Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Tower holds reorganization, delays closed meetings

Jodi Summit
Posted 1/31/19

TOWER— The city council here, on Monday, again delayed holding two closed meetings that have twice appeared on the council agendas earlier in January— one for an unspecified misconduct allegation …

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Tower holds reorganization, delays closed meetings

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TOWER— The city council here, on Monday, again delayed holding two closed meetings that have twice appeared on the council agendas earlier in January— one for an unspecified misconduct allegation and the other for a performance evaluation of the city clerk-treasurer.

The meeting started with a tussle over the agenda, with Mayor Orlyn Kringstad asking to table the closed meetings plus the reorganization and move them to a meeting on Feb. 4.

Council member Kevin Fitton objected to another special meeting, saying “I can’t just drop everything to be at a meeting, whenever. I have a full-time job and then some.” Fitton asked that the items be moved to the regular meeting on Monday, Feb. 11.

Kringstad said he would prefer to do the meetings on Feb. 4, “so we can have them behind us.”

The nature of the two closed meetings is unclear, even to some on the council. The clerk has refused to give information on the employee misconduct meeting to Kringstad.

Kringstad had asked for the closed meeting to discuss Keith’s performance. The clerk’s union representative, along with the city’s attorney, had planned to attend Monday’s meeting, but neither did attend after it became clear the closed session wouldn’t take place.

A motion to move the tabled items to the agenda for Feb. 11 passed 3-1, with Kringstad voting against.

The reorganization remained on the agenda, despite Kringstad’s request to table it.

Council member Rachel Beldo asked Clerk/Treasurer Linda Keith if there were items on the reorganization that needed to be taken care of immediately. Keith asked that the council at least approve check signatories, but the council decided to work through the reorganization, page by page.

Kringstad recommended that former mayor, and newly-elected councilor, Steve Abrahamson be named as acting mayor, a position currently held by Fitton, noting Abrahamson’s long experience as the city’s mayor. Keith challenged that suggestion, however, arguing that Abrahamson’s attendance at planning and zoning meetings had been “spotty at best.”

A motion by Rachel Beldo to appoint Abrahamson died for lack of a second. It appeared that Kringstad did not realize that as mayor he is able to second motions.

A motion by Brooke Anderson to support keeping Fitton as acting mayor ended up being seconded by Beldo, and passed on a 2-1 vote, with Fitton abstaining and Kringstad voting against. Councilor Abrahamson was absent from the meeting, due to the flu.

No changes were made to council member, fire department, and ambulance department salaries.

Filling the open spot on the city’s charter commission was eventually tabled. Questions were raised on whether or not the openings had terms attached, among other issues. Charter commission member Sheldon Majerle was in the audience, and information he had about appointments differed from the information that Keith offered to the council. The charter commission holds one annual meeting, on the fourth Wednesday in February, and then additional meetings if needed.

The Tower Economic Development Authority also proved troublesome. There were four open seats to fill. Kringstad presented a list of names, noting that he had not talked to everyone yet. He asked Rachel Beldo to fill the open council seat on the board, and then Richard Hanson and Steve Wilson to fill resident/business owner seats. Kringstad also asked to reinstate Marshall Helmberger to a business owner seat. Helmberger had been appointed to a three-year term on TEDA in January 2017, at the request of former Mayor Josh Carlson.

Fitton objected to the reinstatement of Helmberger to TEDA, claiming that he had been removed for “general attitude” toward the rest of the city council during the January 2018 reorganization. He also complained that Helmberger had made a call to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, during which Helmberger asked questions for a story on the city’s extension of the municipal sewer to the Hoodoo Point Campground. That call revealed that the city had vastly under-reported the number of campsite units that the extension would connect, requiring the city to apply for a corrected permit.

“Whoever is on the city committee should be representing the city’s interest,” said Fitton.

At the 2018 reorganizational meeting, city officials had indicated that Helmberger had been removed because his term had expired, but that claim was false. Official city minutes from 2017 reveal that Helmberger had been appointed to a three-year term expiring in 2019, but city officials altered that official record, switching Helmberger’s term for that of Joan Broten, whose term did, in fact, expire at the end of 2017.

Kringstad asked whether Helmberger had been given due process before being removed from TEDA. While on TEDA, Helmberger oversaw the new Lamppa building project as well as the sale of the marina to Your Boat Club, securing IRRRB funding and loans to make these projects a reality.

“There isn’t a due process thing for city committees, it’s at the pleasure of the council,” responded Fitton. “He burned enough bridges with enough council members,” he added.

But Fitton’s claim is untrue. Unlike other city committees and commissions, economic development authorities are quasi-independent entities governed by state statute, specifically Minn. Stat. 469.095. Once appointed, city councils do not have discretion to remove members, except for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or misconduct in office,” and only after the commissioner is given written notice of any deficiency and provided the opportunity for a public hearing to respond to any allegations. The council provided none of that due process as required in statute prior to removing Helmberger, leaving the city in apparent open violation of state law.

Minnesota also has whistleblower protection statutes in addition to protections in common law that bar dismissal of someone from an official position for reporting wrongdoing or contacting regulatory agencies, such as the MPCA, to inquire about permits.

Fitton’s comments appear to confirm that the dismissal of Helmberger was retaliatory, coming in the wake of critical coverage by Helmberger of the city’s controversial sewer extension to Hoodoo Point, his contacting the MPCA as part of that reporting, as well as his reporting of repeated Open Meeting Law violations by some city committees in 2017.

To finish off the reorganization, Beldo was named to the open council spot in the Storefront Loan Committee, which only meets when a loan application has been made. She was also put on the Ambulance Commission (which meets quarterly), Personnel Committee, and Gambling Commission.

Kringstad was named to the open council spot on the Gundersen Trust Board, and as an alternate on the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board and Personnel Committee. Abrahamson was put on the Board of Adjustment, Police Commission, Grievance Committee, Lodging Tax Board, and Tower-Breitung Waste Water Board (the only one of these that has regular monthly meetings). And Brooke Anderson was named to the Liquor Commission. An open seat for a Tower resident on the Public Utilities Commission, which rarely meets, was not filled. The rest of the appointments remained as in 2018.

Council member training

The council voted to increase the budget for council members’ continuing education to $2,400, which had only been set at $900 for the year. Both Kringstad and Beldo will be attending a Minnesota League of Cities two-day class for newly-elected city council members in Brainerd. Keith noted the cost for this conference, not including food, and only a one-night hotel stay for both would be a little over $1,000. In addition, Kringstad and Abrahamson planned to attend a legislative forum in St. Paul, where city leaders meet with state legislators. Keith noted the city would have to pay these expenses from the reserve fund, which is $50,000 but needs to last the entire year. Kringstad noted the St. Paul conference was a chance for the city to make valuable contacts and hopefully attract more state dollars for upcoming projects.

“This is an investment, as I see it,” he said, “It could bring back quite a rate of return.”

Other business

In other business the council:

 In response to a question from the audience, Kringstad said the council would usually be able to take and answer brief questions from the audience during a meeting, and not just during public comment. This has been the past practice of the council.

 Passed a motion at the request of Clerk Keith noting that the TEDA loan guidelines approved by the city back in 2017 had not been altered in any way by her. In a private email to Councilor Fitton in December, former TEDA president Marshall Helmberger had questioned one portion of the loan guidelines that Keith provided, saying that TEDA had not approved a requirement that only 50-percent of an invoice would be reimbursed for loan recipients. “The council needs to look at the evidence and decide if this document has been changed,” Keith said “I can’t have this rumor going around….I want to put this issue to bed once and for all. I want the council to stand up for your clerk,” she said.

It was noted that if the TEDA board wants to revise the guidelines, that is a possibility.

Approved an easement with Mark and Nicole Welch, who have purchased vacant land previously owned by Immanuel Lutheran Church. A portion of the North Third Street Alley (behind the school) and the city hiking/ATV trail cross the land. The couple is also working on granting easements to three private property owners who have garages on a small portion of the parcel. The issue arose because the actual location of the alley is not where it was platted.

 Approved a city hall access policy that gives the city clerk authority to decide when keys are issued to city officials for access to city hall. The clerk has, to date, refused to give the new mayor a key to city hall and it’s unclear if the new policy will resolve that impasse. Kringstad had hoped to maintain an office, and office hours, at city hall, but Keith has been resistant to his requests to have access to city hall outside of regular office hours. The council also discussed updating the city’s data privacy policy to insure personnel records and other sensitive files are kept private.

 Kringstad noted that former clerk Ann Lamppa said the city did have an administrative policy in place to make sure that council members had adequate time to review the council meeting packet prior to meetings. Currently the packets are only available right before the meeting.

“I see councilors come in and only have a few minutes to review the reports,” said Kringstad. He also asked that minutes be completed as soon as possible and distributed to council members so they can review them while the meeting is “fresh” in their minds.

Kringstad said he hadn’t found the approved administrative guidelines, which he thought had been approved in 2010-2011, because not all the council minutes were available online.

“It wouldn’t hurt to get those minutes up on the website,” he said.

Kringstad offered to review the old minutes in the clerk’s office, but Keith said she would review the old minutes to see if she could find the guidelines and bring them to the next meeting.

 Kringstad noted he would like to have the council review the city’s website and tech support contracts. Keith noted she had just signed a new three-year contract with the current provider.

Kringstad asked if that decision had come to the council. There was also discussion of improvements that could be made to the website.

 Approved the licenses, rates and permit fees for 2019, with no changes from the 2018 rates.

 Heard that the city is receiving $775 in additional grant funding for the city ski trails, for a total of $2,500.

 Approved the resignation of Ariana Picard from the ambulance service, since she has moved out of the area, and approved the termination of Tera Kultala, who has also moved from the area. Ambulance Supervisor Steve Altenburg said the department was looking at the idea of allowing out-of-area EMTs to rejoin the service, and let them take on shifts to earn their run credits. He said they could use the sleeping quarters. Altenburg said the service had reduced the shift time needed to qualify for a run credit from 12 hours to eight hours, because it was too hard to get volunteers for the 12-hour shifts.

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Shaking my head

The clerk seems to have an anti-mayor problem. She should not be the decider of much if anything, as per her poor judgement in the past. I am also wondering why she still had the job. The mayor certainly should have access to the city hall at any time.

Tuesday, February 5