1/16/2020 4:47:00 PM North Branch Water & Light in turmoil
North Branch Water and Light utility is without a general manager, at least for the time being. The GM and an office staff member were placed on unpaid leave of absence December 30. According to records North Branch Police were sent at 10:04 a.m. to escort the two away from the utility office property.
Apparently there is no appeal process for employees to defend against allegations of “insubordination” and the length of the leave was not spelled out by the commission vote.
Utility commissioners however, met January 10 and did revoke the unpaid condition, making the administrative leave “paid.”
Not surprisingly, Water and Light employees filed notice December 31 that they are beginning the process for representation from Teamsters 49ers. The Water and Light Commission’s Chairman Peter Schaps stated January 10 the commission attorney will tell the commission when/if the employees can be reinstated.
The meeting during which the two employees were placed on unpaid leave (Dec 30) was not convened according to MN Open Laws. The meeting January 10 also did not comply.
A reporter was present in yet another special commission session, held to address Water and Light’s budget-- Thursday December 26.
However, by Monday December 30 the commission (Schaps and Neider) met again, without providing 72 or 24 hour meeting notice; which is key because employees have the right to open a meeting when they are the subject of a closed session. Without advance notice employees have no time to prepare and weigh their option whether to open the meeting.
Schaps and North Branch City Council member Kelly Neider, who is Council liaison to the utility, were the yes votes on these actions.
The third utility commissioner Chris Bibeau says he wasn’t receiving useful notices. For example, the e mail he got for the January 10 special meeting (he gave the Press a copy) incorrectly said the session was to be Jan. 8.
Bibeau told several Water and Light employees who attended the January 10 session, that they need to disregard these machinations being orchestrated by individuals on the commission and keep doing a great job.
Apparently, the action placing utility general manager Mark Petsche and the office staff person on leave was alleged to have resulted from “insubordination.” A person being described as a “finance secretary” who was recently hired by Schaps and Neider, Brenda Jepsen, reportedly asked for files, and access to Water and Light accounts records and to use the utility computer and was denied.
Jepsen was present at the commission meeting Jan. 10 and Bibeau asked her if she is bonded, insured, etc and she said no. Bibeau guessed that this could have been staff just being cautious, and he was astonished two long time employees would have been escorted by law enforcement off the premises based on what he has been told.
Attempts by this reporter to ask the commission chairman about what led to hiring an outside bookkeeper, were ignored.
Chairman Schaps raced into a non-public mechanical room access door and disappeared after the Jan 10 meeting adjourned at the utility offices in North Branch.
The city hall and public works department employees and city council members, were given some information in an e mail from the city administrator, distributed December 31. Renae Fry explained the action imposing the leaves of absence. She said there is to be a “...thorough review of the utility’s financial records and other pertinent documents...the city policy of insurance also covers the utility and there is bond coverage...for possible errors, omissions or financial malfeasance...I will be contacting (the League of MN Cities) to let them know of the situation and ask for their guidance as may be appropriate, to protect the interests of the city and the utility as the Commission undertakes its review.”
Schaps and Neider also voted (during the Jan. 10 session) in support of hiring legal firm Madden Galanter Hanson (Bibeau voted no.) Attorney Chelsie Troth, Pine City, reportedly also serves as general commission counsel as well.
Former Water and Light attorney Vince Stevens, with the CITY of North Branch’s law firm, resigned as counsel to the commission a couple months ago. The firm of Miller Stevens Law continues to represent the city, attending council meetings, etc. Stevens preferred to withhold comment on his resigning water and light at this time.
Bibeau asked where the need for a labor relations law firm was coming from and Neider said she is recommending them, after asking organizations that work with utilities and government units, for names of firms. The commission did not look over any other professional services proposals.
There’s likely going to be plenty of work for labor law specialists-- considering that along with the unionization notice, Schaps and Neider voted Dec. 26 for a host of contract adjustments; freezing staff wages, cutting by over half the contributions to employees’ HSA and healthcare premiums, and also reducing all customer base water fees by $5 per month as of the first billing of 2020. (Story Press Jan 2.)