called on the carpet by Michael and Wolken for allegedly telling people the facility would be closed – and, was the subject of the Feb. 28 meeting that led to the accusation that Shepherd had illegally taped it.

McKenzie said her email did not say YTC would be closed and that she was not disciplined for the email. And, less than three months later, the agency announced that YTC would be closed after all.

“For me, personally, there was an extreme lack of communication and a lack of respect from the director’s level on down,” McKenzie said last week. “There was no strategic planning, there was no working together. It made it very difficult to be a cohesive team when there was no teamwork from the leadership.”

Tomorrow: Why and how the agency decided to close a well-regarded correctional program for women offenders.

-Mike Dennison reporting for MTN News
Mark Thorsell

Mark Thorsell

Mark Thorsell is a digital content producer and editor at KPAX and KAJ. He is originally from Connecticut and moved to Montana over a dozen years ago. Mark has worked as a journalist for 25 years.
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