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September 23, 2020

8/7/2020 1:06:00 PM
North Branch Council gets earful of upset for Facebook activity

The first third of the North Branch Council meeting last week was taken up with public comment, with people filing into council chambers to talk  on a topic the city council did not even have on the agenda.  This was apparently public response triggered off of a Facebook page statement that a city council member may ask to pursue an investigation of issues and actions that marred the city’s utility the last year and a half.  

The Water & Light general manager and office manager/commission clerk were escorted off the utility property on the order of two utility commissioners following an unnoticed meeting, late in December 2019.  

There were also public allegations during a budget work session of the surprise unearthing of $300,000 in expenditures of overtime and on call pay made to utility staff.  The utility employees saw their wages and benefits frozen and reduced  with no notice.  A new position was created for an independent accounting contractor who was then hired without any posting of the public job or advertising.

The annual financial audit did not substantiate the OT and on-call pay allegation months later.

Several people took the microphone at the start of the council meeting July 28 to say the city needs to move on from the controversy and conflict that developed from chronic mis-steps by the then-three member utility commission.

Resident Barb Swenson complained in the meeting’s public comment portion about people “trolling” on the Internet under fake names, and “hacking” her husband’s Facebook, Mayor Jim Swenson.

Bob Streater said there ought to be no more time spent on the multiple questionable actions officials allegedly were involved in.  “This is just about communications that have broken down,” he maintained. He added, “Everybody has moved on.”

Amanda Darwin “stands behind” the mayor and Council member Kelly Neider, who sat on the Water & Light Commission, and how they handled what she termed “wrong doings at Water and Light.”

A male who did not provide his name, viewed this from the other side,  “It smells to suggest that a cover-up (no investigation) is what people in this community want.”
Former Commission Chairman, Peter Schaps, who did not apply to be reappointed when the commission recently expanded from three to five,  said the utility is under a union now,  and it should be left up to the union to do any investigating.

This was public comment and no action followed.

As for the snowmobile trail issue, council agreed on its consent agenda vote, to discard a request to run the trail through Harder Park at the request of the snowmobile club.   (Story Press July 23.)  The through-trail issue is going to be resolved some other way.

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