On Tuesday night the Winona County Board is expected to publicly decide whether or not to take disciplinary action against county employees after meeting privately to discuss recent legal threats over a failed solar project and allegations against county staff, which appear to be connected to the project.
The board placed Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert and Sustainability Coordinator Anne Morse on paid leave in late March and hired an outside law firm to investigate county staff members involved in the solar deal gone sour. The board is expected to review the investigators' report prior to Tuesday's meeting.
wife to be part-owner
Winona County Administrator Duane Hebert's wife, Theresa Hebert, is going to become a part-owner of the solar company which threatened legal action against the county, according to Cliff Kaehler, the son of former county commissioner Mena Kaehler and CEO of the Kaehlers' family solar company, Novel Energy Solutions (NES). Theresa Hebert worked as bookkeeper for the company last year.
The County Board has maintained that Hebert failed to disclose his wife's position and potential ownership stake in NES and its connection to the county project. Hebert claimed that he did disclose that information.
The solar project
NES was a silent partner in a solar project proposal that came before the County Board last February. Another company served as the public face of the project and county commissioners were unaware of the Kaehlers' involvement. "NES chose to remain in the background publicly so that the project would stand on its own merits and not be positively or negatively impacted by Mena Kaehler and Theresa Hebert being involved with the company," explained Cliff Kaehler in a previous statement.
By fall of last year, NES was actively negotiating with county staff on a potential deal to install and finance solar panels on the roofs of county buildings. NES said that county staff distributed its trade secrets to competitors in the midst of contract negotiations and selected another firm that was offering a less attractive financial deal. In March, attorneys for NES sent the county letters threatening legal action. That month, the board met in closed session before deciding to place Hebert and Morse on leave and cease all potential solar projects.
Morse was the primary county staff member involved in the solar project and communications with NES. The Kaehlers noted that County Attorney Karin Sonneman was active in the project, as well, and questioned the County Board's apparent decision to scrutinize Hebert and not Sonneman.
Any disciplinary action taken by the board on Tuesday could range from verbal warnings to firings. Morse is a union employee, but Hebert's contract allows the board to terminate his employment at any time. However, Hebert's contract guarantees $58,500 in severance pay and six months of benefits in the event of such an "at-will" termination. If Hebert is asked to resign, that would also qualify as an "at-will" termination. A voluntary resignation would not trigger severance pay.