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New Akeley City Council looks at employee issues

New Mayor Jerry Tatro was frequently interrupted at his first meeting by the woman he defeated for re-election in November, Jennifer Mitchell. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Citizens arrived in number for the changing of the guard in Akeley this week, the newly elected officials grappling with contentious employee issues and other matters.

"Bear with me; I'm new at this," mayor Jerry Tatro told his 30-plus constituents who attended.

Tatro and Dan Riggs assumed office Wednesday, as well as Trygve Karl, who was elected subsequent to his appointment, and Troy Hegg, who was re-elected in November.

A closed work session for city employee evaluation was to be held after the meeting but four of the six chose to keep the meeting open during their evaluations.

Liquor store manager Lacey Hitchcock, police chief Jimmy Hanson, clerk-treasurer Sebrina Hegg and part-time maintenance worker Kelly VandenEykel underwent questioning in the open meeting.

Maintenance supervisor Frank Thelin and deputy clerk Robbi Gack chose to be interviewed in closed session.

Hitchcock answered relatively generic questions from liquor commissioner Riggs on how the municipal liquor store might increase earnings. The net income in 2012 was $18,343; this compares with a reported profit of $23,745 in 2011.

Police commissioner Tatro asked Hanson to "spend more time in the car and running radar." He asked for daily logs that could be reviewed by council members on a weekly basis.

And he reminded Hanson of the requirement to wear a bulletproof vest while on duty.

Tatro reprimanded Sebrina Hegg for not providing him with the city's federal identification numbers for a grant proposal he was drafting.

He is seeking $7,500 through Giziibii to purchase a security system and fence for the water tower and treatment plant. This follows the tower's break-in last fall.

Hegg indicated she was on sick leave at the time of the request and later indicated she was unsure of the legality, because Tatro had not yet taken office.

VandenEykel said he followed the requests made by Thelin, indicating he was satisfied with the position but the 30-hour week constricts the amount of work he completes.

After the meeting, Tatro said the work session was not meant to be an evaluation of the employees. His ultimate goal, he said, is to keep taxes down and streamline departments to run more efficiently.

He said he was "upset" with former mayor Jennifer Mitchell whose questions and comments during the meeting were "disruptive," and contrary to positions she'd taken previously on issues.

Mitchell had objected to a motion from Tatro to compensate Don Wicks for damage to posts that occurred while Thelin was plowing city sidewalks.

The incident, which was recorded on video, led to a verbal altercation between Wicks and Thelin at the city office.

Wicks subsequently filed two citizen complaint forms, the first describing damage from the incident and requesting the compensation, the second reprimanding Thelin for his behavior. "Need to be more friendly and kind without threatening people," Wicks wrote. "I want a call!!!"

Reports were also filed with the police and sheriff's department.

"I watched the video," Tatro said. "The issue is the posts were hit. Wicks suffered a loss. I think they deserve compensation."

A motion to pay $112 for the posts earned council approval.

"Will this be normal?" Mitchell questioned, "people being compensated for damage?"

An estimated two-thirds of city buildings are located in the right of way, an audience member pointed out.

Council member Brian Hitchcock said snow removal on sidewalks should be the responsibility of the business owner. His subsequent motion to suspend plowing on sidewalks until further review in February earned approval.

After the meeting, Tatro said he questions the city practice of hiring out for maintenance work. "The work needs to be more in-house."

Streets, he said, are a priority. "But the bottom line is money. We are not raising taxes."

Akeley residents and businesses face substantially higher property taxes than the rest of the county due to the city's high tax capacity rate, assessor David Johnson said last spring.

Akeley city's 116 percent tax capacity rate compares with Akeley Township's 13 percent TCR.

In other action, the council:

n Approved a policy that requires a minimum of three bids for purchases over $300, with the exception of emergency or liquor store purchases.

Mitchell took exception to the policy, noting solicitation of bids will require publication, costing the city money. She recommended asking for "proposals."

The policy will likely be revisited next month.

n Approved commissioner appointments, including Karl as acting mayor, fire board member and a parks and recreation commissioner; Hitchcock will serve as a public works, ordinances and public events commissioner, Riggs will also serve as a public works commissioner as well as liquor, and public streets; Hegg is a parks and recreation and public streets commissioner.

The council will continue to meet at 6 p.m. the second Wednesday of the month in the city hall.