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November 28, 2020

10/5/2020 11:52:00 AM
North Branch adopts lowest levy hike in years

North Branch’s levy and budget for 2021 were adopted last week in regular session.  The increase is less than many surrounding cities have been adopting, Finance Director Joseph Starks was quick to point out.  The final numbers get adopted in a few weeks, but the preliminary hike is 1.99 percent, which compared to the last six years or so, is the lowest growth adopted.  

North Branch will levy $494,900 for 2021 and in 2020 this was $485,200.

Starks said the Local Government Aid coming to the city is estimated to go up by some $34,000 but because of the “volatility” in state government right now, the city isn’t budgeting for spending the whole amount.  The state legislature is facing ever-changing projections in all areas of revenues.  

The debt service on the Interstate Park industrial/business land and improvements has called for a few years of $220,000 annual payments, but that is projected to go down to $180,000 for business park debt service for 2021.

North Branch holds its public hearing on taxes November 30 at 6:30 p.m. at city hall.  The final 2021 levy is set after this.

Appointments okayed
There were two appointments made from citizen applications looking to serve on Parks Trails & Open Space. Charlie Klopp jr. and Lynn Wilson were seated.

Hearing on complaint
The majority of last week’s council meeting was devoted to reviewing a complaint identifying multiple code of  conduct violations against Council member Kelly Neider.  

The hearing was supposed to be a chance for her to present evidence refuting a listing of violations including multiple state Open Meeting Law infractions. Neider could have provided proof of sufficient meeting notice or that affected employees had been advised ahead of time that a meeting on their performance had been convened, but this was not the case.

State law requires when employees are the subject of an agenda, they must be made aware.  They can call for the meeting to be opened to the public.  This is in state law to protect public employees from arbitrary retributions.

Neider said the complaint was all just a misunderstanding of her motives and methods. She was frequently reminded by city legal counsel over her hour long speech, to focus on the items in the complaint and not digress into unrelated topics.
At one point, she did say, “If you think I broke the open meeting law, I apologize.”

The complaint also accused her of intimidating workers by distributing Water and Light utility “job descriptions” to the employees.  This was in the wake of two executive staff members being relieved of their positions by Neider and Scahps.  At this point no job descriptions had been voted on by the three-member utility commission. Descriptions were crafted by an interim general manager working with staff, and approved months later.

Neider ordered utility workers to sign the descriptions and also to report to her on their daily tasks.  

Neider explained in her rebuttal, “I  would think they (employees) would see this as a great opportunity” and at no time did she refute that she interjected herself into  the utility workday.

Utility employees are  currently finalizing new contract terms so they can be represented by a union-- in the wake of workplace chaos that transpired in 2019 and early 2020.

In Neider’s rebuttal she explained her only motive was “empowering and encouraging” the employees.

Mayor Jim Swenson, Council members Brian Voss, Kathy Blomquist and Joel McPherson debated what to do next.  

Council member Voss had added a glitch and submitted additional “exhibits” that morning of the hearing.  The city attorney announced he needed to go through the new data to make sure everything can be made public.  

Attorney David Anderson suggested that if the council wants to add this to existing information they are considering related to Neider--  the hearing should be continued to another date.

The council could censure Neider for the conduct and/or remove her from her other committees.  She already has not been re-appointed to the Water and Light Commission.  

Or-- council could vote to refer the matter to the county attorney’s office to be reviewed for criminal charges.  

There were multiple failed tries to find a calendar date to continue the hearing to, and still comply with the deadline in bylaws for action on the complaint.  

Council member Voss tried a motion to refer the matter to the county attorney.  

Mayor Swenson remarked,  “Okay now we’re skipping censure and going straight to court.”    The mayor promised if that were to happen, he would refer an earlier complaint citing misconduct against Council member Blomquist (dropped by council) to the county attorney.

The motion to have the county attorney review the violations for charges died 2-2,  Swenson and Blomquist against and Voss and McPherson for.  

On a motion by Mayor Swenson, for the Neider complaint to be dismissed in its entirety, council voted 3-1, with Voss opposed.  

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