Following his firing as executive director of the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts late last month, Steve Renfree has shared his perspective on the events that led up to the unexpected parting of the ways.
In its press release about Renfree’s dismissal, the MTCA board of directors emphasized that Renfree was not the employee currently under investigation by Menomonie police regarding a Dec. 9 incident involving sexual assault allegations at the Mabel. After the board learned of the incident at its Dec. 19 meeting, that employee was suspended without pay pending the outcome of the investigation.
Asked about the reasons for Renfree’s dismissal last week, 2018 Board President Andrew Mercil told The News, “The ongoing issues that we’ve had with Steve Renfree that basically began with the start of his employment were substantial. And the sexual assault allegations which now turn out to, it sounds like, be more serious than we were initially informed of — and the mismanagement of that situation put the Mabel at risk.”
As of Friday, Menomonie Police Chief Eric Atkinson reported that the investigation is still active while the department awaits the results of tests by the state’s crime lab.
In his recounting of what took place, Renfree wrote, “Handling an event where an employee is accused of a criminal offense is not something I expected to address as the executive director of the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts.”
He noted that the organization does not have a policy in place for dealing with criminal allegations or workplace investigations. Marni Waznik — whose term as board president was up as of Dec. 31 — confirmed that while there are policies regarding sexual harassment and and employee conduct, she does not believe there is one that is specific to someone being charged with a crime.
Following the incident, Renfree stated, “I used my best judgment, taking direction from the Menomonie Police Department and communicating matters with the MTCA Board president concerning the investigation and my subsequent decisions.”
He explained that he was summoned by Menomonie police to the Mabel on Dec. 9, where they explained the allegations that had been leveled against an employee who was off duty and in the building after hours. “The police officer gave me his card and phone number, and he instructed me not to approach our employee about this matter until they finished their initial investigation,” Renfree reported, adding that the officer said the police would contact him.
Renfree said that he contacted Waznik immediately and shared what he had been told by the officer. For the next 10 days, he said that he and Waznik exchanged daily emails: “We agreed I should keep in touch with the police to learn the details of the case that would be shared with the board.”
Waznik said the police expected to speak with the employee on Dec. 11, and she requested in an email that Renfree notify the board of the situation. “I did not notify the rest of the board,” she said. “I did follow up with the Steve after a couple of days of not having heard anything and let him know that we had some decisions to make regarding the employee in question.”
In his own description of the handling of the incident, board member Charlie Huff states, “Unfortunately, Steve did not heed Marni’s request and did very little for 10 days. In that time, the Mabel continued to employ this person and allowed them unfettered access to the theater.”
Renfree writes that because the allegations were related to the employee’s off-duty conduct, “I determined that the charge would not influence the suitability of the employee to do his job. I monitored the employee at work and provided the board president with a daily evaluation of the employee’s behavior and demeanor. The police department, Marni Waznik, and myself never sensed or expressed safety concerns for Mabel Tainter patrons or staff.”
On Dec. 18, Renfree received a call from Menomonie police telling him that their initial investigation was complete, that “no charges or arrests were made, and no details about the case could be shared.”
After relaying the news to Waznik, they informed the board of what had taken place when the group met the following day.
Parting of ways
According to Huff, Waznik had to “push” Renfree to report to the board what had taken place on Dec. 9: “Steve didn’t want to tell us and seemed concerned with protecting the identity and privacy of the employee. When forced to admit an alleged sexual assault occurred at the Mabel, Steve said that such descriptions as sexual assault might be ‘titillating’ to some. ... Public safety did not figure into his responses. Out of Steve’s presence, the board voted to end his employment at the Mabel upon his return from vacation.”
According to Waznik, the vote was 9-3 in favor of dismissing Renfree.
Huff said that he and incoming board president Mercil met with the suspended employee who affirmed no one at the Mabel had spoken with him about the sexual assault allegations. “I contacted the police, who filled me in on the situation and, in turn, I passed information to the board,” Huff writes. “Steve was contacted and told to meet us promptly upon his return.”
Following that meeting, Renfree was officially terminated as executive director. He writes that in the opinion of Mercil and Huff, “... I was negligent in my duties because I did not conduct an internal investigation by interviewing the employee. Taking into account the complex arena of unprecedented issues that I had been dealing with, I did not expect the abrupt notification over the holidays that I was fired.”
Waznik said she shared the email correspondence between herself and Renfree: “And I can tell you that the board was not satisfied with the handling of this situation although it was not the only thing that played into the decision to terminate his employment.”
Noting that it was never his intention to put the Mabel Tainter or any person at risk, Renfree added, “I sincerely apologize if I did so. I believe that I acted with good judgment regarding this extremely difficult situation; and to be honest, it never crossed my mind to disobey the recommendations of the Menomonie Police Department. I heeded the advisement of the MTCA president, direction by the police department, and my own judgment in the absence of company policies, procedures or protocols on the matter.”
Following Renfree’s firing, three MTCA board members — Mark Johnson, Pat Avery and Ursula Berger — have resigned their positions. Waznik said a nominating committee has been re-established and the board is currently seeking to fill the three vacant positions on the 15-member board.
While also initiating a search for a new executive director, Waznik concluded, “We appreciate the continued support of the community. These are difficult situations to deal with, and there are a number of community members who are serving on the board who are doing their best to manage the situation in the best interests of the Mabel.”
Editor’s note: The full letters to the editor submitted to The Dunn County News by Steve Renfree and Charlie Huff are available online at www.dunnconnect.com.