|7/2/2020 1:46:00 PM|
North Branch mayor berates council member request for workplace investigation, new W&L appointed
Nearly all of the North Branch city council session June 23 had one central issue, the Water and Light utility.
A councilmember’s agenda item to approve an independent investigation of the city staff’s level of what the councilmember felt has been unwarranted interceding in the affairs of the utility, was unpopular in the mayor’s eyes.
The special workplace investigation from Member Brian Voss was knocked off course by tirades from the mayor and Council member Kelly Neider, In the end it seems any staff machinations involving the Water & Light will not officially get any more attention.
Two recesses were needed for meeting attendees to cool down.
Mayor Jim Swenson especially was feeling offended. He declared, “...water and light has been a pain in the butt for 30 years.”
Swenson repeatedly interrupted Council member Voss, and accused Voss of having “damaged the council all on his own,” adding, “I will not stand for it. You need to be removed,” he yelled at Voss.
Four action items had been submitted by Voss. Before things got heated council voted on the first item and was discussing the second-- a third party workplace investigator. Mayor Swenson complained that Voss was “running wild.” Swenson accused Voss of costing taxpayers over $4,000 in legal hours billing, which the city attorney clarified later is a monthly bill including hours used by city staff and legal questions from the mayor himself.
A normally perfunctory committee report turned into about an hour long presentation, as two utility commission members ran defense on their own behalf; repeatedly accusing Water and Light staff of incompetence.
No utility employees were alerted to this agenda item to have a chance to speak.
Utility Commission member/ Council person Kelly Neider used her public platform to declare the city “...has lost development because of water and light employees.”
Water and Light Commission Chair Peter Schaps apparently had been forewarned this “update” would be extra-detailed, and he too was at the council session to air all the utility’s alleged failures.
The utility’s new Finance Director Brenda Jepsen, hired by Schaps and Neider just a few days earlier, was likewise well-prepared to speak.
Mentioned as something the commissioners are looking into was the concept of contributing PILT payments to the city.
Neider remarked, should this result in adding $3 or $4 to the water and light bill every month, “I wouldn’t care...we are all in this together.”
Payment in Lieu of Taxes is applied (by statute) to land held by a utility, railroad, etc. and is based on the area’s market valuation. Neider said commission members are looking at collecting PILT calculated not on acreage market value, but on the equivalent of three percent of utility revenues. The council heard this could generate $300,000 for the city of North Branch annually.
Council member Kathy Blomquist pointed out that fees benefiting the city as a whole, but covered only by utility customers, have been controversial whenever considered by officials. Only half the taxpayers in North Branch (also Water & Light customers) will contribute to a PILT surcharge, Blomquist remarked. Yet, the entire population including those on Xcel or ECE services, benefit from the city containing property tax increases using PILT revenue.
After the “update” had ended, Council member Voss presented his items.
The first was to require the commission to be responsible to assign its own orientation provider, when four new members are seated in mid-July Current practice is the city handles this.
There are six applicants for the four new seats as the utility commission expands from three to five. The utility is not under city governance and the city should back out of this training, Voss argued. The orientation should be something the commission organizes.
This was approved.
Based on the late hour, the hostility and emotions present, Voss motioned to table his other items.
Tabling for two weeks was approved 3-2 with Swenson and Neider opposed. They had been pressuring Voss to present all his items in their entirety. Mayor Swenson wanted warts and all laid bare, basically he called Voss a scaredy-cat and told him he’d better not change a word in his items before they came up again.
Based on the mayor’s pleas, Voss agreed to a motion to reconsider the tabling, and press ahead.
Responding to the mayor’s statement that “...there are one hell of a lot of pissed off people” Council member Voss said, “I have lost friends over this too.”
The motion to reconsider the table vote was approved with only Council member Joel McPherson opposed.
The now un-tabled item calling for the workplace investigator to look into city hall involvement, was up for discussion.
Council member Neider said, “I am in the dark here, what reason is there for this (investigator)?”
Voss asked for a brief sidebar to consult with city legal counsel on what he could utter publicly and not violate data privacy, to better explain his request. Or, maybe they need a closed session?
There was another recess ordered for the consultation.
Upon the re-start of the council meeting Voss, City Attorney Patrick Dolan and City Administrator Renae Fry returned to chambers.
Fry started off by saying she needs to do what is in the city’s and staff’s best interests, and recommended just moving on. She said she made a plea to Voss “...to bring this to an end.”
Council member Voss alluded to there likely being extensive discord in digging deeper into staff actions over the last year. “If there is anything I learned tonight it is what just happened can not happen again.” he stated.
He had his investigative action items “stricken” from the agenda.
Still in effect is the direction that council gave to the utility commission to undertake contracting their own orientation services.
City Council set up interview times for Tuesday night, this week. Nathan Keech, Thomas Hals, Terry Smith, James Baxter and Mic Dahlberg were interviewed by the full council June 30. Peter Schaps had submitted his application but withdrew Tuesday. Four are needed to fill four new seats on the Water & Light Commission. Term lengths were staggered, to not have everybody up for re-appointment at the same time. All applicants except James Baxter were seated.
To make sure applicants could not watch the first interviews and have an upperhand knowing the questions ahead the session was not live-streamed, but was recorded and will be on the city video access site later.
There won’t be city council persons on the newly structured utility, so the next few weeks will be Council member Neider’s final days on the utility commission.