A question of ethics?

The recent arrests of two Ashland Parks Department employees on charges of theft of city equipment bring to light a long-standing pattern of unethical behavior by a subculture of workers within the department, sources familiar with parks operations say.

A third parks employee is under investigation and has been placed on administrative leave. Parks Director Don Robertson called the situation "very serious" but said he couldn't discuss details.

Police in the last month have found parks department equipment and supplies such as fertilizer, a ladder and a wheelbarrow at the home of parks technician Harold Ross Straub of Rogue River and gloves, tools and a ladder at the home of technician Steve Lawrence of Trail.

Straub, a 20-year parks department employee who worked most often at the Oak Knoll Golf Course and plaza, was arrested Nov. 19 on charges of first-degree theft and second-degree theft by receiving. Lawrence, a 12-year employee who worked most often at North Mountain Park, was charged Dec. 8 with second-degree theft.

For years, other parks department employees have been troubled that a small group has engaged in misbehavior, seemingly without repercussions, former parks employees told the Daily Tidings.

The pattern dates back long before Robertson was hired in 2004 to replace outgoing Parks Director Ken Mickelsen, who had worked for the department for 24 years, the sources said.

Mickelsen did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Some sources said Robertson inherited problems with several employees but he and Parks Superintendent Steve Gies have not been successful in stamping out the misbehavior.

In December 2006, 24-year parks department employee and Irrigation Division Manager Eric Setterberg — who had recently retired — was prompted to write a letter to the Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission outlining his concerns with the department.

"While a majority of Park employees are dedicated, conscientious, and have personal integrity, there is a subculture of 5-6 individuals within the Parks Division that have limited and questionable personal work ethics and integrity that manifest in various ways," Setterberg wrote in his letter. "They have learned to manipulate the system and take advantage of minimal management supervision."

Setterberg said some employees consistently over-reported their work hours on their time sheets, reported for work and then left to eat breakfast, ran personal errands while at work, took long breaks, used park-assigned cell phones excessively for personal use and regularly dumped their household trash in park Dumpsters.

Some employees had a significantly reduced workload during the off-season, but did not take the initiative to work in other areas and were not assigned different work, Setterberg said in the letter.

The problems cost the Parks Department and Ashland taxpayers "thousands of lost labor-hours each year," he wrote.

Former head gardener Donn Todt, who worked for the Parks Department for 19 years and retired in 2009, said a few years ago, he reported to a supervisor that Straub turned in a batch of pesticide application reports that were all filled out with the same pen.

Todt said that didn't seem normal, since parks employees are supposed to fill out application sheets soon after applying pesticides. Usually different colors and types of pens are used on the sheets since they are filled out over time, he said.

Accurate pesticide application reports allow the Parks Department to track pesticide use. The state government also requires pesticide use reporting.

At least $1,000 worth of gas stolen, police say

A six-week investigation by the Ashland Police Department revealed repeated thefts of fertilizer and city gasoline, allegedly by Straub, who was fired shortly after his arrest.

An affidavit supporting a search warrant for Straub's house said a parks employee had seen Straub fill up his personal truck with city of Ashland gas four or five years ago.

On Nov. 4, a police detective saw Straub filling his personal truck with four city of Ashland gas cans, according to the affidavit. Gas cans regularly disappeared from parks property on Fridays, then would reappear on Monday empty or with fuel missing, it said.

Police calculated that in a period of about two weeks, at least 83 gallons of fuel valued at about $265 were unaccounted for, based on a check of Straub's city of Ashland gas card use and the actual mileage on his work vehicle.

Based on gas logs, police said they believed Straub had stolen at least $1,000 in gas during the previous six months.

On Nov. 19, police served a search warrant at Straub's home and recovered tools, a wheelbarrow, a ladder and fertilizer valued at about $1,000 from the property, city officials said.

Straub told the Daily Tidings he was taking gas as compensation because he used his personal truck for work. He also acknowledged he had borrowed parks equipment, which he said was a longtime practice among parks employees (see separate story).

On Dec. 8, police served a search warrant at Lawrence's home and found a ladder, gloves and tools belonging to the city of Ashland and valued at about $200, city officials said.

Lawrence was placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation, Robertson said.

Lawrence did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Contacted by the Daily Tidings this week, Setterberg said news of the alleged thefts by employees reawakened a sense he has had that managers and parks commissioners didn't take his letter seriously and resolve issues.

"Things that have been happening have been going on more than 15 years," he said. "As bad as it is, I think the public should know. That's not how a department should be spending public money, whether it's a waste of time or alleged theft of equipment."

Half of city of Ashland property taxes go to fund the parks department.

In 2009, voters renewed a 5 percent sales tax on prepared food and beverages. One cent out of every 5 cents from the tax goes to the parks department.

Parks officials say they've tightened supervision

Robertson said parks officials did investigate the allegations made in Setterberg's letter.

"We didn't turn up any hard evidence that was incriminating," Robertson said.

Longtime parks commissioners Rich Rosenthal and JoAnne Eggers said they don't specifically recall the four-year-old letter.

Robertson said he did have numerous conversations with employees about the work issues identified by Setterberg to make it clear what was not acceptable.

Two years ago, Robertson said, he made changes so that there would be more on-the-ground supervision by mid-level supervisors. Previously, Gies, the parks superintendent, was responsible for all supervision in the parks.

"It puts more eyes out at the same time. If it's just the parks superintendent, it's hard for him to be at all places at the same time," Robertson said.

The Parks Department has about 40 employees, according to a check of a city of Ashland staff directory.

Robertson said all parks employees are receiving training on ethical practices, with the message reinforced that it is never acceptable to take equipment for personal use. He is also consulting with other parks department directors around the state about their procedures.

"We're spending a lot of time reinforcing what's appropriate and what's inappropriate," he said. "We're re-evaluating our procedures. Is there something we can do to minimize the risk and temptation? We're spending a lot of time second-guessing ourselves about how to prevent loss.

"If we don't learn from this, we're not doing our jobs," he added.

Todt, the former head gardener, said the department's problems have been difficult for the conscientious employees.

"It makes me feel bad," Todt said. "The community might look at the Parks Department and wonder, 'What's going on?' But there's a long trajectory of honesty and putting out more than what a regular job would call for by most employees.

"A lot of people feel it's worth devoting their time and their lives to. I could see it would be very demoralizing."

He said he is hopeful that the parks department can work through its problems.

"I hope they will end up with a really good Parks Department," Todt said.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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