TOWER— The city council here, at a special meeting on Monday, gave its unanimous approval to a separation agreement that ends the employment of Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith effective on Aug. 31, …
TOWER— The city council here, at a special meeting on Monday, gave its unanimous approval to a separation agreement that ends the employment of Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith effective on Aug. 31, 2019. Keith has been on paid suspension from her duties since June and the agreement approved by the council provides her a modest lump sum severance, payment of accrued vacation time, and health benefits through the end of the year.
Under the agreement, Keith gives up her rights to continued employment per her union contract and surrenders all rights and potential claims against the city.
Attorney Mitch Brunfelt, who the council hired earlier this summer to investigate a laundry list of allegations against Keith, told the council that the agreement was “an economic decision,” that saved the city money and provided a guaranteed outcome. Brunfelt, along with mayor Orlyn Kringstad, council member Rachel Beldo, and interim clerk-treasurer Ann Lamppa, had negotiated the deal with Keith and her representatives during a five hour-long mediation session at city hall last Wednesday.
The deal, made public on Monday, pays Keith a lump sum severance of $11,200, minus withholding, plus accumulated vacation pay of $3,902, which the city is obligated to provide under her contract. The city will also pay $4,504 to the Teamsters group health plan to provide for Keith’s health insurance through the end of the calendar year. Keith will continue to be paid her regular salary and health benefits through the end of August.
Brunfelt explained that state law gives employees 21 days to make a final decision to sign a separation agreement, which is why the deal won’t take effect for three weeks. Keith has already signed the agreement although she also has up to 15 days to change her mind.
City officials had been considering terminating Keith following the recent filing of criminal charges against her by the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office, but Brunfelt noted that Keith’s union contract allowed her to challenge any such termination through a binding arbitration process. Brunfelt said the legal fees and other costs associated with such a process can easily run $20,000-$25,000, while often taking six-to-twelve months to resolve. “And there’s no guaranteed outcome, even in cases like this,” he said. “If you take the $20,000-$25,000 and allocate toward a buyout, you get a guaranteed outcome.”
Council members made it clear they weren’t happy having to pay Keith anything under the circumstances. Keith has allegedly engaged in a wide variety of questionable conduct, including falsification of city records, false statements to the council, and mismanagement of city projects and finances.
“People stop me in the street and ask why we would pay her anything, with some of the things that have happened,” said council member Mary Shedd. “I agree it’s a tough pill to swallow,” said Beldo. Yet, in the end, councilors all agreed that it was the best course of action for the city. “We have a lot of work to do,” said Kringstad. “We need to move on.”
Brunfelt said the agreement amounts to a “pretty typical” settlement for such a separation, estimating that it amounts to about six months total salary including the roughly two-and-a-half months that the city will have paid Keith while on suspension.
The agreement pertains solely to the employment relationship between the city and Keith, noted Brunfelt. “This has no relation to what happened in the case being brought by the county attorney,” he said. Keith is set to appear in a Virginia courtroom on Aug. 30 to face charges that she falsified city records in order to remove Marshall Helmberger as the president of the Tower Economic Development Authority last year. She faces a single gross misdemeanor count in that case for “misconduct by a public official.” Former Tower Mayor Josh Carlson was also charged in that incident.
At the same time, the agreement means that Brunfelt will likely never complete the investigation he began last month into at least a dozen separate allegations against Keith. Brunfelt said he had largely completed his investigative work as of last week’s mediation but had not yet begun to write up his report to the council.
While last week’s mediation was ostensibly to address a separate grievance issue that Keith had filed, Brunfelt said the filing of criminal charges against Keith just days earlier had provided an opportunity to push for a broader settlement of her employment situation. “The timing worked out well,” he said.
While the agreement eliminates all legal claims that Keith might have toward the city, it does not prevent the city from pursuing a possible legal claim against Keith stemming from her intentional destruction of a city-owned laptop computer that was under her control.
The agreement also clears the way for the city to begin the search for a permanent replacement of Keith, who has worked for the city since 2012. The council will likely take up a job description and posting for the position at their regular meeting on Monday, Aug. 12.
Interim clerk-treasurer Ann Lamppa is expected to continue in her position until a permanent replacement is hired and trained.
Bridge loan approved
In other business, the council gave quick and unanimous approval to a $500,000 grant anticipation loan from Frandsen Bank and Trust to cover the cost of a $449,803 bill from Nordic Group for trail work done around the city’s harbor. The city has yet to receive any reimbursement, to date, from a $679,000 state grant, and needs to show payment of the bills on the project in order to receive reimbursement. The council, later in the meeting, approved payment of the Nordic Group bill.
While cities typically cannot borrow from a financial institution, like a bank, grant anticipation loans are allowed under state law. Mayor Kringstad said he expects the loan to be very short-term in nature and to be repaid as soon as reimbursement funds are available to do so.
The council also approved a contract with Community Coaching, a community development business operated by Nancy Larson, of Soudan. Larson has been assisting the city in recent weeks to address longstanding problems and lack of reimbursement on several city projects financed with grant dollars. To date, Larson has worked on a volunteer basis, but she will now be paid for her grant-writing and project management services on an hourly basis of $75 per hour.
“She has helped us tremendously,” said Kringstad. “She’s very professional and will provide us with detailed reports going forward. I really see this as an investment in Tower rather than an expense.”
In other business, the council postponed a decision on how to proceed with the change-out of fume extraction equipment at the new Lamppa Manufacturing facility. An estimate for the work, provided by the project’s general contractor, Lenci Construction, came in at $115,000— a figure that gave city officials pause.
Since then, Lamppa plant manager Dale Horihan has been in contact with the equipment manufacturer and a local installer and is confident the work can be done for far less if the city has the work done itself. Lamppa officials say they are eager to get access to the new building and can work in the new facility even while waiting for removal and replacement of the existing fume extractor.
TEDA vice-president Marshall Helmberger told the council that TEDA is willing to pursue the option of terminating the project with Lenci and moving forward with the modest change orders independently. The council is likely to take up the issue at their Aug. 12 meeting.