Former employee vs. boss in treasurer raceIncumbent Veldheer faces challenger Gunkel, who says she was fired last year after meeting behind closed doors with the Davison County Commission.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
Christie Gunkel says revenge is not motivating her candidacy for Davison County treasurer.
Gunkel, 35, who worked in the Treasurer’s Office for three years, said she was fired last June by Treasurer Brenda Veldheer, 56. Now the two, both Mitchell residents, are running against each other in Tuesday’s election.
“It’s not about, ‘She fired me, and I’m going to get her back,’ ” Gunkel said. “I’m running because I feel I can make the Treasurer’s Office more efficient.”
Since there are no Democratic or independent challengers, the winner of Tuesday’s Republican primary between Gunkel and Veldheer will likely become the next county treasurer. An independent could enter the Nov. 6 general election but would have to file a candidacy by Tuesday.
Gunkel, in a recent interview with The Daily Republic, claimed friction between Veldheer and the county commissioners ended up costing Gunkel her job.
Gunkel said that about a year ago, she participated in executive sessions with the commissioners as part of an investigation into complaints about the Treasurer’s Office and was later fired.
Treasurer Brenda Veldheer and commissioners John Claggett and Denny Kiner said recently in response to Daily Republic questions that Gunkel’s participation in those sessions had nothing to do with what Gunkel described as her firing.
Gunkel is sticking to her story, though.
“What went on in those sessions had everything to do with why I was fired,” she said.
Gunkel, who worked for three years as a Deputy 1— the office’s highest pay grade — said she was fired in June 2011 following a series of executive sessions (closed meetings) during which the commissioners met with Veldheer and members of her staff, including Gunkel, whose name was then Christie Priebe.
Gunkel said the commissioners told her last spring they wanted to discuss customer and employee complaints about the Treasurer’s Office.
“They told me I would not be fired or let go or punished,” she said, adding the same promises were made to two other department employees who were interviewed. Soon after those meetings, however, Gunkel claims she was fired.
No public reason was given for Gunkel’s dismissal at the time and Veldheer, who has declined to comment on the matter, said it’s a personnel issue she can’t discuss publicly.
“Her dismissal was out of my control,” Commission Chairman John Claggett said recently in a Daily Republic interview, adding that, to his knowledge, Gunkel’s dismissal was not a result of her participation in the executive sessions. Commissioner Denny Kiner said Gunkel’s dismissal “had nothing to do with what was said in executive session.”
Claggett said the executive sessions were about office operations, and not about any wrongdoing, but he was aware Gunkel had approached former Commissioner David Weitala about concerns over office operations.
Gunkel recalled that after the executive sessions with the commissioners, Veldheer gave her a letter stating “my services were no longer needed.”
The commissioners were displeased and were not in favor of Gunkel’s dismissal, but they were unable to stop it, Claggett said.
“I had no problem with her job performance. I was real happy with what Christie was doing,” Claggett said. “We tried to do everything we could to keep this from happening, but as an elected official, Brenda can hire who she wants.”
Commissioners, who do control the county budget, initially refused to give Veldheer money to hire a full-time employee to replace Gunkel, despite Veldheer’s complaints that being shorthanded hampered her department’s ability to adequately serve the public.
That situation has since been remedied, Veldheer said, and her office is now up to full strength.
Friends encouraged Gunkel to talk to the Department of Labor about whistle-blowing, and she did.
Gunkel said she initially pursued a grievance with the department. She claims the department said she had a case, but she decided instead to drop her grievance and run for office.
Gunkel said she wasn’t seeking a monetary award, but to protect her reputation as a former office employee.
“I don’t want to sue the county. It’s not the county’s wrongdoing. That’s not what this was about. It was about making her responsible for her actions. I feel that all elected officials should at least report to someone.”
Veldheer said she believes she’s done a good job over the past eight years and she wants to stay on as treasurer.
“I enjoy the job and I want to continue serving the people of Davison County,” said Veldheer, who was first elected to office in 2004.
She acknowledged her ups and downs with the commissioners but said that’s all in the past.
“I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t get along,” she said. “I think we can work this out.”
The past year has also been personally difficult for Veldheer, who successfully underwent treatments for cancer.
“It was a tough year, but I’m feeling great,” she said.
Many of the problems between Veldheer and the commissioners surrounded the issuance of passports. Veldheer wanted passports processed during slack times at her office, and the commissioners wanted passport applications handled any time.
Due to new federal regulations, passport applications, formerly handled by the Register of Deeds Office, were moved to the Treasurer’s Office.
Veldheer complained that processing the lengthy applications took time away from more important county business and slowed service for customers who wanted to register a vehicle or pay taxes, which she said are the most important functions of her office.
Passport services produce little revenue for the county and are readily available at the Mitchell post office, she argued.
The whole brouhaha has become a non-issue since the commissioners shifted passport responsibilities to the Auditor’s Office.
Veldheer said she has seen her office successfully through several technology upgrades.
The state’s new online automobile registration system was a headache when it was introduced, but it now works well, Veldheer said.
“We’ve got the bugs worked out of it now and things are improving all the time,” she said.
“Placing the county tax reports online has saved countless hours of staff time,” Veldheer added. Online availability means accountants, attorneys and real estate professionals as well as property owners now have ready access to property tax records.
“They’re thrilled,” Veldheer said. “It means they can access records any time — night or day — in any time zone.”
Bar-coded tax records are another time-saving innovation, she said.
“With bar-coded tax notices, we can pull up tax records immediately and serve our customers faster,” she said.
Gunkel always expected that someday she would make a run for treasurer, but last year’s job circumstances moved that horizon line closer.
She had encouragement to run from friends and voters.
“I have the skills and the knowledge; I’ve done the job on a daily basis,” she said.
An 11-year resident of Mitchell, Gunkel and husband Jeremy are parents to two sons, and another child is due in June.
Gunkel believes she has the experience needed to make the office easier to work with for both the county commissioners and the taxpayers they serve — with less stress.
Gunkel also feels she can work with the commissioners without going into executive session.
“I get along with the employees; I loved working there,” she said. “Running for office was kind of in the back of my mind and the more calls I got, the more I decided it was something I really want to do.”
Gunkel enjoyed the work, from daily tasks in the office to the occasional time spent helping elderly customers install license plates or stickers on their vehicles.
The issuance of passports — a bone of contention between Veldheer and the commissioners, who wanted applications taken any time — has been moved from the Treasurer’s Office to the Auditor’s Office, but Gunkel, who is passport certified, said she’s willing to help out.
“I would also like to explore either early or extended hours, perhaps starting one morning or night a week every other week — depending on what the demands are for services.”
Gunkel feels the evening hours, which she pledged to personally work to save the county money, would make the office available to county residents whose daytime work schedules don’t allow them to make it to the courthouse.
Twice a year, during tax payment season, Gunkel pledged to have a property tax express line to speed services along.
“I’ve always felt there’s something more I should be doing with my life,” she said. “I just want to make a difference.”