No charges in Portage street department case; attorney claims union retaliation

2013-08-29T16:30:00Z 2013-08-30T10:09:10Z No charges in Portage street department case; attorney claims union retaliationBob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345 nwitimes.com
August 29, 2013 4:30 pm  • 

PORTAGE | Officials have decided not to pursue criminal charges against five street department employees who were placed on administrative leave earlier this month. But an in-house investigation into the harassment complaint against the employees is ongoing, Portage Police Chief Troy Williams said.

The employees are accused of harassing a female landscape contractor who has been working with the city for 10 years, according to details released Thursday in the wake of the criminal investigation.

The woman said the harassment became more intense recently though it had been going on at some level for years. 

"They (the employees) feel that her business is taking work away from the Street Dept employees," the police report states, citing a motive for the harassment.

Ken Elwood, an attorney representing three of the accused, on Thursday reiterated his claim that the employees are being targeted for their union involvement.

The employees involved are active in Operating Engineers Local 150, which represents city street, sanitation, utility and police personnel.

"I just think it's clear union retaliation," he said.

According to the report, the harassment has included making profane and derogatory comments, blowing kisses and making obscene gestures, police said. The woman claims two street department employees videotaped her for eight hours from a city truck and on a different occasion, one reportedly struck her in the legs with the rotating cord on a weed trimmer.

While reluctant to report the harassment in the past, the woman reportedly told police she came forward now because "she no longer wants to live in fear."

Williams said part of the reason no criminal charges were pursued is the woman's reluctance to pursue the matter further. She just wanted the harassment to stop, he said.

Investigators were also unable to interview the accused because they hired attorneys, Williams said.

Elwood said said two of his three clients went back to work Wednesday.

Portage Mayor James Snyder referred questions to city Human Resources Director Mitchael Ripley, who confirmed two of the employees were allowed to return to work because they "did not participate in conduct which would warrant their termination."

The three other employees remain on administrative leave and under investigation, he said.

Elwood said the city's action may have triggered a civil liability issue. But he said he was hired by the employees for the criminal matter and has not been approached about further action.

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