Minnesota VA commissioner rules in favor of disabled veteran
Jon Kolstad feels vindicated after the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs agreed this week Crow Wing County violated his rights when a land services job opening was not posted.
The 54-year-old from Merrifield claimed the county violated his rights under the Veterans Preference Act "by failing to engage in a competitive hiring process that included fully qualified veteran candidates for the position of Environmental Services Supervisor."
"The county leadership made a decision in September, during the mediation hearing, which they asked for, to not settle this action by agreeing to post all future job openings," said Kolstad, a disabled Air Force and Air National Guard veteran.
Minnesota Administrative Law Judge LauraSue Schlatter then presided over an evidentiary hearing in Kolstad's case. She concluded Kolstad's rights were violated "by failing to post a newly created position, which would have allowed the petitioner to compete for the position."
VA Commissioner Larry Herke ordered Tuesday, April 16, that Schlatter's hearing memorandum in Kolstad's favor be adopted and also found Kolstad's rights were violated when the county failed to post the employment opportunity, which would have allowed him to apply for the job opening.
"We will comply with the decision and open the position to a competitive hiring process. We are just now beginning that process," County Administrator Tim Houle said by email Wednesday.
Internal job posting
The full-time job pays between $59,070 and $88,604 annually. Herke ordered the county to open the environmental services supervisor position filled by Jake Frie to the competitive application process, and allow Kolstad (or any other county employees) to apply.
"The decision makes clear that we can do an internal hiring process and that this would comply with the requirements of the Veterans Preference Act," Houle said. "We do not wish to create a situation wherein we post a position, bring someone in from the outside and then have to lay off an existing employee. We are confident that we can find the talent we seek from among existing employees, which will prevent the need for any layoff."
Kolstad works as an environmental services specialist in land services and has been a county employee for about five years. His job title was originally land services specialist until last May.
"I had asked that from this point further, the county post all jobs for open competition, to make sure that they hire the most qualified applicant, according to their personnel manual," Kolstad said about filing his petition in July, hiring an attorney and taking the county to court.
The Minnesota Veterans Preference Act grants most veterans "a limited preference over non-veterans in hiring and promotion for most Minnesota public employment positions."
Kolstad retired from the Air Force in 2012 due to health problems he developed while serving abroad and receives a portion of his Air Force pension due to his service-related disability.
Schlatter also found the county's promotion of Frie into the newly created environmental services supervisor position seven days after Paul Herkenhoff's resignation violated the county's personnel manual recruitment policies.
"I want to be clear that this was never a personal issue with Jake Frie. I never asked to have the position opened for someone to potentially take Jake's job away from him," Kolstad said.
In August, the county responded to a request by Kolstad with a list of two vacant supervisor positions in the land services department within 24 months and a list of 10 "promotions, reclassifications and new hires into supervisor positions." Of those 10, eight were not posted.
"As for Jake, he has been a long-term county employee, so we are very well aware of his many talents," Houle said. "I am confident that his talents can be used in a variety of ways within Crow Wing County."
Best qualified candidate
Since the recession that started in December 2007, the county claims it has gradually reorganized the way in which it provides services to reduce county expenses, and to provide services more effectively and efficiently.
Schlatter concluded, however, the county denied Kolstad's rights when it created the environmental services supervisor position, but declined to post the position for competitive applications and awarded Frie the position "in the guise of a reclassification."
"He can, of course, apply for this position and, if he is the best fit, he could still get the job. If the competitive process results in a different employee being selected, then Jake will need to apply for whatever openings we have," Houle said.
It was not until April 27 that Frie's job change was characterized as a "reclassification"—backdating the effective date more than six weeks to March 13, 2018—the date the county moved Frie into his new position.
"Since I expect the most qualified applicants for the supervisor job will be from land services, I am confident that we will find a good fit for Jake no matter what the outcome is of the hiring process for the supervisor role," Houle said.
Since the Great Recession, the county went from 19 separate departments to eight; the land services department combined environmental services (including natural resources management, solid waste management and surveying), document recording and assessing.
"I have never stated or implied that I was the most qualified person for the supervisor job. If I apply for the position when it opens, I would hope that the county selects the person that is most qualified," Kolstad said. "The final decision is theirs to make and not for me to demand anything other than that it be fair and open in compliance with their own personnel manual and the Veterans Preference Act."
Minnesota Veterans Preference Act
Minnesota provides for a limited preference for veterans in hiring and promotion in state and local government positions.
The Veterans Preference Act is intended to facilitate the transition of veterans from the military to civilian life and to help compensate veterans for their sacrifices, including their sacrifices of health and time to the community, state and nation.
Disabled veterans are ranked ahead of veterans, who are ranked ahead of non-veterans. Recently separated veterans, who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001, must be considered for the position. The top five recently separated veterans must be granted an interview.
Source: Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.