Claims allege hostile environment at dispatch

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SANDPOINT — Current and former dispatchers at the Bonner County 911 Center have filed tort claims alleging a hostile work environment.

Former dispatcher Kellie Brownell and current senior dispatcher Diana Elsfelder filed the claims, which serve as notices of intent to sue, on Monday.

Brownell said in her claim that she approached county Commissioner Mike Nielsen in October to address the hostile working environment and press for an investigation. But instead of improving workplace conditions, Brownell contends the environment “worsened substantially” after the meeting.

Brownell and Elsfelder said they were segregated from other dispatchers, subjected to disparaging remarks, and had their work shifts altered and their training opportunities reduced or eliminated.

Brownell said in her claim that conditions deteriorated badly enough to force her to quit her job.

“This acted as constructive termination of her position,” Brownell’s claim said.

Brownell’s claim adds that unnamed Bonner County officials disputed her unemployment benefits by making false or misleading statements to a hearing officer.

Bonner County commission meeting agendas indicated an investigation was conducted by Keith Cutter, a deputy chief of administration for Bonner County EMS. However, those discussions were held behind closed doors during executive sessions and the contents of the report have not been made public.

The investigation reportedly concluded that most of the allegations were unsubstantiated, although supporters of Brownell and Elsfelder counter that the probe lacked objectivity because it was overseen by Marcus Robbins, the director of the dispatch center.

The claimants’ supporters further contend that the investigation did not delve at all into allegations that taxpayers funds were being wasted through mismanagement.

Brownell and Elsfelder assert in their claims that the employee turnover rate has been at 47 percent for the past four years.

The national turnover rate for dispatch centers ranges from as low as 17 percent to 30 percent or more.

The supporters’ advocates said it costs Bonner County a minimum of $38,000 to hire and train a single dispatcher based on their starting wages and benefits.

The emergency communications center has been dogged for years by complaints of nepotism, cronyism and retaliation against dispatchers who seek to improve working conditions or hold supervisors accountable for their actions.

Brownell and Elsfelder are each seeking $250,000 in damages, although their supporters insist the claims are meant to bring about meaningful changes to the dispatch center and are not about money.

Robbins did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Nielsen said he is unable to comment on the pending legal matter at this time.

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