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Dodge County Assessor's Office

A Dodge County Assessor's Office employee was fired last month after she refused to sign an employee agreement document from Dodge County Appraiser Debbie Churchill.

A few weeks after talking to Dodge County Appraiser Debbie Churchill about wage concerns, former employee Coralea Kotrous said Churchill presented the office with two documents on Oct. 16.

One was an employee agreement stating that employees would support the office both inside and outside the work area, not use cellphones and not discuss wages. The other was a resignation letter.

Kotrous refused to sign either.

“So then the next day, she called me in and she said nothing about the forms, she just needed me out of there and fired me,” she said. “It’s just a sad deal.”

Employees at for the Dodge County Assessor’s Office had to sign either letter or face termination, as first reported by KMTV 3 News Now Investigators on Omaha’s CBS station last week.

KMTV’s initial report also included accusations of nepotism by Churchill, who hired her daughter and son-in-law to the office. Kotrous’ wage concerns were that the family members were overpaid for their lack of experience.

Kotrous said the atmosphere of the office “totally, 100% changed” after Churchill’s hiring of her daughter. After two head appraisers stepped down in succession, Churchill hired her son-in-law to replace them. The son-in-law is not married to Churchill’s daughter that she hired.

Soon after the son-in-law’s hire, Kotrous said Churchill held a meeting and said there was “too much drama” and that the employees needed to take care of him.

“I’m documenting all of this, and Debbie’s attitude totally changed: It was all about her son-in-law and her daughter; what can she do to help them?” Kotrous said.

During this same time, Kotorus said she also learned that Churchill’s relatives were making more money than her despite being at the office for a shorter period of time.

Kotorus said in the past, she had been able to talk with Churchill about issues in the office. But when meeting with Churchill about the wages, Kotorus said Churchill became “violently mad” and refused to talk with her after.

The documents came after Churchill said she heard someone saying the office was a “hostile work environment.” She said the office hadn’t had a situation like this since she took office earlier this year.

“This was the first time that the office was in such an uproar that I was having multiple people come to me saying that if something didn’t change, they were going to quit,” she said. “And I couldn’t lose a number of employees over one disgruntled employee, so that’s when I said, ‘OK, you’re all gone. And anybody who wants to stay, you’re staying of your own free will.’”

The agreement’s stipulations also include the employee understanding that “drama” due to wage stipulations may affect future raises. It also places the employees on a one-month probationary period.

“I think the month has come and gone maybe just yesterday or the day before, and I have to say the work environment is just 100% changed for the better,” Churchill said.

Churchill said she spoke with Dodge County Attorney Oliver Glass after writing up an employee agreement for people in the office to sign.

I said, ‘I realize it’s not legally binding, but it just kind of gives everybody an idea of going forward, what I expect and what type of attitude I expected here,’” she said.

While the letter of resignation is dated Oct. 16, 2019, the employee agreement is signed Oct. 16, 2018, which Kotorus said makes the document less credible.

Kotorus said she took issue with the fact that the agreement banned discussion of the offices’ issues and the use of cellphones, which were used by the employees on a daily basis for taking pictures of maps for the public.

After Churchill handed out the documents, Kotorus said she did not see Churchill hand one to her son-and-law and saw Churchill’s daughter immediately follow her into her office with the signed document.

“They knew they were coming,” Kotorus said. “They were prepared to just sign it and just give it back.”

Kotorus was the only employee terminated for “insubordination” for not signing a document. However, she said the Department of Labor dropped her unemployment status after not finding evidence to support the termination.

“She didn’t say anything about insubordination to me,” Kotorus said. “I was always doing my job and helping others all the time. She couldn’t say I was insubordinate.”

Bob Missel, chairman of the Dodge County Board of Supervisors, said the board doesn’t have much say in the assessor’s actions and only controls their budget.

“Outside of that, (Churchill) is the elected official of her office and is responsible for the duties of her office, which includes employment,” he said. “So it’s really out of the board’s jurisdiction.”

Oliver Glass, Dodge County attorney, said the county offices have leeway in how they operate.

“The county board doesn’t say, ‘You have to run your office this way or that way,’” he said. “Debbie is an elected official like myself, and we’re answerable to the electorate, to the people, but as far as how I choose to run my office or how Debbie chooses to run her office, that’s largely up to her.”

Glass said he wasn’t aware if any other office in the county had used a document similar to Churchill’s. He said although his office has a duty to look into anything illegal, Churchill’s actions weren’t grounds for legal action.

“My office looked into it as well, and as far as anything illegal regarding the situation, as the current state of the law stands in the state of Nebraska and with regard to the county employment that’s based on the laws that stand in the state of Nebraska, (Churchill) hasn’t done anything illegal,” Glass said.

Kotorus said she saw the employee agreement as nothing more than a way for Churchill to get rid of her.

“I’m sure she’s not upholding it. I’m sure she’s not,” she said. “It was just a thing to try to get me out of there. Plain as day, that’s all it was.”

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