The City of Menahga's "substantial conflict" has attracted the attention of the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT), according to an April 3 letter to the Menahga City Council.
The council discussed the matter at Thursday's special meeting.
"For some time, we have been aware of the substantial conflict taking place within the city. After reviewing council meetings, reading reports in the media and noting the loss of staff, we have concerns about the council members' continued difficulty working with each other," wrote LMCIT Administrator Daniel Greensweig.
The LMCIT does not get involved with local policy decisions, Greensweig emphasized. "Instead, our attention is focused on ensuring that the actions of one city do not place an undue burden on the rest of the trust's members."
He continued, "Data practices, Open Meeting Law and other similar legal requirements are a concern. However, just as important is the way council members interact with each other, with city staff and with others. At the most basic level, conflict between elected officials and staff can lead to expensive and difficult litigation. Even without litigation, excessive staff turnover can be troubling. Good public management requires an understanding of budgeting, administrative and interpersonal skills, much of which comes from experience and knowing the intricacies of a city."
LMCIT offered to schedule a time for their collaboration and mediation program manager, Pam Whitmore, to meet with the council. Her services are free of charge.
Interim City Administrator Char West said she spoke to Whitmore, who wouldn't be available until June. Whitmore will lead two or three sessions at two to three hours each, but first she will talk to each council member individually, West said.
"It'll speed things up and clarify what everybody's thinking," said council member Tim Ellingson.
Police chief, deputy clerk update
Earlier this month, West expressed concern that the council's offer to reimburse the police chief candidate's VA health insurance at $1,100 is a violation of the Affordable Care Act and could result in hefty fines.
City attorney Tim Winters' legal opinion concurred. He told West that the city is unable to pay toward an employee's individual health insurance premium; however, the council does have the authority to compensate the employee by increasing their hourly rate.
But there's another catch.
"It is also my understanding from our AT Group insurance agent that there is a possibility that if Mr. Gunderson decides not to take the city health insurance, he may not be eligible for the city's other insurance benefits, such as dental and life," according to West.
The city must have 75 percent participation in the group insurance plan, West continued. If this offer is enticing to other city employees and participation drops below the required minimum, the city could lose its insurance rates, she said.
West assured the council that Adam Gunderson said city insurance is "not a deal-breaker."
On Thursday, the council rescinded its three previous motions regarding their offer to Gunderson. They passed a new motion, which states Gunderson would receive $32 per hour with city insurance or $34 per hour without city insurance, a 4 percent annual cost-of-living increase and 280 PTO hours per year based on his 10-19 years of experience.
Following interviews with three deputy clerk candidates on Thursday, the council made an offer to Tanya Edwards of Park Rapids. She is currently city clerk for Wolf Lake. They offered $18.25 per hour (Step 7) and 208 hours of PTO.
If Edwards does not accept, their second choice is Clarissa Bipes-Thompson of Brownton, Minn. at the same pay scale.
In other business, the council agreed to pay former council member Larry Karjala, who resigned this month due to medical and personal issues, his $870 stipend. From January through April 9, Karjala earned $600 for regular meetings and $270 for special meetings.
Typically, West said, stipends are paid at the end of the year, even if the council member only served part of the year. There is nothing stipulated in the city ordinance, she said.
"I don't have any negative feelings about this," Liimatta said.
The motion to pay Karjala now passed unanimously.