An investigation into seven complaints about Tehachapi City Councilman Kenneth R. Hetge's treatment of city employees found four were sustained and three were unfounded.
An attorney hired by the city to look into the complaints filed by city employees from April 2018 to January of this year presented his findings at Monday night's council meeting.
Specifically, Jesse J. Maddox, attorney for the law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, told the council that four complaints in the areas of intimidation, unprofessionalism, interference, retaliation and undermining the police chief were sustained, while three listed as gender and ethnicity harassment were unfounded.
Maddox recommended the council send Hetge to anti-bullying training. The situation did not warrant the legal option for removing an elected official with the attorney general's consent.
“This initially started with a complaint that was submitted in April of 2018. This complaint was similar to several other complaints the city had received up to that point; however there was one major difference — the difference was it claimed gender harassment,” Maddox said.
He added, “The other complaints were based on similar alleged misconduct including intimidation, bullying, interference, undermining their positions as city employees, defamation — all by you Councilman Hetge.”
The city has a legal obligation to investigate the complaints because they allege harassment against protected classes in the Fair Employment and Housing Act.
The investigator identified 15 witnesses who initially said they would participate, but later choose not to, said Maddox.
Maddox delivered his information through a Power Point presentation to the City Council. No documents were attached to the March 4 City Council agenda packet.
On Tuesday, a day after the council meeting, Hetge told Tehachapi News, “I should not have been put on trial last night. It’s a political smear campaign against me. It all comes down to interpretation of what was said. It depends on what the motive is behind the claim."
He added, “I did not hear any of the claims until I received the City Council agenda, and saw it was a topic of discussion. The laws associated with harassment or any other employee matters are to be taken very seriously and the concerns voiced were addressed by an investigator. However, the process should have been handled in a completely different fashion. It would have been nice to have advance notice regarding to what was going to be presented at the council meeting."
Hetge added that the investigator contacted him to meet with him, but Hetge wanted to wait until after the November 2018 elections.
Maddox said Hetge requested that the interview be postponed until after the election, but due to time constraints, the investigation had to continue.
Maddox provided some examples of the claims. No specific employees were mentioned in the examples provided by Maddox, although some names were mentioned from the public comment.
One employee claimed he feared for his safety and job security when Hetge addressed him at the Tehachapi Municipal Airport. Hetge asked him to call the airport manager. The investigator determined that the allegation was sustained and that “it was determined more likely than not that councilmember Hetge had acted in an unprofessional and hostile manner toward a city employee that merely arrived to perform his duty," said Maddox.
Hetge said he and other airport users were trying to access the airport property, and the gates were not working. He asked the public works employee who was present to call the city manager or public works director on the spot to expedite the matter.
Another employee feared retaliation and job security for relaying a complaint that Hetge did not live within city limits during the November 2016 election. Maddox's investigation found that the employee suffered intimidation when Hetge requested a “criminal investigation to identify the city employee responsible for making the 2016 election fraud complaint against him." Hetge's request for a criminal investigation was sent in an email to the city manager, said Maddox.
But Hetge said, “The reason I sent that email to the city manager is that I wanted to know if there were any laws broken in relation to election fraud. Those questions needed to be resolved. I neither hire or fire employees, nor does any other council member. It's not our role.”
Hetge said he lived within city limits at the time of the 2016 election, and continues to do so.
Maddox said an allegation that Hetge undermined the police chief was sustained. Hetge met with the Kern County Sheriff and a California Highway Patrol lieutenant by phone regarding Tehachapi safety issues and Maddox's investigator confirmed that “Hetge insisted CHP officers provide some assistance with traffic enforcement at the Tehachapi schools and mentioned that the Tehachapi Police Department lacked this training.”
Hetge said in an interview with Tehachapi News Tuesday that he requested information and a meeting from the Chief of Police for a plan of action if an active shooter situation would come up at Tehachapi’s schools. The meeting was initially agreed to; however, when former Councilman Dennis Wahlstrom was included in the meeting it was referred to the city manager. At that point, Hetge reached out to other police organizations, with the discussion later being held in a Tehachapi City Council closed session.
Maddox said that the city's municipal code says that, “The city council and its members shall deal with the administrative services of the city only through the city manager, except for the purpose of inquiry, and neither the city council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any subordinates of the city manager. The city manager shall take his orders and instructions from the city council only when sitting in a duly held meeting of the city council, and no individual councilman shall give orders or instructions to the city manager.”
Hetge said in an interview that he has the right to inquire about topics and it is in the municipal code.
The City Council did not take any vote on a plan of action regarding Maddox's findings.
Airport Manager Ashley Whitmore said she was one employee who reported harassment.
She said, “It takes courage to call out a bully and that's what I did, as did many other staff members who experienced it personally. My claims were founded as were many others, and I am told to get over it. I hope the council will take the appropriate action and stop this type of behavior now and in the future.”
Directly after the presentation by Maddox, city attorney Tom Schroeter suggested the council move on to the next topic. After a great amount of request for public comment, Mayor Susan Wiggins allowed public comment of three of minutes per person. More than 10 people spoke.
City resident Susanne Forestor said, “It has been a witch hunt. He is the only council member that of the few council meetings I’ve been here, that actually represents the citizens that ask him questions and other council look at him like he is the problem. He is bringing our issues to the council. Not his issues, our issues.”
Wahlstrom said, “I’m named but I’m not accused. Kind of looks like to me you are picking on one person. I don’t think you need to do that.”
He added that while on the council he had been called names and heard other council members disagree with him, and stated that the council members should not be "snowflakes."