Ogle County News

Oregon Park District contends with ‘hostile work environment’ claims

Recreation program manager resigns over ‘misconduct and psychological harassment;’ administrative services coordinator offers differing account, saying OPD has ‘strong leadership’ and ‘healthy, positive work environment’

OREGON – A former Oregon Park District employee’s claim of a “hostile work environment” and “years of misconduct and psychological harassment” concluded with her call for the resignation or termination of OPD Executive Director Erin Folk.

Amanda Zimmermann said she resigned from her job as OPD’s recreation program manager on Sept. 17 after more than five-and-a-half years because of “ongoing poor leadership and the continued lack of accountability” faced by upper management. The title of the recreation program manager position since has been changed to recreation program coordinator.

During the OPD Board of Commissioners’ Oct. 12 meeting, Zimmermann told her story to commissioners in a 19-minute prerecorded video. She described a stress-filled work environment where she had to walk on eggshells, was subjected to personal attacks and felt the need to pretend that everything was OK in order to protect her job.

“A reasonable person would define that as a hostile working environment,” Zimmermann said directly to board members after the 19-minute video concluded.

Shaw Media was not present at the Oct. 12 board meeting, but obtained from Microsoft OneDrive a copy of a roughly 25-minute video of the meeting with Zimmermann’s prerecorded video statement superimposed over a portion of it. According to the video data, it was uploaded Oct. 13 by Zimmermann’s husband, Scott Zimmermann. The same video was posted on Facebook by an account using the name Esby Sihimme.

Alyssa Barringer, OPD’s administrative services coordinator, contested Zimmermann’s allegations during the meeting. Barringer’s comments were not shown in the 25-minute video but were obtained by Shaw Media via a Facebook live video posted by Heidi Zimmermann.

Barringer said that in her experience, OPD has “strong, quality management that is consistently looking to improve the district in various aspects.” She said department heads, including Folk, “do an impressive job” making decisions for the park district and communicating updates with staff.

“I have never felt like there was a lack of communication, nor have I questioned the decision-making of management,” Barringer said. “With the leadership of a strong management team, I continue to work in a healthy and positive environment.”

A statement from park district commissioners acknowledging the Oct. 12 comments was posted Oct. 21 on the Oregon Park District Facebook page. The content of the post also was emailed to news media outlets by OPD Superintendent of Recreation Tina Ketter.

Board President Steve Pennock said on Friday that the statement was composed by Commissioner Scott Stephens.

“We want to assure you that we have heard the comments, we take them seriously, and we are working to review and make changes if deemed necessary,” Stephens said in the statement. “In the meantime you can be assured that the Oregon Park District will continue to provide the public with the quality parks, facilities and programs to which you are accustomed.”

Laws regarding personnel information designed to protect current and past employees’ privacy will keep many commissioner discussions and actions regarding employee and personnel policy from public view, according to the statement.

“The only comment I really have to make is, I take the comments and concerns very seriously and look forward to working with the board to address any concerns they may have related to this matter,” Folk said in an Oct. 21 interview. “[Commissioners] are reviewing it and that’s all I can really say,” she added. “It’s a personnel matter and we can’t go into any other details.”

Folk was present at the Oct. 12 meeting, as was Ketter, another person Zimmermann called out.

“We’re always disappointed when an employee leaves the park district, but unfortunately policy prohibits me from commenting any further because it is a personnel matter,” Ketter said in an Oct. 26 interview.

All board members will be involved in an investigation into the allegations, Pennock said. He said board members usually are not involved in personnel decisions, as the only person they hire is the executive director. When asked the general reaction to Zimmermann’s allegations, Pennock said, “We listened,” and emphasized that Zimmermann was not fired, but resigned.

“She wanted her opportunity to speak to the board. She did, we listened,” he said. “I said, ‘Thank you.’ Those are the only words that I said.”

Former part-time OPD employee Meredith Gelander of Chana echoed Zimmermann’s claim in a letter submitted to the board and read into the record of the Oct. 12 meeting.

“I recently resigned from my position as an extended-time instructor after four years of employment due to a hostile work environment that was created in the absence of my immediate supervisor, Amanda Zimmermann,” Gelander wrote.

Gelander said that upon noticing a problem, she researched who handles personnel complaints at OPD and was disappointed to find all problems are to be discussed with the executive director.

“How do you handle issues that are concerning the executive director?” she wrote. “If an employee or member of the public has a complaint against the executive director, the only person that can address that issue currently is the executive director. Clearly, you can see why this is an issue.”

The current system for how personnel complaints are handled is flawed, Gelander wrote. She asked the board to immediately revise the policy so concerns can be addressed in a fair and timely manner by an outside party.

“We don’t have a policy in place if someone was complaining about the executive director, and that’s something the board will look into,” Pennock said.

Zimmermann was allowed 21 minutes to speak during the Oct. 12 meeting – far above the usual three-minute public comment time limit – because six other individuals requested their time be ceded to her.

“To be clear via the board’s policy in how I must address them, I have sought information and appropriate remedies to these concerns not just prior to the board meeting, but for many years to my department head, as well as to the executive director,” Zimmermann said before starting the 19-minute video.

In the video, Zimmermann said she was “ecstatic and eager” when she joined the OPD staff in January 2016.

“Each day was thrilling, and I loved meeting and working with absolutely everyone,” she said. “It seemed like such a positive atmosphere.”

Having come from the Northbrook Park District where she managed a staff of more than 100, among other duties, OPD was a lesser workload, Zimmermann said. She said that gave her freedom to be creative with new programming and volunteer more in and out of the park district.

In mid-2016, Zimmermann decided to go back to school for her masters in business administration.

“The moment I asked for this approval through the ED [Folk], everything went south,” she said. “And it went south, fast. Overnight, it went from, ‘Amanda can do no wrong and she should be considered for the superintendent of rec job,’ to ‘Amanda can’t do anything right and is, in fact, against the park district.’ It was like I was living a bad dream.”

Zimmermann said that throughout 2017, she was personally attacked, accused of things she hadn’t done, put on the spot during meetings, docked on the smallest errors and had rumors spread about her.

It’s a time period that “absolutely tore me apart,” Zimmermann said.

“After I graduated with my MBA, things seemed to quiet down for me,” she said. “However, this horrendous trend of manipulating people and mistreatment continued on. It would simply skip around from one employee to the next, most of which have since resigned.”

All of it stemmed directly from Folk and Ketter, Zimmermann said. The two “manage staff via fear and manipulation,” she said.

Zimmermann said she resigned after returning to chaos following a month away because she had COVID-19 and then was attending an out-of-state wedding. She said her staff were upset, stressed and misguided as a result of Folk and Ketter’s management in her absence.

“I was told multiple times that my staff were out of control,” Zimmermann said. “I started getting what I perceived to be appalling management advice from the superintendent of rec [Ketter]. It was made clear that a repeat of 2017 was beginning again, that I would no longer be able to manage my staff in a way they deserve.”

Zimmermann said she emailed her resignation letter – which was addressed to Ketter – to all park board members, but received no response.

“It’s worth noting, too, that I’m not the first former employee that had the courage to be honest and report this,” she said. “The board falling silent and moving forward like nothing happened is wrong.”

In an Oct. 22 interview, Zimmermann said that it now is a waiting game.

“I want to allow time and a chance for the board of commissioners to make the right choice, whatever that may be,” she said.

A special meeting of the Oregon Park Board of Commissioners was called for 6 p.m. Oct. 27. The agenda consists of an executive session closed to the public to discuss a personnel matter. No action items are on the agenda.