Editor's Note: This story was substantially updated on Wednesday.
GREENWOOD TOWNSHIP— After a rocky handover of the town clerk’s position earlier this week, incoming clerk Sue Drobac said Wednesday that she finally has access to township records, email and computers.
GREENWOOD TOWNSHIP— After a rocky handover of the town clerk’s position earlier this week, incoming clerk Sue Drobac said Wednesday that she finally has access to township records, email and computers. The dramatic handover played out starting on Friday morning, March 18, shortly after Drobac took the oath of office as the township’s new clerk. Drobac had defeated longtime clerk Ellen Trancheff by a nearly two-to-one margin in the March 8 township election.
Township treasurer Delores Clark had sworn Drobac into office earlier in the morning, but the outgoing clerk had left just three thin file folders, two keys, a manila envelope, and a sheet of paper, ostensibly with the access code for the clerk’s computer on a table in the township’s main office. Clark said she had expected Trancheff to do the swearing-in, which has typically been her job in the past. But she said Trancheff had stayed in the township office only long enough to lay out the few files on a table in the office and sign an affidavit stating that she had transferred all of the clerk’s documents, minute books, computer code, and keys to the incoming clerk. Clark said she notarized the affidavit, but in doing so was not making a representation that all the records were available for the new clerk. “There was hardly anything there,” said Clark.
Indeed, the vast majority of the clerk’s records, current township manuals, and her computer remained behind a locked door and neither of the two keys that Trancheff had handed over to Drobac would open it. Clark said Drobac refused to sign the affidavit of transfer of records after reviewing the handful of files that Trancheff had left.
After several unsuccessful efforts by Drobac and two township supervisors, John Bassing and newly-elected Carmen DeLuca, to gain access to the clerk’s office, Bassing said he attempted to contact Planning Director Julia Maki, who he thought might have a key. But after failing to connect by phone, he contacted Acting Board Chair Gene Baland who told Bassing he didn’t have keys to the office and couldn’t help them gain access. Bassing then contacted Pat Trancheff, the township’s maintenance director, to ask him to open the door. Bassing said Trancheff agreed to do so, but never did.
Bassing and DeLuca then contacted Biss Lock in Virginia to get help accessing the office, but when word of that reached township officials who backed Trancheff, they contacted the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, which dispatched a deputy to the scene. After nearly an hour of attempted mediation by a deputy sheriff, neither Supervisor Rick Worringer, Planning Director Julia Maki, or Pat Trancheff offered to provide access to the office. Maki, in an email to the Timberjay, stated that she was trying to protect private records, including her personal health records and information on First Responder calls, which she said were inside the locked office. “I was not trying to protect clerk records,” she said.
At one point, Bassing and DeLuca appeared to agree to let the other officials remove the employee files, but reconsidered when asked under what authority the other officials could remove the records, if they were confidential.
Eventually, after consulting with his supervisor, the deputy sheriff told both sides that the sheriff’s office would not get involved. “It’s a civil matter,” he said, “I have no authority to tell anyone what to do in this case.”
At that point, Bassing and DeLuca told the Biss locksmith to go ahead and enter the room, which they eventually did. Inside was a computer, desks and files, including election records, a 2015 township manual, and a stack of campaign cards for Trancheff and supervisor candidate Don Doroff, who had lost in the March 8 election to DeLuca.
Baland said he objected to the way the matter was handled, arguing that Bassing and DeLuca should have asked for a township meeting to get authority to enter the office. “The way it was handled was just plain wrong,” he said.
But Bassing cited Minn. Stat. 367.01, which reads: “Every town officer shall, immediately after qualifying, demand from the officer’s predecessor or other person having control or possession of them, all books, records, and other property belonging to the office. Every person having control or possession of any of them shall, upon the demand, deliver them to the officer.”
Bassing said he felt his phone calls to Baland and Pat Trancheff constituted such a demand, as he was acting at Drobac’s behest. On Monday, Drobac emailed a written demand for access to the clerk’s records to Trancheff.
In either case, such transfers of records typically don’t require formal demands. Drobac said she assumed that Trancheff would at least show her where files were kept and how to access the clerk’s computer, email accounts, and familiarize her with the basics of the office. She said Trancheff offered no such assistance and that the single computer user name and password that Trancheff did provide did not appear to work on any computer in the office. “We’ve got a computer guy coming today,” she said, on Monday, at which point she still hadn’t been able to access the township’s email.
Drobac said she’s disappointed in the way events played out. “I feel very sad that the outgoing clerk wouldn’t swear me in and made access to everything here almost impossible,” she said.
Meanwhile, after Bassing and DeLuca had Biss re-key the lock to the clerk’s office, township planning director Maki complained that she no longer had access to her own records inside. She contacted Baland over the weekend, who contacted Drobac. “She hasn’t been denied access,” said Drobac, who told Baland to have Maki contact her if she needed access over the weekend. “I offered to unlock the door, but she never did call,” said Drobac.
Drobac said she was able to access email as of late Monday, in time to print comments related to the Bay View Conditional Use Permit hearing. As of Tuesday, a computer technician spent much of the day in the office dealing with the computer system, including changing passwords. Both Drobac and Bassing said the computer tech found the township’s computer to be badly compromised with malware, much of which he said could have been transferred from Trancheff’s home computer, which Trancheff had used to remotely access the township’s network.
Meanwhile, Baland called Drobac on Monday and ordered her to stay out of Trancheff’s old office until further notice. Drobac said Baland suggested that some were calling the office a “possible crime scene.” Baland’s call came after Drobac contacted former clerk Trancheff and asked her to come and remove her personal belongings from the office. Drobac said Trancheff called Baland shortly afterwards, which prompted Baland to issue his order.
It’s not clear, however, whether Baland was exceeding his authority in doing so, since Drobac is an elected official of the township, not just an employee. “As a general principle, elected officials answer to the voters,” said Eric Hedtke, General Counsel for the Minnesota Association of Townships. As clerk, Drobac is essentially in charge of all the township’s “paperwork,” according to Hedtke, which makes it unclear whether Baland can keep Drobac from accessing records in the former clerk’s office. At the same time, Hedtke said, the town board has authority over the facilities and can determine where township employees and officials conduct their duties.
Complicating the situation is the fact that Trancheff still maintains a position with the township. In late January, the town board voted 4-1 to approve three-year contracts for several positions, including a newly-created “administrative assistant and 911 coordinator position” for Trancheff. That position, which has no scheduled hours, pays Trancheff $9,291 a year. Although Trancheff did not respond to questions or a request for comment, it appears she intends to continue to occupy the office she has used for years despite her defeat in the March 8 election.
Baland said the board would take up the issue of Drobac’s office location at the board’s reorganizational meeting on Thursday (after the Timberjay’s deadline), but the larger issue appears to be access to township records, which are the legal purview and responsibility of the clerk. Among other responsibilities, state law states that it is the duty of a town clerk to “have custody of the records, books, and papers of the town and file and safely keep all papers required by law to be filed in the clerk’s office.”
Baland said it’s clear that the vehement divide in the township wasn’t healed by the latest election, and he said the question of access to the clerk’s office could continue as one more dividing line.
Meanwhile, Drobac, on Wednesday, said she’s continuing to access the former clerk’s office to conduct her duties. “I guess I’m breaking the rule,” she said. “But there were many more records in here than she [Trancheff] had given to me.”