Fritz Kroncke notes proudly that in his 42 years with the Madison Parks Division, much of them spent overseeing city beaches and lifeguards as its recreation services supervisor, "I never lost a swimmer." The only lifeguard-on-duty drowning happened in the early '70s, and he "was not working that summer."
But Kroncke says he left his job last June in part because he wasn't sure this streak would continue, due to changes wrought by Parks Superintendent Kevin Briski.
"Something's going to pop," he remembers thinking. "Somebody's going to go. And I don't want to be here because I know Kevin and [another division manager] are going to be pointing the finger at me."
Kroncke, 60, admits there were other reasons for his abrupt departure. His schedule was changed to require him to work weekends, and he was denied permission to take a vacation during the summer season. But asked if he left because of Briski, he answers in a flash: "Absolutely."
Briski responds that Kroncke never raised concerns about swimmer safety while he worked for the division, or even afterward, in a nine-page, single-spaced letter of complaint he filed with the city: "Fritz never articulated that with us."
Kroncke was one of just two fulltime employees in recreation services, overseeing part-time and seasonal staff. The other full-timer, recreation services assistant John Young, also left the division in 2009, in his case after 13 years, saying he was wrongfully reassigned and retaliated against.
"Kevin Briski's definitely a bully," says Young, 58, who has a pending grievance against the division. "This guy's a bad deal for Parks."
Briski says the problems with both Kroncke and Young started when he rearranged their schedules to reduce overtime. Instead of having Monday-through-Friday workweeks, with time-and-a-half comp time awarded for their routine work on weekends, he made weekends part of their schedule. "It's really about managing our staff and managing our time," he says.
But the duo's discontent does seem to be part of a larger pattern, one that has attracted official notice.
"I'm really concerned about the management of the Parks Division," says Madison Ald. Paul Skidmore, who sits on the Madison Park Commission and has fielded numerous complaints from current and former staff. "I think we need to dig deeper to find what the problems are."
The former head of parks systems in Indiana, Briski took the reins here in June 2008. He seems well regarded by the mayor and others in city government, and is credited with achieving efficiencies in the division's operation. The Wisconsin State Journal last week editorialized that he should be put in charge of other city departments.
But Briski's style and temperament have long been called into question. In 2008, he drew two complaints: One worker alleged that Briski berated him behind closed doors; the other alleged bias on the basis of race. The city found no evidence to substantiate either complaint (see "Briski Cleared in Probe," 3/5/09).
Kroncke's letter, released to Isthmus in response to an open records request, alleged that Briski "started to act aggressively towards me," suggesting he was instigating a "lifeguard strike." As Isthmus and other media reported, some lifeguards indicated they would not return after Briski axed the job of Goodman Pool supervisor Bonnie Griswold (see Watchdog, 1/23/09). But Kroncke says he did nothing to encourage this.
Briski denies making this accusation, saying Kroncke was involved in and agreed with the decision on Griswold. Kroncke angrily disputes knowing about this ahead of time ("I was absolutely shocked"), saying "there was no way Briski would listen to any of my input on training or supervision."
Kroncke also accuses Briski of interfering with Parks operations in his zeal to cut costs. "He's trying to save as much money as he can for the mayor," says Kroncke. "But he's compromising the services for the whole city of Madison."
In his letter, Kroncke alleged that the 2008-09 winter season ended with "multiple operational problems that weren't addressed because Kevin did not want me to work"; and that a routine mooring field inspection was delayed for want of the requisite approvals, putting boats at risk. The Parks Division, he wrote, "is now managed by new people who are making mistakes without listening to their subordinate staff who have decades of experience making sure facilities are ready for the public."
Briski disputes this, saying he regularly solicits input from staff.
The city's Human Resources Department, on reviewing Kroncke's letter, rejected his contention that he was "inappropriately forced to retire." It found he left due to his "dissatisfaction and disagreement" with decisions that were within management's purview to make.
Kroncke agrees to a point, but says, "A workplace filled with animosity and contention is a place no one wants to be."
After Kroncke left, John Young says his job duties were increased. Last June, he filed a grievance over his schedule change, saying it violated contract rules requiring five-day advance notice and mutual consent.
Young's supervisor, Steven Doninger, insisted in reply that "I did provide that notice verbally" and that "John gave every indication that he understood." Briski sided with Doninger and denied the grievance. But Young and his union, Council 60, have appealed, and the matter is headed to an arbitration hearing this spring.
"It's an important grievance," says Jennifer McCulley, staff representative for Council 60, which represents Young and more than 1,000 other city workers. "It could have a large effect on the entire contract," as to the city's ability to change employee schedules.
McCulley adds that the union has "a good handful of grievances with the Parks Division" over actions taken by Briski. "He has come in and he's tried to implement many changes [that] we don't feel are compliant with the contract language." But she says the union is also working to "build a relationship" with Briski.
Last August, after he filed his grievance, Young was summoned to a pre-disciplinary hearing for alleged violations of work rules, including "discussing personnel matters and soliciting others to sign a petition" on city time. This led to a written "verbal warning."
This "petition" was a slip of paper signed by 19 Parks workers, all claiming to have heard Briski say the division needed to bring the public's expectations down. (Briski insists he said the opposite: "We have to raise our parks maintenance standards to the public's expectations.")
Young was also told his hours (and pay) were being cut by 25%, effective Jan. 1. He instead transferred late last year to the city's building inspection unit, where he is now a code enforcer. Says Young, "It's very hostile in the Parks Division now."
Briski is on a five-year contract, including a two-year probationary period, which expires in June. Until then, he "serves at the pleasure of the mayor"; afterward, there is a prescribed process for nonrenewal, and his contract can be severed only for cause.
For now, Briski is focused on running the Parks Division effectively, not the buzz about him.
"Am I managing a department or managing perceptions?" he asks, immediately answering his own question. "I know that I'm managing a department."