The Park Rapids City Council stepped back Tuesday from the possibility of terminating management-level employee Chris Fieldsend.
The city’s public facilities superintendent now faces unspecified discipline at the discretion of City Administrator Ryan Mathisrud over an incident in his supervision of the city fleet.
Mathisrud reported that after discussing potential risks with the city attorney, he was withdrawing his previous recommendation to fire Fieldsend and, unless the council passed a motion to do so, he would take “appropriate disciplinary action” based on personnel policies. No motion to terminate Fieldsend was made.
On Aug. 5, 2019, the engine failed on a Public Works Department Ford F-350. On Jan. 27, Mathisrud told the council his investigation found the failure was due to oil being consumed over time, while the vehicle’s last two oil changes were followed by intervals of 14,006 and 17,366 miles. At that time, Mathisrud said “failures of management … significantly contributed to the incident,” but he wanted to sound out the council’s views about disciplinary action. Council member Tom Conway noted that city policy allows Mathisrud to take any action short of dismissal without council approval.
During a special council meeting on Feb. 5, Mathisrud recommended terminating Fieldsend, but Fieldsend’s attorney, Steve Peloquin, called termination a “harsh remedy” for an error in which other city personnel shared responsibility. Peloquin suggested a more “proportional response” in keeping with a progressive discipline policy. The council then voted 3-2 to give Fieldsend an opportunity to resign before taking up the matter again at their regular meeting on Feb. 11.
Conway said Tuesday that he considered Fieldsend’s handling of the F-350 an “egregious error.” However, he distinguished between “discipline as being a way to change behavior and termination to be used if we’ve determined we can’t get the behavior changed, or if we can’t afford to have an opportunity for a second offense.”
“I was not, as of tonight, at the point of termination,” Conway said. He added that he may decide differently if a similar case comes up, since the council has declared it “unacceptable” to manage a department but not its systems and employees.
Council member Erika Randall urged Mathisrud to take quick action, to consider demoting Fieldsend and to remove him from oversight of the city’s fleet. Council member Liz Stone suggested a reduction in Fieldsend’s pay.
Referring to a memo from Peloquin, Randall said, “I don’t think that the 10 percent reduction comes close to being an adequate reduction.”