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Menahga council quarrels as citizens criticize efforts

With barely a quorum to meet Monday night, the Menahga City Council faced criticism from citizens and bickering within the three members who did show up.

The city's administrative staff is short-handed in the wake of administrator Teri Osterman's resignation earlier this month and council members seem divided on how to proceed - and how quickly to begin the replacement process.

City employees Susie Larson and Joline Floyd were given 30 to 40 percent raises for stepping in to fill the interim vacancy. But Larson asked for help in planning and zoning issues, saying she didn't feel qualified to sign off on some building permits without some expert assistance.

The council held a special meeting May 6 to accept Osterman's resignation, reflecting what have become deep divisions among council members.

According to the meeting minutes, "Councilmember (Maxine) Norman had questions as to why some council members were not notified of the resignation, and why a special council meeting was not called. There was also a question of whether there are pending allegations against Osterman."

The city attorney "felt that, in lieu of Osterman's resignation, no further proceedings were necessary."

Osterman, who resigned to take another position that paid more, had a strained relationship with Norman and other council members at times, but Mayor Tom Larson strongly supported her. Norman and council member Dennis Komulainen actually voted against accepting Osterman's resignation at that May 6 meeting.

The council is undecided on how it wants to advertise the position, since Osterman was the city clerk, treasurer and administrator. Susie Larson has been appointed the interim clerk/treasurer.

Norman questioned the amount of the raises, suggesting the amounts might be excessive.

"It's kind of an extreme hike," she said.

"They're getting 40 percent more for doing 80 percent more work," Mayor Larson said.

Norman suggested getting temporary help from the League of Minnesota Cities, which prompted some objections from council member Kim Rasmussen. She asserted the additional money paid Susie Larson and Floyd would be commensurate with what the city might pay an interim administrator who might not be familiar with the city's operating practices.

When Norman tried to continue, Rasmussen said, "Please let me continue."

Norman urged the search for an administrator begin sooner rather than later because Susie Larson and Floyd are working so hard to "float the boat."

And those internal differences prompted one of the citizen complaints, from a senior citizen named Jack Bloomquist.

He chastised the council for behaving unprofessionally for the past year as their schism widened.

The council needs to "quit the dog and pony show, nitpicking every little thing," Bloomquist scolded the members to applause from the spectators. "This is not the way to run a city."

Bloomquist said he'd voted for every sitting council member because of the expertise each brought to the table. He singled out Norman.

He said he voted for her because she was a grant- writing expert who said she could help the city applying for grants.

"I have not seen any efforts put in that direction," Bloomquist said.

His criticism followed a lengthy and angry diatribe by Dean Swanson, a seasonal resident appealing his County Road 21 special assessments from last summer's street project.

Swenson interrogated the council members and mayor as to whether they understood their own special assessment policy. He claims, because of procedural irregularities committed by city personnel, his assessment should be revisited and revised.

Swanson contended city personnel didn't follow the policies for his appeal, didn't provide him the information he needed to appeal it and as a consequence, his legal appeal failed.

Osterman had corresponded with Swanson, suggesting he consult an attorney, because he appeared to be asking for legal advice.

"You guys failed and you failed miserably," Swanson said, also scolding the council. "It cost me plenty of money."

The council took no action on his issues.

The city will adopt a written complaint form for citizens to file and those will go directly to the council, rather than tying up the administrative staff.

And, in another city issue, Susie Larson indicated she had responded to a state auditor inquiry into the city's practice of giving employees gift cards as a recognition.

She and Floyd surrendered the cards they were recently given.

The city purchases $50 gift cards for full-time employees and $25 gift cards for part-time employees.

Norman questioned whether the city could legally spend municipal liquor store profits on such items.

"The statute says they must be spent only for a public purpose," Norman said.

"All we can do right now is respond," Rasmussen said.

If the auditor finds the practice questionable, the city will discontinue it.

The council also approved moving the craft fair connected to Menahga Midsummer to the downtown area to involve the merchants, rather than the swimming park area. The festival will be held the weekend of July 10-11.

June 14 the council will meet to consider signage for a ATV trail in town.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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