TOWER— A council that has worked mostly in unison in recent months, differed sharply on Monday over the selection of a new city attorney and whether to examine proposals for engineering …
TOWER— A council that has worked mostly in unison in recent months, differed sharply on Monday over the selection of a new city attorney and whether to examine proposals for engineering services in the future.
The city has been searching for a new attorney since former city attorney Andy Peterson assumed a Sixth District judgeship in early November. The council had previously tasked councilors Mary Shedd and Rachel Beldo, along with clerk-treasurer Victoria Ranua, to assess the cost differences between two proposals, one from the Trenti Law Firm and the other from Colosimo, Patchin, Kearney, and Brunfelt, both of Virginia. The three had also followed up on references provided by the two firms.
An analysis of the proposed fees from the two firms showed that Trenti appeared to be significantly lower in cost, although the proposals were not identical which made direct comparisons difficult. For routine services, including attendance at one council meeting per month, the Colosimo firm proposed $500 per month. Trenti proposed a fee of $450 per month for routine work and attendance at two council meetings per month. Attendance at just one council meeting per month would cost $250 on a monthly basis, according to the Trenti proposal. Colosimo indicated non-routine legal work would be billed at $190/hour, while Trenti listed several different rates, ranging from $150 an hour to $85 an hour, depending on the type of work and whether it was handled by a lawyer or paralegal.
Shedd told the council that the references for both lawyers involved were glowing, making that portion of the analysis essentially equal. “Do we need to meet with both of them?” Shedd asked.
But Councilor Sheldon Majerle, in answer, made a motion to name the Colosimo firm, and lawyer Mitch Brunfelt, as the city attorney. Majerle said he had originally favored Trenti, believing they were less expensive, but now wasn’t so sure, even though the Trenti proposal did appear to be substantially less expensive.
When Mayor Orlyn Kringstad called the question, he joined Majerle and council member Steve Abrahamson in voting yes. Shedd and Beldo voted no. “A strong no,” said Shedd, clearly exasperated. Beldo explained her concern. “I want to note that I am not opposed to Colosimo, but this is not the process we laid out,” she said. Other councilors appeared to favor Brunfelt, who the city had turned to in discharging former clerk-treasurer Linda Keith.
Ranua said she was relieved to finally have an attorney in place. She’s not had a city attorney to call on since she assumed her duties with the city in mid-October.
In a striking moment, council member Steve Abrahamson spoke out strongly in defense of SEH as the city’s engineering firm and motioned to not consider unsolicited proposals from two other engineering firms, Benchmark Engineering, of Mt. Iron, and Bolton and Menk, Inc., of Duluth.
“I’m very satisfied with the current engineer that we have,” said Abrahamson. “We’re also in the middle of a major project so I don’t think this is a good time to do this at all.”
Majerle, after some delay, seconded Abrahamson’s motion, which prompted discussion from the rest of the council. “It really irritates me a little bit that they were unsolicited to begin with,” said Abrahamson. “I’m really not sure where it came from. I actually believe the mayor has some personal thing here and that bothers me a little bit. I don’t see any reason to move on. SEH has provided huge funds for the city. We wouldn’t even have the projects that we’ve got going. I’m just a little upset by that.”
Abrahamson reiterated his concern that the city shouldn’t change firms in the middle of the planned upgrade to water filtration plant and extension of a new main water line to the city. But Shedd noted that during the last council meeting, the council had agreed that any change in firms would not apply to the water project.
Kringstad also weighed in. “I can’t let it pass,” he said. “Councilor Abrahamson was suggesting that I somehow was responsible for soliciting other engineering companies to come in with their letters of qualification. That, I did not do. These people came to us unsolicited, certainly unsolicited by me, so Steve, I’m sorry, but that’s a wrong statement.”
Others on the council suggested that other firms may have sensed some unhappiness on the part of the city generally, over problems that have arisen in some recent projects, which have been reported in the Timberjay and discussed at recent council meetings.
Kringstad had recently proposed that SEH pay $5,000 into a line maintenance fund at the campground after problems arose with the installation of a sewer line. SEH, in a letter to the city, declined to contribute to that fund.
Kringstad noted that the city has had a contract in place with SEH since 2007 and said he believed it is prudent for a city council to periodically “take a look and see what’s out there.”
Shedd questioned the need for Abrahamson’s motion, noting that the letters from the two firms were informational in nature and required no action but that the council could consider whether to issue an RFQ in the future.
Kringstad, who had opened discussion on the subject, had started to propose an actual RFQ before Abrahamson jumped into the discussion at SEH’s behest.
Abrahamson agreed that his motion may have been premature. “If we’re not taking any action, then I withdraw that motion,” he said.
In other business, Ranua made a pitch to members of the council to thoroughly review council minutes before approval. Minutes in the past have frequently been incomplete with motions that are unclear and Ranua said that can create problems for the city down the road.
“Minutes are the official legal record, so don’t take these casually. I try to write them with an historical perspective and I would ask you to make sure that you are reviewing them in that context,” she said. Ranua provided council members with guidelines from the League of Minnesota Cities about minute taking and the importance of thoroughness and accuracy.
Ranua is now making draft minutes available to council members within one or two days of the meeting and Kringstad encouraged council members to read them promptly, while their memories are still fresh.
The council also discussed the possibility of obtaining an official city recording device to assist in the preparation and review of minutes. Kringstad had made that suggestion shortly after assuming office, but the previous clerk had taken no apparent action on the mayor’s request. Ranua said she would look at options for purchase of a recording device.
In other action, the council:
• Took no immediate action on a possible adoption of a city policy to address the substantial food and meals expenditures by the Tower Area Ambulance Service, as reported recently in the Timberjay. Ranua said she’d like the opportunity to confer with the new city attorney before bringing a new policy to the council. In a memo on the subject, Ranua noted that the city has set its meals per diem to align with federal rules, but stated that the current practice by TAAS for allowing meals does not appear to meet the criteria for meals reimbursement for federal employees. She also noted that it appears the meals, as currently provided, would likely be considered a taxable benefit. The city, however, has not been reporting the value of meals paid for by the city as taxable income for its employees.
• Heard from Greenwood resident Lee Peterson, who urged the council to develop a new ambulance contract with area townships. “The one that is there is very, very poor,” he said, and he urged that a new one be negotiated with input from the townships. Peterson said the new contract should ensure that ambulance funds are not transferred to other city uses and that the TAAS place a portion of transfer revenue into the ambulance replacement fund given that transfers are accounting for most of the mileage on the ambulances.
• Approved a motion to formally invite Virginia Ambulance Supervisor Allen Lewis to give a presentation on ambulance issues at a special council meeting set for Wednesday, Dec. 4.
• Approved a motion to hire C.C. Winger, of Embarrass, to make repairs on the city plow truck, which was damaged during clean-up from a recent snowfall.
• Approved a request by the city’s AFSCME-covered employees to switch insurance coverage to the Public Employee Insurance Program.
• Accepted the resignation of city maintenance director Tom Gorsma, effective Feb. 28, 2020. Gorsma has accepted the same position with the Township of Breitung. Ranua suggested that the city conduct an exit interview with Gorsma before he leaves, and said such an interview should be conducted with all departing employees.
• Received a letter from TAAS medical director Michael Pettinelli endorsing moving towards a part-time ALS service.
• Accepted the resignation of Robert DiCasmiro, from the Tower Fire Department.