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Mayor allegations will go to mediation

Kringstad to provide written answers to issues raised by city staff

Jodi Summit
Posted 2/27/19

TOWER— An investigation into the conduct of Tower Mayor Orlyn Kringstad will not go forward, at least for now, following city council action here on Monday. Instead, Kringstad will provide answers …

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Mayor allegations will go to mediation

Kringstad to provide written answers to issues raised by city staff

Posted

TOWER— An investigation into the conduct of Tower Mayor Orlyn Kringstad will not go forward, at least for now, following city council action here on Monday. Instead, Kringstad will provide answers in writing to issues raised by city staff, most likely followed by mediation services from the League of Minnesota Cities in hopes of resolving issues between the mayor, Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith, and Ambulance Director Steve Altenburg.

The council on a 2-2-1 vote, with Kringstad abstaining, rejected a motion by Councilor Kevin Fitton to hire an outside investigator to look into alleged “mayoral misconduct” against Kringstad.

At their Feb. 11 meeting, the council had voted 2-1-2 to hire an investigator from the League of Minnesota Cities to investigate a complaint made by Ambulance Director Steve Altenburg against the mayor. But Keith subsequently informed the council that the League does not conduct investigations, although the organization does provide human resource training and mediation services.

During discussion, Fitton outlined additional issues he felt required investigation. He said he felt the allegations from Ambulance Director Steve Altenburg that the mayor had purportedly called Altenburg sexist created an adverse working relationship. Fitton also said there were the issues raised in the grievance committee meeting held prior to the regular meeting. Grievance committee members are Steve Abrahamson, Brooke Anderson, and Steve Altenburg as the citizen representative.

In a written summary, Fitton also questioned whether Kringstad had authority to look into concerns related to Keith’s conduct and performance and claimed that Kringstad had made unspecified “demands” on city staff, which he said had created a hostile work environment in violation of the city’s code of conduct. Fitton also appeared to suggest that Kringstad had provided information from a recent closed meeting to the Timberjay, a claim that the newspaper can verify as false.

Fitton cited complaints that the mayor had committed city funds by registering and paying for his attendance at a League of Minnesota Cities training conference for newly-elected officials that he had permission to attend. Kringstad then asked the city for reimbursement for the expense. He said, at a previous meeting, that he didn’t know it was policy to have the clerk do the registrations. Fitton also said Kringstad had made calls to the city attorney without council permission.

Fitton further complained that there were unanswered questions on whether or not Kringstad had a conflict of interest, relating to his previous involvement with Tower Harbor Shores, the town home developer.

“There are a lot of ethical and procedural concerns,” Fitton said.

Kringstad noted that every single one of these issues could be “simply answered.”

“Does the council want to spend money on hiring an investigator?” he asked.

Fitton insisted that only an independent authority could answer the questions.

But Fitton’s motion to hire an investigator with a limit of $500 failed, 2-2, with Abrahamson and Rachel Beldo voting against. Only Anderson supported the motion.

“Working things out by ourselves is better in the long run,” said Abrahamson. “I’d prefer to have the mayor write out his reasons, and then have a mediated discussion. Then, if we can’t resolve it, move on to an investigator.” A motion by Abrahamson, seconded by Beldo, to go with mediation first, passed on a 4-0 vote.

Abrahamson said the council should pay attention to the comments from longtime resident Mary Shedd, who had submitted written public comment, which Keith read out loud at Kringstad’s request. In her comments, Shedd had taken issue with the council agenda, which listed “Mayor Misconduct Investigation,” noting that it suggested a predetermination of wrongdoing.

“If an investigation determines it is misconduct, then it can be called that. Before you accept the agenda, I respectfully request that you change it to either “Altenburg Complaint Against Mayor” or Investigation of a Complaint against Mayor.”

Shedd also questioned the vagueness of the motion made at the last meeting for the investigation, asking if it was just to consider the complaint from Altenburg, or additional undisclosed matters.

“Kringstad and Tower citizens are due an open complaint, not a fishing expedition,” she wrote.

Fitton’s complaint prompted some discussion on the powers of the mayor.

“Orlyn made demands [to the clerk] as if this was a strong mayor model,” said Fitton. “Tower is a weak mayor model.”

But Abrahamson, who previously served as mayor, said the mayor definitely has the right to request information from the clerk without permission from the council.

Clerk-treasurer evaluation

The council also held a nearly hour-and-a-half-long closed meeting to discuss employee misconduct allegations and/or employee evaluation of the clerk-treasurer. The council made a statement that they had conducted a performance appraisal on the city clerk and that the performance appraisal was incomplete.

The clerk-treasurer’s union representative Erik Skoog read a copy of the letter sent to the mayor and council, falsely alleging that private personal data from the closed meeting on Feb. 11 had somehow been “leaked.”

“Somehow, some way,” he said, “the article that was printed in the Timberjay just happened to be once again, verbatim, to what was in the information passed out by the mayor, who said, emphatically, it has to stay in this room.”

“Based on the Feb. 14 edition of the Timberjay,” he said. “It appears that private personal data regarding Ms. Keith has been distributed to the public.”

Skoog then said he was warning the council that if this happened again, the union would seek damages from the city.

He then went on to threaten the mayor.

“I’ve warned you beforehand,” Skoog said. “You are being a bull in a china shop right now.”

Ambulance subsidy revisions

The council approved an updated three-year ambulance service agreement between the city and the surrounding townships and Fortune Bay.

Instead of the previously proposed doubling of the annual per capita subsidy payment from $15 to $30 per person, the new agreement calls for a 25-percent increase, per year, over the next three years, with a rate of $18.75 in 2020, $23.45 in 2021, and $29.30 in 2022. The agreement also calls for raising the fee charged to Fortune Bay Resort Casino to $6,240 in 2020, $7,500 in 2021, and $8,750 in 2022. In addition, the agreement states the city will calculate the number of out-of-area transfer calls each year, and then add an amount equal to the number of transfers times the subsidy amount to the ambulance replacement fund for each of these years (although this is not part of the formal agreement).

Altenburg’s calculations showed that this updated agreement will bring the total subsidy amount in 2020 to $58,937 (plus 2019 transfers), $73,394 in 2021 (plus 2020 transfers), and $91,083 (plus 2021 transfers).

Other business

In other business, the council:

 Hired Benjamin Velcheff, of Tower, for the maintenance worker position.

 Accepted the resignation of Josh Carlson as fire department training officer. Carlson is remaining on the department, just not as an officer. The council then appointed Jesse Gornick to the position. Gornick has previously served as training officer. The council also accepted the resignation of Randy Johnson, a 29-year veteran, from the department. The council also accepted the resignation of Nicole Carlson from the ambulance service. Carlson said family commitments, her job, and volunteer time spent coaching youth sports meant she wasn’t able to meet the minimum time requirements to stay an active member at this time.

 Will get additional quotes on replacing the furnace and hot water heater for the Hoodoo Point campground building. Keith noted the campground fund does not have enough money to purchase both at this time. The furnace was the priority.

 Heard that the Board of Appeal and Equalization will be held on Tuesday, May 7 from 4 – 5 p.m. Council members asked if that could be changed to 5 – 6 p.m., so the city will ask St. Louis County if that is possible.

 Approved spending up to $2,000 in city funds to replace the commercial stove and refrigerator at the Tower Civic Center. The Tower Soudan Civic Club is raising funds for the project as well, and Altenburg said the Tower Fire Department Relief Association may also be able to donate funds as well. The current kitchen equipment is close to 40 years old and in poor condition.

 Approved spending $8,145 to purchase the wetland credits needed to complete the Pine Street relocation and trail projects at the Tower Harbor.

 Passed a proclamation in support of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is in April. The Sexual Assault Program of Northern St. Louis County noted that in 2018 and 2018 they had worked with more than 1,000 primary and secondary survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault in northern St. Louis County.

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