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Council dismisses complaint by Altenburg

City Clerk grievance decision questioned as unfair

Jodi Summit
Posted 4/10/19

TOWER— The city council here, on Monday, dismissed an outstanding misconduct complaint filed by Ambulance Director Steve Altenburg against Mayor Orlyn Kringstad.

Council members Rachel Beldo …

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Council dismisses complaint by Altenburg

City Clerk grievance decision questioned as unfair

Posted

TOWER— The city council here, on Monday, dismissed an outstanding misconduct complaint filed by Ambulance Director Steve Altenburg against Mayor Orlyn Kringstad.

Council members Rachel Beldo and Steve Abrahamson voted in favor of dismissing the complaint, filed back in January, while Kringstad and council member Brooke Anderson abstained. Kevin Fitton, who had brought the issue to the council initially, along with a list of other complaints he had written, did not attend Monday’s meeting.

In the complaint, Altenburg claimed that Kringstad had called him “sexist” during an informal meeting with Beldo and Anderson in late 2018, before he and Beldo were sworn in on the council.

Fitton, who sits on the council’s human relations committee, said he had spoken with Anderson after receiving the written complaint and that Anderson told him that the accusations and substance of the meeting were correct.

But at Monday’s meeting, Beldo finally spoke up on the issue and forcefully refuted the accusations Altenburg had made.

“I recall it was more of a social call to get to know one another,” said Beldo of the meeting between herself, Anderson, and Kringstad. “Being well aware of the open meeting law, and not being a seated council member, I felt there was no impropriety,” she said.

Beldo said she was not calling anyone untruthful, alluding to the comments made by Anderson to Fitton. “I don’t recall anything so derogatory being said, that would affect someone…none of it struck me so strongly that night that it would raise concerns.”

Beldo said the issue had been going on for a while, and that she had wanted to stay out of it.

“But at this point, as the third-party present, I do not recall anything improper being said. I suggest we dismiss the complaint.”

Beldo then motioned to do so, and was quickly seconded by Abrahamson, prompting the vote to dismiss.

Keith’s union grievance remedy challenged

The council also spent time discussing how to deal with a Teamsters union grievance from City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith that was designed to bring a halt to an investigation of allegations of misconduct against Keith.

Altenburg and Anderson, who both serve on the grievance committee, had drafted a response to the union’s complaint. In it, they upheld Keith’s grievance and accepted the union’s proposed remedy to cease any further investigation of the clerk’s conduct, including the apparent falsification of city records. The remedy would also prohibit Kringstad from having any future oversight of the clerk and would require the full council to submit a letter of apology to Keith.

Altenburg and Anderson made their decision and submitted their proposed remedy to the union without any input from the full city council, or even from Steve Abrahamson, the third member of the committee, who said he was unaware that Altenburg and Anderson were meeting to draft the response.

The complaint alleged that Kringstad had conducted an investigation of Keith without permission of the council as a whole, results which he provided to the council in a closed session in late January. But the Timberjay has confirmed that Kringstad conducted the bulk of his examination as a private citizen, before he was sworn into office, and had no need for council authorization.

Kringstad’s investigation primarily entailed the review of public records, including city minutes and an official roster of commission and committee terms, which revealed systematic alterations. Upon taking office, Kringstad consulted with City Attorney Andy Peterson on how to properly present his concerns to the council and contends that he followed the attorney’s guidance precisely, presenting the concerns as part of a “performance review.”

But Keith’s union representative challenged that portrayal and claimed the closed session was really to consider allegations, ostensibly providing part of the justification for the grievance.

Kringstad had told the grievance committee that he was acting on the advice of the city attorney but said that Altenburg and Anderson chose to ignore that information in their decision on the grievance. He also noted that Altenburg had filed his own complaint against the him, suggesting he was not impartial in the matter.

Some in the audience also raised such concerns.

“You are a city employee,” said Richard Hanson, a former city council member, “You don’t consider it a conflict of interest?” Steve Wilson noted that Keith is Altenburg’s “boss”.

The grievance committee had voted 2-1 on March 14, with Abrahamson voting against, to uphold the grievance in full, but had deferred writing a remedy until they could obtain legal advice from the city attorney or an outside counsel. After hearing that the city attorney was refusing to advise on the matter, Altenburg and Anderson opted to proceed without legal counsel.

Abrahamson said he was disturbed that he wasn’t aware of the second committee meeting.

“I wanted to have an attorney there to answer questions,” he said. Abrahamson had raised concerns about whether or not the committee could actually require the council to halt an investigation into employee misconduct allegations.

“There is so much personality conflict in this,” Abrahamson said. “It is hard to see this remedy as a fair one...I want to feel in the end it is fair to both parties.”

Kringstad said he categorically rejects the proposed remedy, which the union has already accepted. “The findings are incorrect,” said Kringstad.

Beldo expressed concerns with the process the grievance committee followed and the members involved on the committee and questioned whether it could be binding on the council. Keith noted that the city, in past cases, had let the grievance committee remedy be binding.

Altenburg said the decision of the committee was based city policy. “It is not personal because it could not be,” he said.

But at several points during the March 14 meeting, Abrahamson had questioned Altenburg’s interpretation of the law and the facts of the case.

Kringstad again noted that his actions were based on advice given by the city attorney, but Peterson, who attended Monday’s meeting, remained silent on the issue.

Details of what occurred during the closed meeting have not yet been made public, but Keith’s union representative, Erik Skoog, claimed in a subsequent public session that Timberjay reporting (which was independently conducted) on the clerk mirrored the information presented by Kringstad in the closed meeting. Timberjay reporting documented numerous instances where city records had been changed without council approval, in order to maintain Keith allies in key positions.

The issue of whether or not the grievance committee can bind the council to a decision such as this is still uncertain. Keith said her union attorney, along with advice from the League of Minnesota Cities, affirms this interpretation, but a query from the Timberjay to the League yielded a less conclusive response. League general counsel Patricia Beety, wrote:

“On Monday, March 26, Tower City Clerk Linda Keith sent us a copy of the current labor agreement between the city and MN Teamsters Public and Law Enforcement Employees’ Union, Local No. 320.  The question Ms. Keith posed was limited to how the contract applies when a grievance is resolved at the Grievance Committee level...no opinion or information was provided with respect to any question outside of this narrow inquiry into the plain language of the applicable labor contract.”

Beety went on to recommend that anything beyond that question would best be addressed by the city attorney. 

Peterson, however, has refused to provide the city with legal advice on the question, citing relationships with the various parties involved.

A motion by Abrahamson, seconded by Beldo, to contact an outside attorney for advice on this issue passed 2-1 with Anderson voting against and Kringstad abstaining. The council then voted the same way to have Beldo contact an outside attorney.

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