Former solid waste employee files suit

A former local solid waste agency worker claims in a lawsuit that she was fired because she was a whistleblower and she wants her job back.

Deb Watson Lentsch, of Fort Dodge, director of recycling and administration/finance for the North Central Iowa Regional Solid Waste Agency until September 2013, is also seeking monetary compensation.

The lawsuit is filed against the agency and its interim director, Cynthia Turkle.

Watson Lentsch alleges she was fired for reporting misconduct by Turkle.

According to an unemployment appeal filed by Watson Lentsch that was decided against her in November 2013, she was fired for alleged misconduct, including a failure to pass along notices of environmental violations to the agency board, purchasing equipment without the proper bidding process, and hiring unqualified people. Watson Lentsch is being represented by attorneys Brooke Timmer and Emily McCarty of Urbandale.

“Deb had been a loyal employee of the landfill for a number of years, and she was really shocked to find herself out of a job about a month after she had brought concerns to board of directors about the behavior of Cindy Turkle,” McCarty said Wednesday. “All Deb was trying to do was protect taxpayer money.”

Fort Dodge attorney Steven Kersten, who is representing the solid waste agency, said his policy is not to comment on ongoing litigation.

Turkle said Wednesday afternoon she had not yet seen the lawsuit, so she was unable to comment.

The lawsuit alleges Turkle failed to publish a notice that the agency was accepting bids for an excavator, instead privately contacting vendors to solicit bids.

It alleges Turkle changed the wording of agendas and minutes of board meetings, for example, replacing the word “consider” with “approve.” It also states Turkle charged the agency for more hours than was appropriate in July 2013, since she was supposed to be working part time.

The lawsuit filed Jan. 30 states Watson Lentsch reported her concerns to then-board Executive Committee Chairman Troy Hassebrock on Aug. 26, 2013.

Hassebrock did not return a phone call as of press time.

Watson Lentsch was fired on Sept. 17, 2013.

She alleges her termination violated both her right to free speech and whistleblower protections guaranteed by Iowa law.

The lawsuit states Watson Lentsch was employed by the agency since 1991, and was director of recycling and administration/finance from 2011 to 2013.

The agency has been the subject of critical attention by state officials recently. A report released by the office of Auditor of State Mary Mosiman indicated numerous problems including how land was sold and how contracts were awarded.

It has also been subject to attention by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which alleges the agency has committed frequent and repeated environmental violations since 2008.

Landfill Director Mike Grell resigned on April 2013 and was replaced by Turkle, according to the auditor’s report. It also states Watson Lentsch was terminated in September 2013.

Watson Lentsch’s lawsuit states Grell “accepted a demotion to landfill supervisor” in April 2013 and was fired in “approximately May or June 2013.”

The unemployment appeal stated Watson Lentsch had received notices of violations at the landfill from the DNR, but had not forwarded them to the board.

It said Watson Lentsch had paid for a piece of equipment without opening it for bid and had purchased it from Grell’s son.

It also stated Watson Lentsch was writing and also signing checks to vendors. The accepted procedure is for one person to write the check and another authorized person to sign it.

The appeal said Turkle initiated disciplinary actions against Watson in July 2013 for failing to hold required safety meetings and hiring unqualified people.

“The claimant appears to have been cutting many corners and making questionable deals with public funds for some time,” Administrative Law Judge Bonny G. Hendricksmeyer wrote in the unemployment appeal decision. “Once these were discovered she continued to have difficulties in determining what appropriate conduct was and what was not.”

McCarty said her client has been unfairly held responsible.

“Many of the problems at the landfill were blamed on her, now that she’s gone, and that simply was not part of her job duties,” said McCarty. “By and large she was responsible for the recycling center.

“It seems that a lot of the problems that existed with the landfill under Mr. Grell’s supervision seems to be being painted now as her shortcomings. That’s troubling to her.”