City Hall

The contentious Nov. 8 Red Wing City Council election has turned up the heat on discussions in the council chambers over the last few months. 

The argumentative nature of council meetings and public comment follows issues that are lingering a year after the “recall city hall” initiative. 

During the Monday City Council meeting a number of residents were escorted from the council chambers and a recess was called to cool the heated environment.

The uproar was over an agenda item regarding employment letters and severance packages. This caused strong emotions that led to residents yelling at the council from their seats. 

The intense environment resulted in more lengthy discussion that related to specificity of severance packages for officers of the city council. 

According to the Personnel Committee made up of Council president Becky Norton, Council Vice President Evan Brown and Council Pro Tem Laurel Stinson, the goal of the language change in employment letters would provide some stability and security for officers to the city council in their positions. 

Two recently filled positions included the language for severance in their employment offers, and the council was considering giving this same severance package to other  officers to the city council. 

Public officers to the council include: administrative officer, a financial officer, a clerical officer, legal officer. a director of engineering, a chief law enforcement official, a chief fire official, an administrative services director, a community development director, and a public works director. 

The council approved the item with a vote of 5-2, with council members Don Kliewer and Kim Beise voting no. 

The document for the agenda item meeting read: “Recently, the City Council appointed a new chief law enforcement official and public works director. Both officials were internal promotions, each sharing concerns about accepting the position due to the fear of termination for what could be considered political. These two officials were offered letters from the City Council with an agreement to pay six months' severance in a case where their termination was not performance related, or a result of a criminal act or violation of the city' s personnel policy." 

The implication was employees in positions may feel threatened about the current political climate in Red Wing. 

There were public objections to passing this employment letter and council members shared some concerns about the issue. 

Members of the public who spoke at the meeting were not in support of the change in employment letters. 

Second Ward resident Mike Montgomery spoke to the council about his feelings and asked them to not approve the employment letter. 

“You want to put something in place that if in November we actually replace some of you and things go differently in the council and decisions are made, because we are at the top of the chart and you work for us, and the city administrator is an appointed position, if we chose to get rid of said city administrator you want us as citizens to be on the hook for nearly still $100,000,” Montgomery said. 

The severance package outlined in the employment letter would pay a six-month severance, pay out the employee’s unused sick and vacation leave and pay the employer share for the group health and life insurance for six months.

This can amount to various totals based on the employee's current pay at the time of termination.

Other residents were in agreement with Montgomery and continued to speak one after the other about the issue. 

“I am running for City Council, but I can assure you I am here as a citizen today… Because I’m at the top of the charter as a citizen I do not give my permission for you to approve item 9.M, ” 3rd Ward resident and council candidate Jason Snyder said. 

“In the spirit of compromise and to prevent the appearance of impropriety based on the timing of things and the council’s own words that they are proud of the close working relationship with the qualified personnel and in order to remain competitive, I would like the wording to not apply to current employees but it would apply to future employees,” he continued. 

Other residents continued to share their concerns about the issue and asked the council to not approve the item. 

“If this is on the table, precedent should be followed, and we only have one example of that,” 2nd Ward resident Tom Wilder said, a reference to former Police Chief Roger Pohlman.

“After hearing a phone call between Amy Mace and Roger Pohlman, he was given one-month severance and one month of health care and then shown the door, and this package shouldn’t be any more than that,” Wilder continued. 

As the meeting went on and council discussion commenced, the public comment portion was closed. 

“I understand that the closer employees are to the council officer level, the more subject they are to political controversy, and it is no secret that during the recall people said to staff, ‘We are coming after you,’” Kay Kuhlmann said. “So of course there is a sense of instability, and we are concerned about that.”

Council members discussed the issue and some of the possible benefits and disadvantages of the change in employment letters. 

“I see this as really dangerous, I don’t think you’ll see anything to this magnitude in the real world,” Kliewer said. 

“I see this as handcuffing the council. Nothing against any of the current employees at all, this isn’t directed at anybody, but this council and future councils and the council 10 years from now are going to say, ‘We can’t let this person go because it is going to cost us $120,000,’” he continued. 

Beise was in agreement with Kliewer on the issue. 

“I agree with Don, you don’t see this in the private sector,” Beise said. “I think this needs to be looked at a little deeper, a little more investigation into it, rather than put it in the consent agenda and not in the general business to discuss. Something like this should be brought in on the general business to discuss.”

Council President Becky Norton shared her support for the employment letter change. 

“We are talking here about non-performance related issues. It shows that we do value our employees, especially our at-will employees,” she said. “I think this provides some stability and that ultimately means that it is a cost savings by providing that stability, it helps us retain institutional knowledge and succession planning. … I’ve seen these offers in the private sector as well.”

After council discussion some residents continued to want to share their thoughts on the matter. 

This is when the meeting took a turn, residents from the audience began to shout at the council with no regard to the meeting structure. 

After Norton said that the public comment portion was closed, an uproar of shouting and yelling poured from the crowd. 

Some residents shouted, “We pay your salary,” others said. “The public who pays your salary wants you to listen,” and “You are ignoring us.”  

As community members continued to shout at the council, Police Chief Gordon Rohr escorted the residents causing disruption from  the council chambers.

The employment letters are given to employees upon their hiring. 

The change would not immediately trigger any financial impact, the impact would come if a termination occurred that was due to political circumstances. 

The document attached to the agenda read, “The financial impact would be triggered by council action to terminate an officer of the City Council. In the event of the termination, staff would be able to provide a financial impact to the City Council.” 

The termination severance package would not be given in certain circumstances. The City Council is asked to provide each officer of the City Council an employment letter, similar to those recently provided to the public works director and the police chief.

“These two officials were offered letters from the City Council, an agreement to pay six months' severance in a case where their termination was not performance related, or a result of a criminal act or violation of the city' s personnel policy,” the document said. 

Remaining officials are now requesting the City Council provide the same for them, according to the document.

 

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