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Menahga City Council tackles staff, legal issues

Tensions were high at Tuesday's Menahga City Council special meeting, but at Thursday's subsequent meeting, the council hired a temporary city administrator and deputy clerk, arranged interviews for a permanent deputy clerk and successfully negotiated with a police chief candidate.

Administrative help

Fire Chief Dave Kicker suggested that Sourcewell provide more help to administrative secretary Amanda Pachel.

Following the resignations of city administrator Gina Ellingson and deputy clerk Alvina Kytta in January, the council hired Scott Saehr of Sourcewell for his interim administrative services at $50 per hour. He was available for 10 hours per week.

"There's stuff missing. She needs help," Kicker said. "I just want to put my concern in that we do need it sooner than later to help her out."

Mayor Joan Liimatta told the council she wishes to seek temporary help for the administration office, including previous employees in good standing, until permanent staff are hired and trained.

Council member Art Huebner accused her of becoming a dictator, saying she tried to hire a mediator without council approval. "You're one of five on this council and you're trying to take over all the things you want to see, and I don't like it," he said.

Huebner further complained about little being accomplished over the past three months.

"We've had 11 meetings, seven of them special meetings. One of them lasted 10 minutes, and what's been done? Do you realize the cost to the city?" he asked, noting that only two people have been hired in that time.

Council members are paid $30 per meeting, and the mayor receives $50, Huebner noted, plus meetings take up the six department heads' time.

"I really believe that we have very serious business to conduct and I think we have some decisions that need to be made," Liimatta said.

After lengthy discussion, the council authorized Liimatta, on a 5-0 vote, to make inquiries for temporary help.

They tabled the staffing issue and recessed the meeting until Thursday, where they discussed deputy clerk applications and scheduled interviews with their four top candidates for Wednesday, April 3.

On Thursday, Liimatta reported that Kytta and former city administrator Char West had agreed to help during the interim. West will charge $40 per hour and work 30 hours per week, contingent upon Kytta charging $35 per hour and working 40 hours per week. The motion passed unanimously.

Legal counsel

Liimatta inquired about a pending request for unemployment from former public works supervisor Frank Thelin.

Huebner clarified that the request alleged "two instances of a hostile work environment."

"We really should've been made aware of that. I don't like hearing that on the street. That's really not a good thing," Liimatta said, asking Huebner how much time the council had to respond to it.

"It was 10 days when Scott (Saehr) called me," he replied. "How do we consult with each other, given this kind of information, without violating the Open Meeting Law?"

Liimatta said the Pachel can send out the information and then call an emergency special meeting.

Normally, the city administrator would handle the issue, so Pachel said she sent the information to Saehr.

"He didn't want to do it," said council member Larry Karjala.

"Then why do we pay him?" Kicker asked, drawing laughter.

Liimatta asked city attorney Tom Winters to review the unemployment request with her following the meeting.

Liimatta said a new complaint was filed "from the same person that filed a complaint against Chief (Scott) Koennicke in 2016 or 2017, but nothing was following through so she's redirected her complaint to the new council."

Since Koennicke is no longer employed by the city, Winters said the city is not obligated to investigate. "When there's a settlement agreement, any complaints are no longer public. They are essentially taken care of," he said.

Liimatta made a motion that only the mayor and city administrator may contact the city attorney. Ramstad, Skoyles and Winters, P.A. of Detroit Lakes charges $200 per hour for civil services, with a flat fee of $100 per council meeting attended, plus mileage.

"I think there are times we could use the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC), almost exclusively," she said.

"I, personally, highly object to that," Huebner said. "The reason we've got an attorney is because of things going on between the council. There's been actions done without the knowledge of the council."

Council member Robyn Keranen said the LMC is a guide, but does not give legal advice. "There's been a number of times where they say, 'Contact your city attorney.' I understand it's going to cost us. Most of us are learning. We're new to this," she said. "We do have to have the ability to contact our attorney to make sure we're doing things right."

Council member Larry Karjala said it made sense to clear it through the mayor first.

"It's pretty evident that we don't have a lot of trust between us about some things. Until we get this straightened out, I think it's imperative that we have the freedom to contact the attorney," Huebner said.

The motion passed 3-2, with Huebner and Keranen opposed.

The council later violated Open Meeting Law on Tuesday by closing the special meeting without providing proper notice. While agenda items may be added on the fly at regular council meetings, Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson said the law requires that the specific purpose of a special meeting be disclosed so that residents know whether to attend the meeting.

Winters was present Tuesday. He cited the Minnesota Statute that allows a meeting to be closed to discuss allegations of misconduct against a city employee, but failed to note that it was not a published agenda item, and therefore, was illegal.

When the meeting readjourned, the council said no disciplinary action was taken.

Police chief

The full council interviewed two police chief candidates, Adam Gunderson and Bryan Byrne, on March 19.

On Tuesday, Keranen was appointed by the council to negotiate salary and benefits with their top choice, Gunderson. Saehr was asked to negotiate on behalf of the city, but he said he was unable to do so.

On Thursday, Keranen reported that Gunderson wanted a 4 percent annual cost-of-living adjustment, which the council approved. Through his military service, he is able to secure health insurance at $1,100 per month versus the city's insurance plan of over $2,000. The council agreed to pay for the cheaper insurance premium. They also settled on a $34 per hour wage and agreed to forgo a six-month probationary period raise, instead giving the bonus after one year of service.

Frisbee golf course

Public works employee Ralph Cox recommended that the council meet with the Menahga C&C regarding their joint frisbee golf course project at the city campground.

He expressed concern about the labor involved — cutting underbrush and trees, grinding stumps. "We just don't have enough time come summer," Cox said. "I don't mind working on it. I'm working on what we've got open so far, so we can get something going, but honestly, I just don't see we need a 12-hole course to start. We've got plenty of room for six to nine."

Liimatta agreed with downsizing the course and suggested discussing it further at the next regular council meeting.

In other business, the council did as follows:

• Rescinded the appointment of Keranen as vice mayor and instead appointed Tim Ellingson, upon Liimatta's recommendation and citing his knowledge of Open Meeting Law. The motion passed unanimously.

• Learned that Greenwood Connections is withholding $30,000 for general conditions and $16,000 for landscaping until the work is completed on the new addition.

• Learned that revenue is up at the municipal liquor store about $7,000 compared to January and February of last year. "We had a really good St. Urho (Days)," said store manager Renata Parks.

• Appointed resident Dan Warmbold and Liimatta to serve on the Menahga Fire Relief Association in order to comply with Minnesota laws.