TOWER- City councilors Kevin Fitton and Brooke Anderson voted to undertake an open-ended investigation into newly-elected Mayor Orlyn Kringstad over a comment he allegedly made in his own place of …
TOWER- City councilors Kevin Fitton and Brooke Anderson voted to undertake an open-ended investigation into newly-elected Mayor Orlyn Kringstad over a comment he allegedly made in his own place of business about a city employee, prior to taking office. The decision to hire the investigator, from the League of Minnesota Cities, came in response to a one-page complaint filed by city Ambulance Director Steve Altenburg, who Kringstad defeated in the Nov. 6 general election for mayor.
In his complaint, Altenburg alleges that Kringstad had told Anderson and councilor-elect Rachel Beldo that he was “sexist” and suggested he should be fired.
While two councilors cannot normally approve an action by the five-member council, both Kringstad and Beldo opted to abstain in the decision to investigate the matter. Councilor Steve Abrahamson voted against.
The actual scope of the investigation was unclear. The issue appeared on the agenda as an employee misconduct allegation, even though the mayor is an elected official, rather than an employee, and is not subject to the council’s authority.
The council had initially voted to table the issue. Council member Kevin Fitton, who had gotten the item placed on the agenda, was not present at the start of Monday’s meeting. City Attorney Andy Peterson told the council they needed more information before taking action, and at that time, Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith told the council she was not willing to comment on the matter.
The council took the matter up later in the meeting, after Fitton arrived.
Fitton at first was not willing to go into detail about the matter and said it had been “dropped into my lap because I’m on the employee relations committee.” He said he would like to have a motion to have the council authorize having an independent investigator look into the matter.
Peterson told the council that normally the person who is being investigated would need to have due process.
Fitton said the complaint needs to be looked into because “there are grounds for it.”
Peterson said in his opinion, someone on the council or the mayor is not subject to the public body’s authority. He said there is not much the council can do, though they could try to censure a fellow member.
“Whoever this is against, it needs to be brought up now,” said Peterson.
Fitton said the complaint had been made only a few days after Kringstad took office, and said that Kringstad was “already voicing opinions on wanting to get rid of the ambulance director, who was his opponent in the election. Fitton said the complaint alleged that Kringstad had met with council member Brooke Anderson and council member-elect Rachel Beldo, before the new council was seated.
“He was already voicing opinions on wanting to get rid of the ambulance director/fire chief,” said Fitton.
Fitton also said there were a variety of “other inter-related issues that are not part of the complaint,” although he refused to elaborate.
Council member Steve Abrahamson wondered how something that had been said before they were on the council was even something the council should be considering.
“It’s not even appropriate to even be talking about it,” Abrahamson said. “If in fact he did say that, he wasn’t a council member.”
Fitton said there were other issues in the complaint that hadn’t been raised yet, although a review of Altenburg’s complaint does not include any other claims.
Peterson said it was up to the council if they wanted to review the information in the complaint. Fitton then read the six-sentence complaint, which reiterated Kringstad’s alleged comment.
The letter went on to state that Altenburg felt that slanderous comments were made against his character, and requested an official investigation to insure him due process.
Beldo asked if all of the issues that need to be cleared up were in the letter, or if there were issues beyond that. Fitton said that he was concerned about more than just the comment alleged in the complaint. “It was more a constant pattern of things that were going on in term of already pushing an agenda and thoughts and things that are related towards trying to drag through the last few years of things that people are unhappy about and trying to make a cause of them.”
Fitton said there was the issue in the complaint, but in the course of it, “we will also find a whole series of other things that come up as well.”
“We would start with this official complaint with the investigator,” Fitton said.
Tower resident Steve Wilson spoke up from the audience. “I am bothered by the amount of innuendo being thrown around in this accusation,” Wilson said. “You are asking the council to act on your innuendo.”
Wilson said he did not know if Kringstad had said those things or not, but that if he did, it was before he was mayor. “I don’t want my taxpayer dollars spent on some expensive investigation of something someone allegedly said before they were a council member because there is not a council member here who doesn’t have some hidden agenda that they came to this council with. To me it sounds like a colossal waste of money.”
The meeting then spiraled momentarily out of control.
Tower News commentator Anthony Sikora, who was also video recording the meeting, noted that this was not the public input portion of the agenda. He then stated that the council was discussing an agenda item that had been removed from the agenda.
Richard Hanson, a former city council member in Tower, urged Sikora not to talk, which prompted Sikora to loudly and angrily tell Hanson to “Shut up!”
Sikora then stated three times that Hanson “had no mind,” and angrily told him to “Shut up!” a second time.
Sikora also took after Wilson telling him “you should be out of order because you are not in public input.”
Abrahamson said that if they wanted to have an argument they should go outside.
Kringstad again reminded the audience about meeting decorum. The meeting then came back under control.
A motion by Fitton, seconded by Anderson, to hire an investigator was put on the table.
Kringstad acknowledged that he had met with Anderson and Beldo prior to taking office but said it would have been out of character to make the remark attributed to him.
Fitton clarified that the complaint said he had accused the ambulance director of being sexist.
Anderson, softly, commented “to me that is how it went.”
Kringstad said if there are accusations and complaints being sent to the investigator, that he needs to be given all the information at the same time.
At that point, Fitton gave Kringstad the copy of Altenburg’s complaint.
The council took no action after reconvening after over an hour in closed session for Clerk/Treasurer Linda Keith’s employee performance evaluation. City attorney Andy Peterson, along with the city clerk/treasurer and her union representative were in the closed meeting. Fitton noted that the council needed to set a new closed meeting because “it was classified wrong.”
Peterson told the council they would need to summarize the conclusions from the review at the next regular meeting.
The council took off an agenda item that dealt with the city reorganization.
Helmberger responds to Fitton’s remarks
at Jan. 28 meeting
Former TEDA chair Marshall Helmberger spoke during public input. He again brought up the issue of the city posting video on the city’s website that contains inaccurate and defamatory remarks. He noted that Fitton had accused him of violating the state’s data practices act because he used his business email to conduct TEDA business. Helmberger noted that it is perfectly legal for public officials to use their own email, and there is also no city policy against it.
“The bottom line is that I acted perfectly legally,” he said. “There is no evidence or basis for accusing me of violating state law.”
In other business the council:
Accepted the retirement of maintenance foreman Dave Bjorgo, effective April 30. The council also approved payment of his 2018 longevity pay, $11,670 for 15.5 years of service, to be paid quarterly in 2020. This pay can be used to offset medical insurance and other medical-related expenses.
Approved hiring current maintenance worker Tom Gorsma as maintenance foreman, and advertising for the open maintenance worker position. Gorsma was hired about a year ago when Bjorgo was promoted to fill the spot held by Randy Johnson. Bjorgo said that Gorsma was a good choice to fill the spot.
Heard an update from SEH engineer Jason Chopp. Kringstad asked about the status of the final plat for the harbor project. Chopp said SEH was responding to some final questions from St. Louis County, and once they were submitted to the county and reviewed, the plat should be finalized. This is the final step needed before the developers can create their own CIC plat, which is required before sales of the units can begin.
Heard from Kringstad about guidelines adopted by previous councils that require agendas for upcoming Monday meetings be posted by noon the previous Friday, and that approved minutes are posted online within 48 hours after council approval. In recent months, agendas have been posted well after the Friday noon deadline and city minutes were not posted for months at a time.
Passed a motion that the clerk should have meeting minutes within 72 hours, or a week at the most (if the clerk is going to be out of the office or engaged in special projects) after each meeting, so the council can review them while the meeting is still fresh in their minds.
Passed a motion to have the clerk draft a resolution requesting that the MnDOT accelerate the improvements to Hwy. 169.
Approved pay estimates to three different contractors for work on the Lamppa building, the harbor project, and the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center building.
Approved hiring Marylin Hannan, of Cook, for the open paid on-call EMT position.
Approved installing new LED lights in the civic center.