CROW WING COUNTY BOARD: VSO job performance 'unsatisfactory,' supervisors say

The Crow Wing County Board Tuesday heard concerns from human resources and community services officials about the job performance of Bob Nelson, county veteran services officer.

Bob Nelson, director of veteran services for Crow Wing County, responds to concerns about his performance brought to the county board by his superiors in community services. Nelson is due for reappointment this June. Brainerd Dispatch/Chelsey Perkins
Bob Nelson, director of veteran services for Crow Wing County, responds to concerns about his performance brought to the county board by his superiors in community services. Nelson is due for reappointment this June. Brainerd Dispatch/Chelsey Perkins

The Crow Wing County Board Tuesday heard concerns from human resources and community services officials about the job performance of Bob Nelson, county veteran services officer.

Tamra Laska, human resources director, along with two representatives from community services - Kara Terry, director, and Sheila Skogen, customer services division manager - presented their case for how they say Nelson fails to meet the expectations of county program coordinators.

"This is not about whether Mr. Nelson processes applications or secures benefits for our veterans," Terry said. "This is about a failure of leadership and alignment with our organizational priorities."

Discussions of this kind - those including data classified as private - would typically take place in closed session as required by state law. As the subject of the meeting, Nelson took the unusual step of requesting it be open to the public, a move allowed by the same law. Tim Houle, county administrator, said this is the first time in his 21 years in government where he has seen someone make this request.

Opening a meeting to the public does not change the nature of information discussed; private data from Nelson's personnel file was shared "with a level of detail and candor that is normally reserved for a closed setting," Houle said.


Nelson was hired in June 2007 and occupies one of three positions in the county that require reappointment by the county board per statute. The other positions are the county assessor and the county engineer. Nelson is up for reappointment to a four-year term this June, and the county board is required to notify him 90 days prior if they do not intend to reappoint him.

'Unsatisfactory performance'

In 2010, the vision of the county board shifted toward improved service at a lower cost, Laska said, a move that "significantly changed the expectations of all leaders in this organization."

"It is a new leadership paradigm or expectation that we need to be able to deliver innovative solutions to create accountability and demonstrate that we are delivering the best possible services for the lowest cost possible," Laska said. "It requires different thinking from our leadership."

Laska said it's important for supervisors to ensure employees know what is expected of them and are aware of the consequences should they fail to meet those expectations. Nelson's superiors made the case he was aware of his expectations and consequences, yet continued to ignore directives and act in defiance of his responsibilities.

Laska began by referencing Nelson's 2012 performance review conducted by Mark Liedl, who was interim community services director at the time.

In the review, Liedl stated Nelson had not put any result-oriented metrics in place and failed to complete one of his two employees' performance reviews in time. Nelson was described as "disengaged in leadership team meetings as if he believed it were a waste of time," and when he did make comments, Liedl characterized them as "stilted and negative." Nelson does a good job in serving veterans, the review states, but resists being managed and should "devote more effort to working in a positive, constructive and creative manner."

Laska said the consequences of not meeting these expectations were clearly articulated to Nelson via email following a July 2014 meeting, which came after Skogen had worked extensively with Nelson on what his expectations were.


"Current performance will not sustain to continued employment," Laska's email read.

Terry said the expectations for Nelson are consistent with expectations of all program coordinators in community services and other coordinators have also been asked to prepare business plans.

Skogen said it's been 294 days since Nelson's 2013 performance review in which he received a "needs improvement" rating and a performance improvement plan was established. One of his expectations was to prepare a business plan, within 30 days, for addressing various veteran populations.

"We want to be able to define the future of that program area," Terry said.

Skogen said between April and October 2014, Nelson was given several opportunities - what amounted to 24 coaching meetings - to work with her and Terry to develop a business plan and specific suggestions were made for inclusion in the plan, including tapping other counties for new ideas or working with community partners.

On Sept. 23, Nelson presented a plan to the personnel committee where it was rejected as inadequate and tabled until the Oct. 6 meeting. On Oct. 2, Nelson presented a preview of the plan to Skogen and Terry, but three days later said the plan was incomplete and he needed more direction.

"We were 124 days overdue with this plan at this point and we were still trying to help him succeed," Skogen said. "None of the suggestions from the previous personnel input nor the specific input that Kara Terry and I had given him four days earlier were in the plan."

Skogen reported last Friday, Nelson submitted a new plan incorporating her and Terry's suggestions, but she had been unable to thoroughly review it in time for the meeting.


Terry said they were presenting this information for the board's consideration of Nelson's reappointment.

"Our VSO (veteran services officer) has not complied with the direction provided by his supervisor," Terry said. "He has outwardly refused, resisted and been vocally critical of our expectations. His performance as a member of our leadership team is unacceptable."

Commissioner Doug Houge asked whether Nelson had indicated if he understood his directives.

"He has come back with, 'I don't have time,' he has come back with, 'I'm working on it,'" Skogen said. "We've offered him many resources as well and we still didn't see results."

The public speaks out

Several men identifying themselves as veterans or outreach workers spoke to the board about their experiences with Nelson and his office. Most relayed positive ones, citing Nelson's commitment to veterans included working outside the scope of the typical work day and prioritizing their needs.

"I was a supervisor in state government, so I understand the reason for having goals," said Tim Brastrup of Baxter. "But I also know that the results for the issue that you're trying to manage, in other words, the veterans, is far more important than worrying about maybe something that seems bureaucratic."

Jack Gagnon of Emily, a disabled veterans outreach worker with the state who works with Nelson regularly, said the board should consider Nelson is a working manager, meaning he continues to work directly with veterans as part of his duties rather than only managing employees.


"When you're trying to manage an office and it's just managing, you've got a lot of time," Gagnon said. "(When) your job is working with vets as they come in the door every day, sometimes that stuff really does fall behind."

Two men who spoke said they had negative experiences with Nelson and both felt these stemmed from political differences. Tom Atchison of Deerwood relayed a story of interacting with Nelson in which the mention of a Tea Party flag on Atchison's property appeared to alter Nelson's treatment of him. Charlie Makidon of Backus said the only time he has made a veteran's claim since he got out of the service 45 years ago, it took Nelson's office four years to submit it and it was done so only after Makidon brought the issue to the county board.

"Where was it for four years?" Makidon said. "Mr. Nelson and I, I believe, come from different political backgrounds and Mr. Nelson seems to take offense to that in my opinion."

Makidon said he has chosen to work with Aitkin County veteran services instead of Crow Wing County because the service is better.

In response, Nelson said he was unaware Makidon had not received his benefits and the only way for his office to know once it's been sent to the VA is if veterans let them know there's an issue. He disputed Makidon's timeline and said he addressed the problem as soon as he found out.

Nelson responds

Nelson also took to the microphone to explain his side of the matter.

"The items that they've laid in front of you are pretty true, absolutely. I won't deny that," Nelson said. "We're not perfect, and I will attest that I'm not perfect. But I do believe that veterans come first. We try and help every veteran to the best of our abilities."


Nelson said he has requested and received some direction from superiors, although it was not as detailed as he would have liked. The veteran services office has limited resources and a small staff, Nelson said, and most of their budget goes to personnel.

"There's not a lot that we can cut short of taking a pay cut to do that," he said. "We do try and work faster, smarter, cheaper. Those are the things that we are tasked to do. We are doing more things with more computers, accessing the VA electronically continually. We move as fast as the VA will allow us to do so."

Nelson said he has found the administrative aspects of his position difficult and he often feels out of place in community services meetings because much of what is covered does not pertain to his office. He said he is not a data analyst and numbers are "not (his) thing," but he is trying to develop tracking mechanisms to ensure veterans do not fall through the cracks.

"I could have done all the things to work hard to save my job. I'd rather work for the veterans. I'd rather work for the guys that put their life on the line and help them get their benefits. The other things, well, in my mind they're secondary. I'm there to serve veterans, that's what I felt I was hired for."

Commissioner Paul Koering asked Nelson to describe his workload. Nelson said he carries a full caseload of veterans in addition to his supervisory role.

"You have to carry a workload too, otherwise if you were just supervising and the other two people were just doing work, it wouldn't get done?" Koering said.

"It wouldn't get done," Nelson responded.

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said she remembered hiring Nelson and it was a clear choice for her at the time. But when it comes to doing a job, she said, there are some things you love and some things you hate, but you have to do everything expected of you. She offered the idea of Nelson stepping down from his supervisory role and working only on cases.


"I don't see us hiring another staff (member) to do that," Nelson said.

Commissioner Doug Houge said he struggled with Nelson's explanations because he'd been given a couple years of opportunities to seek help.

"Those tools, those opportunities have been handed to you, but you've ignored them from what I can tell," Houge said. "You need to be a numbers man."

Nelson said his office is not completely devoid of data; monthly statistics for his program are provided in the director's report to the county board. Data is not his strong suit, he said, but he still wants to provide the board with numbers that provide insight into his program's operations.

Houge suggested if the workload is as intense as described, the county might need to look at additional staffing.

Terry said it is difficult to gauge the workload and what "busy" means when they are not given information from Nelson to understand what the veterans service office is facing. She said any of the program coordinators in community services could make the argument their clients should come first before other responsibilities.

Laska said no one at the table was critical of Nelson's commitment to veterans, but the amount of time spent waiting for him to deliver on his responsibilities was hampering the county's efforts to increase performance.

"If we waited that long for other leaders in the organization to deliver those kinds of results, I can almost assure you that we wouldn't be able to deliver the value that you've been looking for in terms of holding down that levy expense," Laska said.

The board took no action Tuesday and is set to take up Nelson's reappointment at its Feb. 24 meeting.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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