Grand County official gave employee ‘safe word’ to use in uncomfortable conversations, complaint alleges

Jun 21, 2024, 2:33 PM | Updated: 2:38 pm

The La Sal Mountains are pictured at sunset as seen from Moab on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (Spenser H...

The La Sal Mountains are pictured at sunset as seen from Moab on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

(Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

GRAND COUNTY — The Grand County human resources director has resigned her position amid allegations that she retaliated against an employee who complained about harassment.

In her resignation letter, Renee Baker did not mention the employee’s complaint or subsequent appeal that was sent to the county commission. Baker told her colleagues in an email she had “accepted a job offer to return to my home state of South Dakota.”

But Baker’s resignation came in the middle of a legal back-and-forth with a female staffer who said her boss, Grand County Economic Development Director Ben Fredregill, harassed her – including giving her a “safe word” to use in conversations with him if she felt uncomfortable.

After making her initial complaint, the staffer said she was disciplined and placed on a performance improvement plan. Because of that, her attorney wrote, the staffer “was retaliated against and subjected to an adverse employment action.”

KSL obtained copies of the complaint, appeal, and other documents at the center of this case.

Initial complaint

The staffer, whom KSL is not identifying, initially filed a complaint against Fredregill, her direct supervisor, on March 11. She alleged Fredregill made multiple offensive comments about her national origin and ethnicity, and that he questioned her political affiliation.

Less than two weeks later, Baker received a report from a Salt Lake City law firm, dated March 23, that investigated the staffer’s allegations. That report found Fredregill’s actions did not “rise to the level of unlawful harassment or discrimination.”

As a result, Baker wrote, there was no justification to remove Fredregill from his position, although he would be “informally coached to avoid such comments in the future.”

But the staffer said the harassment – and subsequent retaliation – continued even after that report was issued. On March 27, the staffer said, she received a disciplinary report from Baker which included “a written warning for insubordination based on six incidents of ‘disregarding communication protocols’ and ‘bypassing managerial authority’ occurring between February 27, 2024 and March 26, 2024.”

That was the same time period as when the staffer’s harassment complaint was being investigated.

A ‘safe word’

The same report from the law firm revealed an additional detail about Fredregill’s interactions with the staffer.

“Fredregill noted…that he created a ‘safe’ word for [the staffer] early on by which she could signal to him that he was discussing subjects that make [the staffer] uncomfortable,” the report stated.

That amounts to sexual harassment in violation of Grand County policy, the staffer’s new Salt Lake City-based attorney, Blake Hamilton, wrote in an April 8 appeal of the county’s findings.

“The ‘safe’ word [Fredregill] gave [the staffer] was ‘NASCAR’ because he reasoned that he and [the staffer] liked cars,” Hamilton wrote.

But a “safe word” implies sexual innuendo, Hamilton wrote, as it is often defined as a verbal signal from one partner to another to stop certain sexual activity.

“The ‘safe’ word discussions between [Fredregill] and [the staffer] occurred multiple times and took place as recently as March 27, 2024, after a meeting where [the staffer’s] disciplinary documents were given to her,” Hamilton wrote.

In the appeal, Hamilton also included an affidavit from a former county employee and co-worker of the staffer, who confirmed the allegations, including the “safe word” policy.

That former employee wrote, “I thought to myself, ‘Why would you need a safe word in an office environment?’”

Fredregill did not respond to a request for comment.

County commission hearing

After the staffer filed the appeal, a closed in-person hearing was scheduled for May 21 at which the Grand County Commission would hear the arguments and issue a decision within 15 business days.

That hearing was held, but no decision has been issued yet, a source told KSL.

On the same day the hearing took place, Baker turned in her letter of resignation to Grand County, saying she would leave her position on June 7.

In an email to department heads and elected officials, obtained by KSL through a public records request, Baker said she wanted to “embrace new professional challenges.”

“I want to express my sincere gratitude for the support, opportunities, and experiences I have had while working here over the last eight years,” Baker wrote. “It has been a pleasure collaborating with such a dedicated and talented group of professionals.”

Baker did not respond to a request for comment from KSL about her resignation and whether it was tied in any way to the allegations of retaliation against the county staffer.

In a filing of her own to the Grand County Commission on May 10, Baker defended her decision not to take action against Fredregill based on the law firm’s independent investigation. Baker said her decision was supported by “substantial evidence” and should not be overturned.

Further, Baker said the staffer never complained about Fredregill’s use of a “safe word” in her initial complaint – only in the appeal.

KSL reached out to the Grand County Commission administration for comment on the case and its status, but they did not respond.

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Grand County official gave employee ‘safe word’ to use in uncomfortable conversations, complaint alleges