GREENWOOD TWP – Supervisors approved extended contracts for five people, including volunteer officers for the Greenwood Fire Department, despite opposition by township residents during an often tense special meeting on Friday.
Supervisor John Bassing, alone, opposed the motion, and rebuked his fellow supervisors for their actions.
“I think there are many legal questions in these contracts and we’ve been down this road before,” said Bassing. “And I think the urgency to get this done in a special meeting is very transparent. There is a concern about an upcoming election and the annual meeting, and today will not go unnoticed by either.”
The contracts spell out the duties and responsibilities for the township’s custodian/maintenance employee and assistant fire chief Patrick Trancheff, administrative assistant and 911 coordinator Ellen Trancheff, planning director Julia Maki, fire chief Dave Fazio and safety/training officer Ed Borchardt. The contracts, which run from 2016 to 2019, call for automatic annual pay increases of one percent, and entitle employees to township contributions to PERA (the Public Employees Retirement Association) and Social Security/Medicare. In addition, employees will be eligible for workers’ compensation under the contracts.
Beginning salaries for the positions include $8,510 for the fire chief Dave Fazio, $6,565 for the assistant fire chief Patrick Trancheff, $44,145 for the custodian/maintenance person Patrick Trancheff, $22,000 for the planning director Julia Maki, $9,291 for the fire department administrative assistant and 911 coordinator Ellen Trancheff, and $5,840 for safety/training officer Ed Borchardt.
Residents at the special meeting questioned approving contracts for volunteer positions, and said the proposed salaries were overly generous in doling out tax dollars.
“This is totally irresponsible,” Barb Lofquist told the board. “You have to pretend this is your own money you’re spending. I don’t think you would spend your money this way. I wouldn’t.”
Lofquist and others challenged how the board could justify spending more than $9,000 annually for an administrative assistant and 911 coordinator. Lofquist said the job could be done by volunteers at no cost to the township.
“This board has a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of this town and the tax base,” said Jeff Maus. “You folks know what this position is and know what goes on here.”
Ellen Trancheff has estimated that she puts in more than 30 hours in the dual positions, but Bassing said those hours seemed to be inflated. When he asked St. Louis County GIS (Geographic Information System) Specialist Matt Goodman how long it takes to assign 911 signs for residences, Goodman estimated on average it took about five to 15 minutes.
Goodman reiterated that estimate in a phone interview with the Timberjay, but added that the process of obtaining the signs, which are ordered from Gopher Signs, was not included in the estimate.
Bassing said the township receives between eight to 12 requests for 911 signs annually. At that rate, he said, the council should increase its charge for signs from $65 to $1,000 per sign, based on the salary paid to Trancheff.
In a letter to the township board justifying her contract, Ellen Trancheff appeared to confirm that assigning the signs didn’t take a lot of time.
Residents can come in and “have the sign in less than five minutes,” she wrote in a letter supporting the contracts for employees.
She added, however, that her tasks also include keeping the maps updated and wrote that she had put “considerable time” into working on maps, map corrections, preparation of the new map books, working with various agencies and other duties.
Others also wrote letters justifying the contracts. Fazio stated that offering contracts would provide “job security” and added that each fire department officer should have a contract.
“The contract would be their ‘term.’ It would provide continuity within the department and allow goals to be identified and achieved,” he wrote.
Patrick Trancheff, who is already under contract as the township’s maintenance/records/custodian employee, wrote that contracts for fire department officers would allow them to focus on their duties instead of wasting time responding to allegations and complaints about their performance.
“Running the department is a huge responsibility and having the negative forces around us detract from our task, which is to ensure our department operates smoothly and efficiently,” he wrote.
Former fire captain Maus, however, said approving contracts for volunteer positions was a mistake.
The officers are not hired, said Maus. “They’re volunteering their time, period. They don’t need contracts. They don’t want to be there, go home, end of problem; but they don’t need contracts.”
The fire department’s bylaws specify that officers are elected annually. But guaranteeing those positions by contract would undermine the bylaws.
Maus also took issue with claims that criticism from residents interfered with officers’ abilities to perform their jobs.
“They bring up these lawsuits. The lawsuits are there for a reason,” said Maus, who said they are a reaction from people who have been run over or discriminated against. “You will have to deal with those,” he told the board. “Other people who have left the board or who may be leaving the board in the future, they will bring you back.”
Maus also cited an investigation by OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), saying officers had misled the agency in its response to a complaint form.
“There are more OSHA complaints that are going to be coming in” as a result of the fire department’s failure to comply with established safety procedures, he told the board. “The people that you’re going to sign these contracts for really don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to these things,” said Maus, adding that some officers also don’t take the lead when responding to fires in the township. “How long do you think that is going to sit well with our partners?” he asked.
“Thank God, we got these contracts for them (the Greenwood Fire Department officers) to cushion them when these legal lawsuits and other things they’ve done come back to haunt us,” he sarcastically concluded.
Meanwhile, Ellen Trancheff and Julia Maki also cited threats from township residents to have them removed from their offices, and said contracts provided protection from those complaints.
“It is no secret there is a huge amount of political turmoil in the township. I personally feel a good percentage of my time is dedicated to trying to justify Greenwood Township maintaining Planning and Zoning,” Maki wrote. “With a contract, I feel that I will not need to dedicate that much time to this subject and I will be able to dedicate more time to the citizens who truly need my services and help as well as aid the town board in any future changes in the township.”
Mike Richard said after the meeting that residents have twice voted to let the county take over planning and zoning for the township, and had supported such a move in overwhelming numbers in a community survey.
According to Planning and Community Development Director Barbara Hayden, the county handles planning and zoning for nearly all the townships in St. Louis County. Only a handful of townships around Duluth have their own planning directors while Greenwood Township is the only township north of that region to have a planning director on staff.
Supervisor Gene Baland had a different issue with Maki’s contract, saying he was under the impression that Maki kept regular hours in the township office each Thursday. But Maki said she meets people at the office by appointment. Baland said Maki had been hired with the understanding she would maintain regular office hours at the town hall.
Baland wanted to ensure that the township office was open at least four hours per day, Monday-Friday, and suggested that Maki and Ellen Trancheff work out a schedule between the two of them.
But Maki balked at the proposal, arguing that she could not answer questions for township residents outside of planning and zoning issues. She also said she feared for her safety when she was alone at the township office, saying she had been threatened by residents.
Supervisors suggested installing security cameras at the town hall, but the proposal was not acted on.
Baland’s issue was settled after Township Clerk Ellen Trancheff ultimately agreed to be at the town hall from 8 a.m. to noon, Monday-Friday, but added that if she was ill or snowbound, she would not be able to come to the office.
Meanwhile, the contract for Patrick Trancheff was amended to begin on May 1, 2016, instead of March 1. Bassing said the current contract requires at least 60 days notice prior to being renegotiated.
Rick Worringer argued that the current contract, which runs until Dec. 31, 2016, met that standard, but the board agreed to amend the contract to ensure it satisfied the legal requirement.
The Greenwood Township Board has come under fire by residents, who argue that supervisors have spent tax dollars recklessly and ignored the public’s wishes. The public has sought to eliminate the local planning and zoning board during public non-binding votes at previous annual meetings.
Mary Richard said that although the board allows the public to speak at meetings, it refuses to answer even the most basic questions about the township’s operations and how decisions are made. “It’s nice that you let us ask our questions, but gee whiz, I think as a township we deserve some answers. I don’t think the board is doing its part.”
“Well then vote for the people you want to be on the board next time,” said Kirsten Reichel, who chairs the township board. Reichel, whose term is up in March, is not seeking re-election to the board.
“You’re being snotty,” said Mary Richard.
“You know what,” Reichel told the audience, “I’ll be done so I really don’t care.”
“I know that and we won’t miss you either,” responded Richard.
“You haven’t cared for a long time,” added another resident.
“I’ve heard enough,” said Reichel, before ending any additional comments from the audience.