MOORHEAD — Newly available documents have revealed the former administrator of the Buffalo-Red Watershed District complained that a board member who later was removed was responsible for bullying staff and fostering a “hostile work environment.”
The accusations were made by Bruce Albright, the former longtime administrator of the Buffalo-Red Watershed District, against Jay Leitch, whom Clay County commissioners removed as a board member representing the county on May 26.
Leitch denies the allegations and said the documents, which his lawyer obtained from Clay County through a public records request, show he is the victim of an ouster campaign led by an administrator whose actions he questioned.
“Because he was pretty much in charge before I started asking questions,” including the cost-effectiveness of the district’s water projects, Leitch said. “Before I got there, nobody asked those questions.”
Also, Leitch said, he believes his public testimony critical of the cost-effectiveness of the $2.75 billion diversion project, which is backed by Clay County, helps explain his removal. The Buffalo-Red board refused to give a local permit for the project and is challenging a permit granted by the state of Minnesota.
“Campbell didn’t want me because of my stand on the diversion,” Leitch said, referring to Clay County Commissioner Kevin Campbell.
Clay County officials refused to reveal the reason for Leitch’s removal, except to say it was for legal cause.
Campbell, also a member of the Metro Diversion Authority board, said the county won’t comment on the reason, but said it wasn’t Leitch’s stance on the diversion.
“The diversion was not the reason for his removal,” Campbell said.
Also, he said, the vote to remove Leitch was a unanimous 5-0 and included the vote of commissioner Jenny Mongeau, who has not been a diversion supporter because of impacts to some constituents in her district.
“So, that should tell you something,” Campbell said.
Albright, who spent more than 40 years in watershed management, also blamed Leitch for making the board’s leadership “totally dysfunctional” in a scathing criticism of his leadership style in a Jan. 26 email to Campbell.
Leitch, a retired economics professor at North Dakota State University with a background in natural resource management, served as president of the board.
His written testimony was offered as part of the watershed district’s opposition to a permit for the diversion granted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Peter Fjestad, a farmer near Fergus Falls who succeeded Leitch as president of the Buffalo-Red board, defended Leitch. Fjestad, who opposes the diversion, said he believes Leitch’s opposition to the project was behind his removal, but added he has no proof.
“It’s so bothered me that they removed him without telling us why,” Fjestad said. “It’s got to be public record because it involves a public official.”
Fjestad praised Leitch, saying his knowledge of water management issues was unsurpassed on the board, and rejected suggestions that he “micromanaged.”
As for allegations of bullying or fostering a hostile work environment, Fjestad said he wasn’t a witness, but staff didn’t express concerns after Leitch left.
“It’s a he said, she said thing,” Fjestad said, referring to the clash in depictions from Albright and Leitch.
Campbell defended Albright, who he said has been widely recognized for his water management accomplishments and ability to work with officials to get projects done.
"The Buffalo-Red River Watershed District, I think they've gained the respect from the entire state of Minnesota," he said. "They've won many awards. They did all that under the leadership of Bruce."
Leo Wilking, a lawyer who represents Leitch, in a letter to the county called his client’s removal “unlawful” and cited Minnesota laws and a Minnesota attorney general’s opinion specifying the criteria for legal cause warranting removal of a watershed board member.
By law, a watershed board member cannot be removed for policy reasons, but can be removed for “cause,” including violations of laws, misconduct, neglect, inefficiency or disruptive conduct.
“Any of those things could be looked at,” Brian Melton, Clay County attorney, told The Forum after Leitch’s removal. “They (commissioners) found that they did have cause.”
Melton declined to comment for this story.
The commission’s refusal to cite the cause of Leitch’s removal is “grossly unfair” to Dr. Leitch and damaging to his professional reputation,” Wilking wrote Melton in June.
“More to the point, it is clearly illegal for the Commission to attempt to utilize the ‘for cause’ justification without advising Dr. Leitch of just what ‘cause’ it relied on,” Wilking wrote. “Doing so is the equivalent of an ‘at will’ termination which is clearly prohibited.”
In a response letter in July, Melton wrote that commissioners were on “solid ground” for terminating Leitch for cause “and will be prepared to answer in a court of law regarding any allegation of wrongful termination.”
Leitch’s removal came after commissioners examined public records and interviewed employees of the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District, Melton wrote.
“Based on the information collected, the board made an informed decision to terminate Mr. Leitch,” he added in his response to Wilking. “Since you chose to raise the question of Mr. Leitch’s reputation and claim that there could be ‘damage’ to his reputation caused by his termination, I would caution you that Mr. Leitch’s reputation will not fare well once full litigation begins. The Board exercised great discretion and restraint up to this point to ensure whatever reputation Mr. Leitch has within the community is maintained.”
Documents the county provided to Leitch included emails from Albright.
In an email written Jan. 26 to executives of Houston Engineering, which has a contract to manage the watershed district, Albright accused Leitch of creating a “hostile” work environment at the district’s office in Barnesville, including “bullying and harassment.”
Leitch repeatedly accused employees of fabricating timesheets, Albright wrote. A secretary resigned after Leitch “berated” her publicly over “some minor details in some minutes she’d done,” Albright wrote.
In a March 31 email to Campbell, Albright characterized Leitch as a “rogue” board member who bullied staff, micromanaged employees, “knit-picking” their decisions, and commonly targeted Albright for criticism.
Albright’s wife gave a statement that Leitch had told her at a social gathering in December, “You know, my job is to make your husband’s life miserable.”
Leitch said his comment was intended as a joke and called the allegations against him “at best half-truths” and there was no evidence to justify his removal.
“I might be blunt,” he said. “I don’t think I put people down. I don’t initiate any negative conversations with people.”
In September 2018, Leitch hosted a board “retreat” at his home, a public meeting that required advance notice to the public, Albright said in his email to Campbell. The meeting was only discovered after the fact because a board member submitted an expense voucher for attending, he said.
Albright, who resigned earlier this year, told Campbell that he was retiring after more than 40 years.
“It’s not worth ruining my health on his behalf, but we’re going on over 2 years of personal harassment, as I’ve been the subject of his unwanted remarks, insults, offensive and derogatory statements, and constantly being put down with condescending statements, as you personally observed” at a meeting in March.
“I truly believe that I’m dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder dealing with Jay over the past several years,” Albright wrote.
Albright suggested to Campbell that Leitch could be removed for cause, which he described as a “drastic solution” warranted by Leitch’s actions that he said included not following watershed law and making the board’s leadership “totally dysfunctional.”
Although Leitch continues to press for the reason for his removal and hired a lawyer to plead his case for disclosure, Leitch said he has no interest in taking the dispute to court.
“I don’t want to spend money to get back a job I don’t want,” he said, “but I think it ought to be known the bad behavior of the Clay County board.”