After a tumultuous year in which she emerged as a central figure in a courthouse sex scandal, defiantly rejected calls for her resignation and was ultimately defeated at the polls, former Oneida County clerk of courts Gina Olson is back working in the courthouse.
Effective Jan. 4, Olson became a part-time deputy treasurer under treasurer Kristina Ostermann. The 50-percent position will pay $14.845 an hour for 975 hours of work.
Olson received a public reprimand last May from Oneida County's circuit court judges after she acknowledged having a sexual affair in the courthouse with a sheriff's deputy. The affair included multiple incidents of sexual intercourse or activity inside the courthouse, including in a security office closet and in a sally port.
The judges did not fire Olson, however, though they could have done so, which prompted members of the Oneida County board to call for her resignation. The board tabled a formal call for her resignation after learning it had no power to discipline the elected clerk of courts.
Olson then ran for re-election to the position but lost in the September Republican primary to Brenda Behrle, who went on to become the new clerk of courts.
Her defeat notwithstanding, Olson was not long gone from the courthouse. Ostermann alone made the decision to hire Olson, which she can statutorily do as treasurer. Like the clerk of courts, the treasurer is an elected position.
Ostermann did post the position inside the courthouse; Olson was the only applicant. The job was not advertised publicly.
Not what he would have done
Last week, Oneida County Board of Supervisors chairman Ted Cushing did not put the welcome mat out for Olson's return, but he acknowledged the county board was powerless to stop it.
"It's not a decision I would have made, but I am not the treasurer," Cushing said. "They posted the position and nobody from inside the courthouse applied. Gina Olson did, and by state law the treasurer has the right to hire her staff. It's the same for the judges, for the clerk of courts, for the county clerk and [the register of deeds]. We control the payroll but not who gets the job."
Oneida County coordinator John Potters said state statutes give the treasurer the right to appoint her deputies, but he also pointed out that Olson had posted the job - a union position - to give other union members and then nonunion courthouse employees an opportunity to apply.
Potters said he was not surprised no one else went for the job, which previously had been a two-thirds full-time equivalent position. The position became vacant after a longtime employee retired, he said.
"At the last finance committee meeting, the committee was approached to fill that position, and I recommended reducing it to a .5 full-time equivalent [half-time] position to help save the taxpayers money."
But when a position is downgraded to 50 percent of a full-time equivalent, Potters said, employees have to pay more than half of their benefit costs, if they choose to have benefits.
"When you reduce it to half-time, it's more difficult to fill," he said. "It's a less attractive position because of the cost of benefits, plus rarely do you have full-time employees who want to go to part-time."
Potters said his office was not involved in the hiring or interview process, and probably would not have been even if it had been a position in a county agency headed by a non-elected department head. While his office takes part in interviews for supervisory and full-time personnel and for department heads, he said, it generally does not take part in those for part-time employees.
"All we do is keep things as objective as possible, and make sure people take the proper steps in the hiring process," he said.
Potters did say Olson had passed a test for the position, which included such elements as math, accounting, how to read plat books and how to read tax bills.
Filling a need
For her part, Ostermann said she followed standard hiring procedures in posting the position.
"As an elected official, you have a little more leeway when you are hiring," Ostermann said. "You can pretty much hire who you want to. I could have hired my mother, but I chose to go through normal channels."
From her perspective, Ostermann said, the skills match was good and Olson filled a need she had in her office.
"What I wanted was somebody who was well qualified for the job because this job and this office is more unique in a lot of ways than others," she said. "We take in and handle a lot of money, so it had to be somebody I could trust and work well with and who could work well with others, especially the public."
Ostermann said she made it clear to Olson that others in the courthouse would be given the opportunity to seek the job.
"Gina did stop in and ask if she would be able to apply," Ostermann said. "I said yes but I told her I would post the position to the union first and then open it up to others in the courthouse. Gina shouldn't be the only one to have a chance at it."
That's standard procedure and when all was said and done Olson was the only applicant. When no qualified courthouse employee takes an open position, it is advertised then to the public, but Ostermann said there was no need to do that because Olson had applied and had passed the exam. Olson was still working in the courthouse until her term as clerk of courts expired.
Ostermann said she hoped the public would understand that her only goal was to get adequate and qualified personnel.
"I do hope that people look at the fact that I was not looking at her personal life or what happened in the past but at getting someone who is qualified to do the job I need," she said. "She was not charged with a crime. She has learned from her mistakes, and she's taking a big cut in pay and benefits. She can't afford the benefits."
In addition, Ostermann said time was of the essence because of the upcoming February Settlement, when each local taxing district settles with the county for both collected and unpaid property taxes and the county becomes responsible for the collection of unpaid property taxes.
"I needed to fill the job and fill it quick," she said. "I set aside that there was a problem in the clerk of courts office and I hope that the public can see that she has to have a job, too."
Ostermann said she would tell wary county officials the same thing.
"I needed somebody who was qualified," she said. "I didn't even look at the fact that people would see this so negatively. But I have also had people come in and tell me I did the right thing, so I've seen it both ways."
Olson was reprimanded by the county's judges last May for conduct unbecoming a clerk of courts and improper use of public facilities after having sex in the courthouse with Oneida County Sheriff's Department deputy Steve Ramm.
Ramm was forced to resign from the department. The county's labor relations committee forwarded a resolution to the county board saying "the appropriate remedy for the clerk of courts' conduct is termination" and demanding her "immediate resignation" but the full county board tabled it after learning it had no jurisdiction to discipline the elected clerk of courts.
Judges Mark Mangerson and Patrick O'Melia could have fired her, but decided against it.
In his conversation with The Times, Cushing reiterated he would not have acted as Ostermann did in hiring Olson, but he said he could not predict the long-term ramifications of the decision, or whether there would be any.
"Again, it would not have been my decision," he said. "I don't know how it will be, though, in three years if she decides to run again for treasurer. I don't know if it will come back to bite her."
Potters said it was not his office's place to comment on the wisdom of the decision.
"We have to remain objective and nonpolitical," he said. "You'd love to say don't do this and don't do that, but that can come back to haunt you, especially legally."
Ostermann said it was a matter of efficacy.
"She has been punished publicly for what she did," she said. "She needs to have a job. Her skills matched what I need in the office, and I needed to fill that position quickly."
Richard Moore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted: Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Article comment by:
The papers stories like this one is revolting. Aside from the scarlet letters, are you going to go back to witch burning?
Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011
Article comment by:
Another example of Mr. Moore pushing his personal agenda. This so called newspaper becomes more pathetic by the day. If not for John Bates, Doug Etten and a couple of other columnists the paper would be unreadable. The woman is qualified, passed the required tests and has the confidence of her direct supervisor. The comment above is correct, stop the attacks and allow the public to form their own opinions.
Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011
Article comment by:
Real journalists, especially those claiming to be investigative reporters, provide unbiased stories to allow the public to form their own opinions. Apparently, Mr. Moore has a lot to learn about journalism. Reading between his twisted lines, it is obvious protocol was followed in this hiring process. My company follows the same protocol. The jobs are made available to those working in the building first. If a suitable candidate is not found, the job is open to the public. Ms. Olson was still employed at the courthouse when she applied and was found to be a suitable and qualified candidate, passing all tests and interviews. Your attempt at making a mountain out of a molehill is pathetic. Stop attacking Ms. Ostermann and Ms. Olson and let them do their jobs.