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Stephen J. Lee Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, Published January 01 2009

Polk fires driver in mishap

CROOKSTON, Minn. – The man who drove the county’s loader onto and then through the ice into the Red Lake River early Monday here in Central Park was fired on Tuesday.

“It looks to me like I lost my job,” Mike Raymond said. “Today, they sent me a letter. It pretty much tells me I’m done, but I can appeal if I want.”

He’s worked for the Polk County Highway Department for almost 28 years.

“He was a good employee,” said Richard Sanders, head of the department, pointing out Raymond’s long tenure since being hired in 1981. But Raymond clearly violated the department’s work rules in a big way, he said.

Sanders met Tuesday with other county officials about Raymond’s actions, and decisions were made, he said. Nothing official will be said publicly yet about Raymond’s fate, except that he is on paid administrative leave and would be disciplined, Sanders said.

But Raymond told the Herald about his pink slip.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.

Raymond was working a graveyard shift moving snow off the parking lots of county buildings. In the early hours on Monday, he decided to drive the 9-ton John Deere 544 loader about five blocks to Central Park and clear snow off the city’s boat ramp used in the winter by ice fishermen to put their fish houses on and off the river.

Raymond said he decided to clean snow off the boat ramp to help everyone who uses the river in the winter, but acknowledges it wasn’t his job or the county’s.

The loader slipped down the ramp, onto the ice and sank into the river, he said.

Raymond called 911 at 2:15 a.m. Monday from the partly submerged cab of his loader.

Raymond has a fish house on the river, too, a few yards from the ramp, but he said he wasn’t clearing a path to his fish house, as some said on TV news reports.

Sanders won’t say much about the incident, but he said it was an unauthorized use of county equipment by Raymond during a time he was supposed to be working on county parking lots moving snow during the graveyard shift. The worst aspect of it all was that Raymond easily could have been killed if the water had been much deeper and the loader had tipped over, Sanders said.

Sanders said he’s never had this severe of a misuse of county equipment by an employee.

A year ago, Sanders sent out a memo on the subject his 35 employees stating that department policy prohibits personal use of county equipment.

“It has been brought to my attention that individuals are using Polk County equipment for personal use and are continuing to smoke in Polk County vehicles,” Sanders wrote in his memo dated Dec. 19, 2007, to all highway department employees.

Sanders wrote that violating the policy would result in immediate discipline that could include termination.

The loader was about 20 feet from the boat ramp when it broke through the ice and sank to the bottom, submerged in about 6 feet of water and mud.

There’s no final estimate on the cost of the damage, Sanders said, but it easily will amount to thousands of dollars in parts and labor.

It took about five hours for a private contractor using a loader and a back hoe to pull the loader out of the river, which will cost about $1,500, Sanders said. It also required the county’s dive team to help hook up the chains.

Raymond, who is in his early 50s, grew up and attended high school in Crookston. His father worked for the state Highway Department.

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.