TOWER— After months of indecision, the city council here, on Monday, voted 4-0, with one abstention to reject a remedy to a union grievance that City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith had filed back in …
TOWER— After months of indecision, the city council here, on Monday, voted 4-0, with one abstention to reject a remedy to a union grievance that City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith had filed back in February. Keith had alleged that her union contract had been violated by actions of the city council, and specifically by newly-elected Mayor Orlyn Kringstad, when Kringstad raised issues of her job performance in a closed session of the council shortly after taking office.
The city’s three-person grievance committee, led by Ambulance Supervisor Steve Altenburg, who had filed his own complaint against the mayor, had voted 2-1 in March to uphold the grievance, with Councilor Brooke Anderson voting in favor, and Councilor Steve Abrahamson voting against.
While the grievance committee process has repeatedly come under fire by Kringstad and members of the public, the bigger issue for the council was the union’s remedy to the grievance, which Altenburg and Anderson adopted nearly verbatim in a committee meeting held without Abrahamson’s knowledge. The remedy had directed the council to cease any inquiry into the misconduct allegations and performance of Keith and to prohibit Kringstad from participating in any way in any future oversight of Keith. It also required the council to write a letter of apology to Keith.
At Monday’s meeting, both Marshall Helmberger and Steve Wilson spoke on the issue during public input. Helmberger told the council that the union remedy was illegitimate because it was an attempt to take away council authority provided for in the city’s charter. Helmberger agreed that a grievance remedy can be considered binding, but only if it pertained to matters covered in the union contract.
“But the grievance committee cannot bind the council on matters over which neither the committee nor union contract have authority,” Helmberger said. “The council’s authority to undertake that investigation [into the clerk’s performance] resides in the charter, not in the union contract. The charter is the superior document, in that no one in the city can supersede its directive.”
Wilson chided the council for its inaction on the issue and noted the city attorney also failed in his duty by refusing to give the council an opinion on the issue, recusing himself by citing his personal relationship with the clerk and the council members involved.
“It is time for the council to stand up to the union,” Wilson said, “and call their bluff by officially rejecting the remedy.”
When the council weighed in on the matter later in the meeting, it was clear that members agreed with some of the public comment.
“I appreciate the public input tonight,” said Councilor Rachel Beldo. “There has been caution on our part, but I do hear and agree with the thought that we have our ordinances to guide and support us. We can say we disagree with the remedy.”
Kringstad agreed. “It is the council’s responsibility as to whether this grievance remedy is acceptable or not,” he said.
Councilor Mary Shedd, who at the last meeting had agreed to contact union representative Erik Skoog to see if the union would meet with the city on the issue, said such actions had just delayed the matter.
“This is not personal,” she said, “It is about the process. I am very disappointed that Attorney Andy Peterson recused himself.”
“It is up to this council to decide if the authority of the council has been usurped,” said Kringstad. “I assume there would be a next step if we decide to reject the remedy.”
Skoog, who was at the meeting, said he would need any decision by the council in writing.
“There are steps in the process,” Skoog said. “However you want to proceed, we will end up in arbitration. You are going backwards on a collective bargaining agreement.”
The council passed a motion 4-0, with Abrahamson abstaining, to reject the remedy. The motion noted that the grievance committee had developed the remedy under questionable circumstances.
The council made more progress on its annual reorganization, a duty normally completed with little fanfare at the second meeting in January, but which had been made more complicated by a number of unauthorized changes in the city roster of commission and committee terms, apparently made by the clerk-treasurer.
Kringstad had worked with Councilor Shelden Majerle to examine past minutes in order to correct the term dates on several committees, including planning and zoning, the Tower Economic Development Authority, Gunderson Trust, and the forestry board.
Kringstad handed out a spreadsheet he had developed based on that work, which he said he wanted incorporated into the meeting’s minutes. Keith bristled at using Kringstad’s spreadsheet, because it was in a different format from the one she had been using previously.
“We should be following the city format,” Keith said. But Kringstad insisted and it was clear that Keith lacked the backing of the council on the issue.
The council attempted to work through Kringstad’s spreadsheet, but Keith repeatedly interrupted, challenging some of the names and term dates that Kringstad had presented. The council persisted, however, and ultimately approved new members to the forestry board membership, as well as the Gundersen Trust. Kringstad, with council approval, removed Keith from her at-large seat on the Gundersen Trust Board, and added Eric Norberg and John Burgess to two open seats. The council had earlier removed former mayor Josh Carlson from the board, noting his seat on the board was as a council representative and that his term expired at the end of 2018. Keith said that both she and Carlson wished to remain on the Gundersen board, but Majerle noted that term renewals were up to the council. Kringstad noted that Keith was still a member of the board, as the non-voting secretary.
The council approved the addition of Dick Larmouth (expiring 2021) and Nate Dostert (expiring 2022) to TEDA, and reappointed Joan Broten to her proper term, which will expire in 2023. Broten had originally been appointed in 2017 to a one-year term, but city officials switched her term with Marshall Helmberger in January 2018, in order to remove Helmberger from TEDA in retaliation for critical reporting of city operations.
Other changes in the reorganization included formally appointing Jolene Herberg to a term on the Planning and Zoning Board, expiring in 2021, and correcting the terms of office of other members of the board, whose terms had been altered by the clerk-treasurer.
The council still needs to make final appointments to the city’s charter commission, but questions about the terms of office of the board’s members still need to be clarified.