Records: Former Green Bay clerk accused mayor's office of taking over elections process, creating hostile work environment
GREEN BAY - The former city clerk complained for months before she resigned that the mayor's office had overtaken planning for the November presidential election, culminating in claims that her work environment became hostile.
Human Resources determined that Kris Teske's complaint was unsubstantiated, and city officials dispute her version of events. Still, records obtained by the Green Bay Press-Gazette point to a fissure in Teske's relationship with Mayor Eric Genrich and his staff as officials prepared for a presidential election at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Teske is now the clerk for Ashwaubenon after nine years with Green Bay. Genrich's former chief of staff, Celestine Jeffreys, replaced Teske as clerk last month. Former Deputy Clerk Kim Wayte also left last year and took a job in Allouez, although her resignation letter doesn't explain her departure.
"I truly wanted to retire from the City of Green Bay in the future but under the hostile work environment conditions that isn’t going to be possible, unfortunately," Teske wrote in her resignation letter. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
Green Bay's election process came under a microscope last year after voters in April waited hours to cast ballots at two polling places instead of the usual 31 sites — a decision that stemmed in part from a shortage of poll workers. After that, officials vowed they would be ready for the elections in August and November.
Emails dating to March and April show a City Hall that was working together and unified in their frustration over court decisions that forced Wisconsin to hold in-person voting on April 7. At the end of election night, Teske told Genrich in an email that he did a "fantastic job" and credited him with looking out for voters and poll workers.
"I know there’s going to be a lot of second-guessing and negativity headed our way in the coming days, but I just want you to know how proud I am to have you as our city’s clerk," Genrich wrote in response. "No one should ever have to administer an election in this environment, but you did it with professionalism and decency every step of the way."
In a Press-Gazette interview the next day, the mayor called the situation voters faced on election day "unconscionable."
Preparation for August and November ramped up in the following months with the help of a new committee composed of city council members and residents. In June, Teske lamented that the clerk's office was "drowning" as it was asked to take on more duties.
She also told her supervisor, Finance Director Diana Ellenbecker, that the mayor's chief of staff had taken over the planning process.
"I don’t know what the answer is and I don’t think it pays to talk to the Mayor because he sides with Celestine (Jeffreys) so I know this is what he wants," Teske wrote. "I just don’t know where the Clerk’s Office fits in anymore."
Teske's frustration with the mayor's staff intensified from there, and she repeatedly claimed that her office was left out of decisions or contradicted on matters including voter registration drives, drop boxes and poll worker training. In October, she suggested Jeffreys wasn't telling Genrich everything about issues that surfaced.
"I really don’t have time for pointing fingers," the mayor wrote in response. "If we have problems, we need to solve them."
By that point, tensions had boiled over. Teske accused the mayor's office of "dictating" and said her employees were stressed to the point of tears. She also questioned whether the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which awarded Green Bay around $1.5 million in grants to help conduct a safe election, had a partisan affiliation amid a lawsuit that alleged the group violated election law and favored Democratic cities.
A judge ultimately ruled that the five Wisconsin cities that received grants could use them for the November election.
"I am well aware the Mayor is the Chief Executive of the City and I am doing everything I can to make him look good," Teske wrote on Oct. 21 to Amaad Rivera, Genrich's community liaison. "I took an oath to do my job and to follow the law and that is what I am trying to do but some of the Mayor’s staff is telling me what to do or questioning my decisions and is making things much harder than they should be and it is quite obvious to the public."
'A really stressful time'
Other city leaders intervened in early October and attempted to work out communication gaps, records show.
According to a memo from Human Resources Director Joe Faulds, Teske discussed her concerns with the mayor's staff and claimed the lack of coordination was "getting to the point of a hostile work environment." Officials then met with Teske and Jeffreys and mapped out duties for the rest of the election season.
On Oct. 22, employees met to discuss ways to reduce wait times for early in-person voting and ensure Election Day proceeded smoothly. Teske said she felt she was being reprimanded, but Faulds determined that Genrich's requests were "objectively reasonable and were appropriately communicated."
"The Mayor reiterated that his expectation for Ms. Teske was for her to communicate openly and honestly, to be flexible and adaptable to create a safe and efficient election, and to have a functional relationship between the Mayor’s office and the Clerk’s office," the memo stated.
Teske echoed her claim about a hostile work environment in her resignation letter, but Human Resources concluded that none of her interactions with the mayor and his staff "would rise to the level of a hostile work environment or be considered hostile, intimidating, or offensive."
In an interview last week, Genrich said Jeffreys played a key role in election preparations — such as administering the grant money — but disagreed that his staff pushed the clerk's office aside. Nearly every city department pitched in to help while respecting Teske and her staff's duty to administer the elections, he said.
Jeffreys echoed the mayor's comments in a statement, saying city staff "effectively worked collaboratively over many weeks" to mount an unprecedented election. To adapt to the pandemic, officials installed ballot drop boxes, offered drive-through voting and moved the central count from City Hall to the KI Convention Center so poll workers and election observers could socially distance.
"We had a record-turnout election while offering new services for voters and maintaining everyone’s safety," Jeffreys said.
A presidential election coupled with the pandemic was anxiety-inducing, Genrich said, particularly for those who are "change averse" or not used to making last-minute decisions.
"It was just a really difficult time for everybody, a really stressful time," he said. "Emotions run high and tempers run short at times, and communication is essential in those moments."
Despite the conflict, Genrich said he remains proud of how the city handled the 2020 election.
“I really don’t have any regrets with respect to the November 2020 election," he said. "I think it was administered impeccably under really difficult and trying circumstances."
Contact Haley BeMiller at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @haleybemiller.