TOWER— The city council here voted unanimously on Monday to place Tower City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith on paid administrative suspension pending the outcome of an investigation into a laundry …
TOWER— The city council here voted unanimously on Monday to place Tower City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith on paid administrative suspension pending the outcome of an investigation into a laundry list of allegations against her. The council also authorized itself to investigate those allegations, which the council will undertake with guidance from the League of Minnesota Cities.
The city charter gives the council broad investigative powers, including the right to subpoena witnesses and take testimony under oath. Exactly how the investigation will play out remains to be seen, but council members indicated they wanted to see it completed quickly.
In the interim, the council authorized Mayor Orlyn Kringstad to contact former Tower City Clerk-Treasurer Ann Lamppa about returning to her old office on a part-time, temporary basis. Kringstad told council members on Monday that he had been in touch with Lamppa, who had indicated a willingness to help out the city during the investigation and possible transition to a new clerk-treasurer. Lamppa began her duties as of Tuesday this week.
The situation at city hall proved complicated following Keith’s suspension. While the council passed a motion requiring Keith to provide passwords to her city computer and accounting program, the passwords that Keith provided on Monday did not appear to be functional and city officials were not able to access her computer. Keith did not respond to phone calls or texts from city hall, Kringstad said on Wednesday, and city officials were still trying to determine how to handle the situation but were considering asking the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office to contact Keith to demand the passwords.
The sheriff’s office is already conducting an investigation into a criminal complaint against Keith and former Mayor Josh Carlson and former Acting Mayor Kevin Fitton stemming from allegations that they were involved in illegally removing Marshall Helmberger from his position as chair of the Tower Economic Development Authority in January of 2018 in retaliation for critical reporting on actions of the city.
Investigators from the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office served a search warrant in that case last Tuesday in order to obtain emails between those three individuals for the period of Nov. 1, 2017—Jan. 31, 2018. The council removed Helmberger from TEDA on Jan. 22, 2018. Investigators served that warrant on Eveleth-based Tech Bytes, which hosts the city’s website and email system and the owner of the business quickly complied. A copy of the search warrant was made available to council members and the media during Monday’s council meeting. Kringstad also released a copy of the criminal complaint submitted by Helmberger to County Attorney Mark Rubin back in February.
During opening comments on Monday, Kringstad said the serving of a search warrant indicated that the criminal investigation had taken “a serious turn,” in that an independent judge had determined there was probable cause to believe that Keith and others had committed a crime. Given that the investigation stemmed from apparent falsification of city records by Keith, Kringstad said the council could not responsibly leave her in her current position while investigations by both the city and county were ongoing.
Helmberger’s complaint alleges that Keith and the two former council members violated Minn. Stat. 609.43, titled Misconduct by a Public Official. The law makes it a gross misdemeanor to use official authority to deny someone their rights, to take actions beyond lawful authority, or to present official documents knowing they are false in any material way. By dismissing Helmberger without cause, the three allegedly denied Helmberger rights to due process established in state statutes for members of an economic development authority and also exceeded their legal authority in doing so. Finally, the apparent falsification of Helmberger’s term of office from his original appointment through 2019, to suggest his term expired at the end of 2017, constituted an additional violation.
The city’s own investigation is likely to include what’s known as a “forensic audit,” which the council authorized on Monday as part of a series of motions. Kringstad said the St. Louis County investigators recommended the forensic audit and provided the name of an individual with the state auditor’s office who conducts such reviews. A forensic audit is typically undertaken to search for evidence of financial wrongdoing, such as embezzlement or other financial improprieties
Due process questioned
While the council opted to suspend Keith, any decision to terminate her employment can only come after the completion of due process. Under Keith’s union contract, she can only be discharged for just cause, and Keith has access to the contract’s five-step grievance process, which could end in binding arbitration if no agreement is reached earlier.
Prior to the council’s action on her suspension, Keith claimed on Monday that the council was denying her due process because she did not have representation from her union and blamed Kringstad for providing notice too late in the day last Friday for her union representative to make plans to attend the meeting on Monday evening.
“Andy [Peterson] called me at 3:55 p.m. and that was the first time I’d heard of it [the special meeting],” Keith claimed.
Kringstad said he had sent her an email hours earlier asking her to post the special meeting.
“No, you didn’t,” Keith shot back.
“I have the email, Linda,” Kringstad said.
“So do I,” responded Keith. “At this point you’ve denied my right to representation.”
At the request of the Timberjay, Kringstad forwarded the emails exchanged between the two, which indicate that Keith’s version of events was incorrect. The initial email from Kringstad to Keith was sent at 1:38 p.m., more than two hours before Keith said she learned of the meeting.
Regardless of the timing of the notice, Kringstad read from the city charter, noting that the city council has the right to exclude the clerk-treasurer from any meeting during which the council would address disciplinary action or dismissal. By extension, he said, that means that the council can exclude the clerk’s union representation from that meeting. Kringstad noted that the council had not exercised its right and was allowing Keith to be present for the meeting.
Moments later, the council voted to suspend Keith until both the city and county investigations play out.
The council then passed a second motion requiring Keith to turn over her keys and passwords to city computer systems, including the accounting program. Kringstad then called for a five-minute recess to the meeting to allow Keith to gather her personal belongings and comply with the council’s requests. Breitung Police Chief Dan Nylund then led Keith out of the building. The 16 people in the audience remained quiet throughout the process.
Following Keith’s departure, the council proceeded to pass a series of motions, including authorizing an investigation into allegations that Keith mishandled her responsibilities, was insubordinate, dishonest, created a hostile work environment, and created “an environment of stagnation in city development.”
In prepared remarks, Kringstad reported on the origins of his concerns about the clerk-treasurer, which began shortly after his election as mayor last November. He said he had requested a number of city documents after the election, including the current budget, a copy of the charter, and other items. He also requested a copy of the roster of commission and committee terms, which Keith provided to him on Nov. 14, 2018. But in his review of city council minutes, Kringstad said he noted discrepancies between the terms of office of members of several city committees reflected in the minutes and terms that appeared in the roster that Keith provided to him.
He said he had several other concerns at the time, including missing minutes on the city’s website from the council as well as other commissions. He also reviewed audit reports from prior years and found the city had taken little or no action to address concerns raised by auditors.
Kringstad then consulted a private attorney in Duluth back in December to seek legal guidance on how to proceed once he assumed office in January. Kringstad said he was concerned he could be complicit in possibly illegal actions if he did not inform the council of the alterations to commission and committee terms.
Other concerns that Kringstad outlined in a printed document provided to the council on Monday included:
Misleading or false statements by the clerk-treasurer on several occasions, including the status of a $140,000 insurance settlement, and inaccurate claims about a TEDA loan to Tower Harbor Shores. Keith also claimed last December that a tax abatement plan that the previous city council had approved was illegal because it exceeded a purported statutory limit on interest rates. In fact, there is no such limit on interest rates as they pertain to municipal indebtedness.
Failure to properly execute the Aug. 14 primary election in Tower, which led to the forfeiture of the votes of nearly 20 percent of the city’s electorate. It appears the Keith also failed to follow through on a requirement by the city council that she contact St. Louis County elections coordinator Phil Chapman in writing seeking a special audit of the city’s November general election. The council discussed the issue on Sept. 26, 2018, and Keith told the council at the time that the letter to Chapman was sitting on her desk and only needed the mayor’s signature. However, according to Chapman, he never received the letter from Keith and no special audit was conducted following the general election.
Failure of the clerk-treasurer to follow through on directives by the council regarding the posting of city council agendas, sending draft minutes to council members, and the posting of approved minutes on the city’s website.
A general lack of confidence in Keith by the public and members of city commissions. Those concerns include her handling of the Lamppa Manufacturing facility construction, and her conduct as zoning administrator and as secretary to the city’s airport commission.
In related business, the council appointed Steve Abrahamson to serve as zoning administrator in place of Keith. The council also directed deputy clerk-treasurer Terri Joki-Martin to serve as clerk for the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board for the interim.
In other business, the council heard from city attorney Andy Peterson, who explained his reasoning for recusing himself from offering legal advice to the city while the council worked through how to handle a grievance from Keith that had sought to limit the council’s authority to investigate the clerk-treasurer. That decision had been criticized by some members of the council and the public, but Peterson said he believed that since he was not going to be involved in any investigation of the clerk-treasurer, that it was best for him to recuse himself from the grievance issue as well. “It was not a decision I took lightly,” he said.
Peterson also addressed his advice that the city council could continue to hold closed meetings to discuss allegations against the clerk-treasurer. He said he had consulted with the League of Minnesota Cities, whose legal counsel had agreed with him that the meetings could continue to be closed. But the Department of Administration, based on an advisory opinion request from the Timberjay, determined that once the council had determined that an investigation was warranted, any subsequent meetings to address the matter had to be public.
“These are difficult issues,” said Peterson. “Are we always correct? Certainly not, but we always try to do our best.”