TOWER— Tower Fire Chief Steve Altenburg offered a rambling and, at times, accusatory defense of his actions in the face of a complaint by a female member of the fire department that she had been …
TOWER— Tower Fire Chief Steve Altenburg offered a rambling and, at times, accusatory defense of his actions in the face of a complaint by a female member of the fire department that she had been singled out for discriminatory treatment by Altenburg. The complaint also alleged that Altenburg had used inciteful and disrespectful language during a recent fire department training, openly suggesting that the city would be better off if Mayor Orlyn Kringstad and Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger would kill themselves.
Kringstad noted that the council had intended to give preliminary consideration of the complaint in a closed session, as is required by law, but Altenburg exercised his right to have the matter discussed in public.
Discussion of the issue came moments after Breitung police ejected Tower News commentator Tony Sikora from the meeting for inappropriate conduct. Sikora had asked for a copy of the complaint against Altenburg, but Kringstad told him that the city’s attorney had advised the council that he would need to make a formal data request in order to receive a copy.
Sikora suggested he might sue the city over access to information, claiming that a recent request took three weeks to fulfill. “I’m just telling you, I’m having a real problem getting data requests fulfilled and my patience in not litigating you is wearing thin. So, you’re warned,” said Sikora. “Now you can gavel, fool!” Sikora said to Kringstad.
Sikora’s comment drew immediate reaction from several people in the audience, who called him out of order.
Sikora barked back. “Well, I really don’t value any of you packsackers’ opinions back behind me,” said Sikora. “Taxpaying citizens would be another situation.”
At that point, Kringstad brought the gavel down and told Sikora he had gone “over the line” for name-calling and asked Breitung officer Jim Battin to remove him from the meeting.
“I’ll see you in court, too,” said Sikora as Officer Battin calmly walked him out of the chambers.
With Sikora removed, Kringstad brought Altenburg’s behavior back into focus, reading from the complaint filed by seven-year fire department veteran Paige [Hinkel] Olson.
Olson, who is currently the only female member of the department, cited examples where she was singled out for humiliating treatment such as being told to “do nothing” at some fire calls. She also said that she had not been given equal opportunity to train on fire department apparatus and felt she could not operate the department’s primary engine pumper if called upon to do so.
In addition, she said she had been criticized by Altenburg for using her phone at a fire call, when male members were not cited for similar conduct.
Perhaps the most incendiary allegation was Olson’s recollection of a discussion during a fire department training earlier this month, when Olson said Altenburg and fellow firefighter Mike Larsen had discussed their wish to see both Kringstad and Helmberger dead.
Olson’s mother, Amy Hinkel, who was present at the meeting, said the conversation had left her daughter shaken, and that she had reported it to her shortly after the training concluded. Hinkel reported the conversation to both Kringstad and Helmberger the next day, which ultimately led to Olson putting the incident on the record in her complaint.
In her complaint, Olson said such discussion was not unusual at fire department meetings and that the disrespectful comments made it unpleasant to attend meetings. “To me, it seems unprofessional and inappropriate for someone who is supposed to be in a leadership position on a city department to constantly try to undermine those in a position to supervise them,” Olson wrote.
Kringstad emphasized that point. “The city of Tower made a decision through their right to vote last November,” he said. “It’s incumbent on the employees of the city, particularly department heads, to respect the decision that has been made by the citizens of the city.”
Kringstad said differences can be taken up through respectful discussion, rather than “through profane name-calling and the kind of behavior that has been exhibited by Mr. Altenburg.” He added: “Suggesting that it would be better for city officials or prominent citizens to kill themselves is going way over the line. Especially in the climate we live in today, this kind of language can incite people to commit dangerous and deadly acts. There should be a zero-tolerance policy toward this kind of thing.”
Kringstad noted that Altenburg had engaged in bizarre behavior in other instances as well, verbally abusing township officials and other city officials. “We have documentation of this,” said Kringstad.
Altenburg responded by citing his involvement in the submission of a complaint to the state auditor over the city’s handling of a grant from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation to the Tower Economic Development Authority, and implied that his actions gave him “whistleblower” protection from dismissal. “I’m not sure if you understand what this legally means,” he said. “But this is where a lot of this stems from.”
Altenburg said he was “legally obligated” to turn in his concerns about the loan to the state auditor and that the loan is currently under investigation. The IRRR had provided the grant to TEDA specifically to finance a loan to the Tower Harbor Shores town home project, which Kringstad was spearheading at the time. Altenburg has never explained his issue with the loan, although former city clerk-treasurer Linda Keith had complained that she believed one payment to architect Dewey Thorbeck was actually a buyout. Thorbeck has stated in two letters to the city that the bill was for services rendered and not a buyout, but his explanation apparently did not satisfy Keith or Altenburg, who began raising concerns about the loan after Kringstad was elected mayor last November.
Altenburg’s suggestion that the discussion of Olson’s complaint was motivated by retaliation for his involvement in filing the complaint with the state auditor is undermined by recent history. Altenburg, who lost to Kringstad in last fall’s mayoral election, had filed a complaint against Kringstad within days of his taking office, claiming that Kringstad was seeking to remove him over claims he was “sexist.” That suggests that Altenburg believed Kringstad had concerns about his treatment of women months before Altenburg and the former clerk-treasurer filed their complaint about the TEDA grant/loan earlier this summer. The council, in April, threw out Altenburg’s complaint after Acting Mayor Rachel Beldo said the complaint misrepresented a conversation she and former council member Brooke Anderson had with Kringstad before he took office. Altenburg called the dismissal of his complaint “wrongful” and said he had video evidence of the mayor acknowledging he had wanted to remove him for perceived gender bias months before Altenburg ever filed his complaint over the TEDA loan with the state auditor. “This is a longstanding thing,” said Altenburg, undercutting his own whistleblower claim.
He went on to say that he filed his complaint with the state auditor “under whistleblower protection,” laying open the possibility he filed the complaint simply to provide protection from disciplinary action for his unrelated conduct.
On the substance of Olson’s allegations, Altenburg denied the suggestion that he acted in a discriminatory fashion toward women and denied ever having told Olson to “do nothing” at a fire scene. “That is not true,” he said.
Altenburg said he had asked Olson at times to remain near the truck, with him, but said it was so she could learn incident command by watching him direct the activities of other firefighters. “That is how we learn. By working with the person in charge,” he said.
Altenburg said he had reprimanded Olson not for using her phone while on a fire scene, but for taking a “selfie” with her phone while on a fire scene and posting it to Facebook. Altenburg said that was a violation of city social media policy.
As for Olson’s claim regarding the denial of training on the use of the department’s main pumper, Altenburg said it wasn’t his responsibility. “I am not the training officer, nor have I ever denied anyone opportunities to take part in firefighting. She has never been denied the opportunity to train on engines or any critical equipment. Nobody is ever denied that.”
As for the nature of Altenburg’s comments in meetings, he denied being disrespectful during official meetings, but acknowledged discussions after meetings in which he has expressed his opinions about city matters. According to Olson’s complaint, Altenburg routinely refers to Kringstad as “a crook” and talks about a bankruptcy in the mayor’s past.
Hinkel said Altenburg’s comments, particularly at the most recent training, had left her daughter very upset. “She was literally shaking when she came to my house afterwards. She couldn’t believe it came out of your mouth. Don’t deny it Steve.”
While he did not expressly deny suggesting during the recent training that he wanted the mayor and this newspaper publisher dead, he said the language cited in Olson’s complaint was not consistent with his manner of speaking.
Altenburg said he had a First Amendment right to speak his mind, telling the council he couldn’t be disciplined or fired for things that he says outside of official meetings. “As a citizen, I can represent myself however I want,” he said. “I can give my opinion.”
Altenburg found little support in the room for his defense, including from Beldo, who tried to bring a wide-ranging discussion back to the issue at hand. “I do believe that I’m expected to act in a respectful manner at all times whether I’m at my job or not because my behavior reflects on my workplace,” she said. “We’re all entitled to our opinion, but we’re not immune to the consequences of that opinion, once it’s out there. Because we do represent our workplaces even as private citizens.”
Altenburg argued the point. “Legally speaking, I am entitled to have my own opinion, so you cannot hold something I say as a citizen against me as a firefighter.”
Altenburg has, more than once, come under fire for intemperate comments, including the use of profanity in addressing a prospective business owner who had matters before the Planning and Zoning Commission. Former Greenwood Township Supervisor John Bassing reported his own experience last year when Altenburg called him at home and verbally attacked him, including the use of profanity, after Bassing had written a comment on the Timberjay website with which Altenburg disagreed. Altenburg had also delivered a tirade to the Vermilion Lake Town Board about the storage of township records and the status of that township’s fire department. A Tower resident had also reported Altenburg’s statement that he was going to “run Kringstad out of town,” a statement which Altenburg denied when confronted with the statement at a council meeting earlier this year.
“There’s a pattern here, Steve,” said Kringstad. “There was also the incident with the airport commissioner a few months ago,” he said, referring to a letter from John Burgess reporting what he felt to be inappropriate comments that Altenburg had directed at him during a break in a council meeting after Burgess had challenged Linda Keith, who was clerk-treasurer at the time.
Altenburg suggested that his explanation should lay aside the concerns expressed by Olson, but council members made it clear they weren’t about to dismiss them so easily. Beldo said it was a he-said, she-said situation and that she was not willing to dismiss Olson’s concerns just because Altenburg denied them. “We need to come back to it,” she said.
Kringstad concurred. “This puts you on notice that there are issues that we need to resolve.”
Kringstad also told Altenburg he needed to act appropriately when in city offices. “You need to understand that you report to the city clerk-treasurer,” Kringstad said. “You’re constantly up here berating, and disagreeing, and arguing about such things as paid on call for the ambulance service and other things. The interim clerk-treasurer and others have a great deal of experience themselves and we have the League of Minnesota Cities behind us and other individuals as well that have an opinion and experience on these matters.”
But Altenburg continued to argue. “When the city clerk now twice in two weeks falsely accused me of violating the law, I have a right to be insulted,” a comment that drew widespread laughter from the audience. “I, all of a sudden get randomly told I’ve been breaking the law for the last year and a half totally out of the blue,” he said, referring to the interim clerk-treasurer’s understanding that paid on-call staff must be paid overtime for work over 40 hours in a week.
“How is it appropriate for the clerk-treasurer to be accusing me of this stuff?”
“Neither one of these issues have been settled,” responded Lamppa.
Kringstad noted that sources that the city has differ from Altenburg’s interpretation of the overtime requirement. “It’s something that we need to follow up on as a city council because your interpretation of when the ambulance staff is on-call is not in line with what we believe it actually is,” said Kringstad.
Altenburg argued back, claiming that the overtime pay issue had been vetted by the city attorney. “It’s legit and legal,” Altenburg claimed. But as the Timberjay has previously reported, Altenburg only raised the issue with the city attorney after the Timberjay had questioned the city’s compliance with federal law. In addition, the former clerk-treasurer never informed the attorney in her letter requesting an opinion that the city was planning to rent living quarters for the on-call staff, since they otherwise were unlikely to be able to make it to the hall within the five or ten-minute response time required by the position. To be exempt from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and its overtime provisions, on-call personnel must generally be able to remain at home and use their on-call time as they see fit. If they’re expected to remain on or near the employer’s premises, whether at a fire hall or assigned living quarters, it is more likely they’ll be considered subject to overtime requirements.
Kringstad also questioned why the paid on-call staff was being paid double-time for work on holidays, questioning whether the council had ever approved that kind of payment.
“You need to be extremely careful about how you use the paid on-call staff,” Kringstad told Altenburg. “They are essentially on duty [during their on-call hours]. Until this council is satisfied that they have the correct information, again, by the current interim-clerk treasurer and our attorney, you need to be careful paying double-time if not approved by the council, and make sure not on-call for over 40 hours per week.” Both Kringstad and Lamppa said the issue could put the city at significant financial exposure if not handled properly.
Kringstad noted that the ambulance service is running in the red this year, given the high cost of the paid on-call service. “We need to get a cash flow statement and understand where we’re going to end up,” he said. Kringstad has previously requested a cash flow projection from Altenburg, who has refused to provide one.
While the discussion over Altenburg’s actions twisted and turned for almost an hour and a half, the council eventually wrapped it up without a decision. Even so, council members made it clear the issue was not at an end. “The person who made these complaints must not have any repercussions,” said Kringstad. “It’s up to us to find out where the truth lies. And that’s what we will do.”