An agenda item that helped to pack council chambers and brought multiple users of the North Branch Water & Light (NBWL) system to speak during public comment resulted in discontent and heated discussions amongst council members.
There was a packed room at North Branch City Hall chambers on June 23 for the regular council meeting, which concluded with a heated discussion on the North Branch Water and Light Commission that occupied the majority of the meeting.
What started as an update from Council Member Kelly Neider included five council member concerns from Brian Voss and ended in council members arguing and an apology from Voss.
“I’m coming to you with the final update for the Water & Light as a commissioner; I will be being removed from the seat effective when we appoint the new four,” Neider said as she began her Water & Light Commission update.
“I’d like to point out that there has been accusations made by our former attorney that Administrator (Renae) Fry and the city staff is responsible for the happenings at the North Branch Water & Light over the past year, that I was just their puppet, and quite frankly, it really pisses me off,” Neider said.
Neider’s statement was quickly called to point of order by Voss for unparliamentary language, as Neider continued with her statement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I single handedly pursued this quest because of the voices I heard from those who elected me in the residence of North Branch. I am nobody’s pawn or puppet, and I don’t jump when somebody says so,” Neider said.
Neider went on to note her belief in total transparency, as she explained the employees of NBWL have filed an official complaint against her for creating a hostile working environment.
It was part of her belief in total transparency, and a conference she’d attended as she began in her role on the NBWL commission, that was the driving force for her recent investigation into the commission, according to Neider.
“I was appointed in June (2019). I attended a conference, an MMUA conference, Minnesota Municipal Utility Association,” Neider said. “The knowledge and the information I gained from this conference was priceless. The conference inspired me to dig deeper into the patterns of how this organization has been running. As a city council member and a city official, I believe I had a responsibility to the citizens of North Branch and the users of the system to find out what has been going on for the past decade or two.”
According to Neider, negligence was found in planning, budgeting, decision making, management and leadership, fiscal accountability, and taxes — including the pre-tax and the post-cap-tax dollars. She also noted the negligence and inability of the commission to work with the city could potentially have lost business for the city itself.
“What I found was incompetence and negligence regarding finances,” Neider said.
Neider not the only council
At the conclusion of Neider’s update, the agenda listed council member Voss’ five concerns, all pertaining to the commission — concerns that Mayor Jim Swenson quickly addressed prior to discussion.
“Council member Voss, I want to note to you that the memo that you have implicates a number of people, elected officials, city staff, the city administrator, commission members, and I believe it’s prudent for us to hear from the individuals at this time,” Swenson said also noting his intention to allow others to speak in their own defense.
“You’re implicating me, and you’re implicating all the council members on this,” Swenson added.
Erik Skoog, executive for Teamsters 320, which represents a majority of North Branch’s city employees, was the first to speak.
“The interesting thing that I find here is — and I’m going to try and remain calm due to the process — I find it ironic that members that I represent, and people that I don’t, have been slandered out there by elected officials,” Skoog said.
“I would ask you to cease and desist any and all threats against the members I represent. You talk about ethics; take your own advice, plain and simple. Do not send emails threatening my members. If you want to conduct an investigation, I highly recommend you look at yourself,” Skoog added.
At the conclusion of Skoog’s time at the podium, Voss brought forth a request to table the discussion and the concerns to the July 14 meeting; the motion was seconded by
Council Member Kathy Blomquist for discussion.
“I don’t see any reason to table it,” Neider said. “We’ve got the residents of North Branch here, we’ve got the union rep, we’ve got the employees here, and I think that you’ve given this a lot of thought, council member Voss, and I think that we should move forward with it and get this on the table once and for all and not let our employees go through the next couple weeks wondering what the heck is going to go on and what shoe’s going to drop next or what’s the plan of action. I think they have the right to know today what direction this council has to move forward.”
“The purpose to tabling this would be to basically put the cart in the right order,” Voss said. “I felt that, after reflection on this, that the process in which I established this was improper, so I feel that a council decision to move forward with this may depend more on information on the next agenda item, who we would have for workplace investigator or the scope of the research and investigation itself.”
“I want to be very clear: This was never intended to be a witch hunt, this is not intended to encompass everybody. I think council is well aware of the various players involved and to what degrees,” Voss added.
Swenson echoed Neider’s disagreement with Voss’ desire to table the discussion.
“I’m going to tell you this very seriously, and I’m talking to you as a citizen and as mayor. I’ve been around this community this last week since this came out, and there is one hell of a lot of pissed off people in this community — extremely pissed off, including me,” Swenson said.
Also noting the issues have resulted in council members utilizing the city attorney, for 35 hours to the tune of $4,200, Swenson continued voicing his concerns over not only the accusations of Voss, but the actions of council members working on their own and not coming together as one council.
“The last 20 years I have lived in this community, Water and Light has been the big problem,” Swenson said. “And all I heard for the last two weeks is: ‘what the hell is going on with this council? You’re acting dysfunctional, just like the previous one has, what are you going to do?’ We have a council member that is going wild. Now he brings something up tonight, he wants us to vote on it, and now he doesn’t like it, so now he wants to make a motion, ‘oh, let’s table it’ so that he can change it two weeks from now.”
“I want this amendment voted down, and I want to move on, and I want to go through this whole agenda tonight,” Swenson added as members of the audience clapped and cheered.
Swenson then called for a vote in regards to Voss’ motion to table the issue, expressing again, his hope the motion would fail.
The motion to table passed with a 3-2 vote, Neider and Swenson voting nay.
“I just wanted to get this done tonight because council member Voss has brought this up for five, six weeks. He wanted a vote. We brought all these people in here tonight and he wants to vote for it and now he’s scared, so now he wants to table it for two weeks so this can go on for another two weeks,” Swenson said.
“This needs to go away. This community is getting destroyed. We have businesses around this town that are watching, we have businesses that want to come to this community, and we’re going to scare them off. And there’s going to be an investigation (against Voss) starting tomorrow,” Swenson added.
Turning his comments towards Voss, Swenson went on to say: “You have damaged this council beyond anything there is, and I will not stand for this. You have gone ahead investigating, trying to find things out without going on with the council, on your own. Thirty-five hours have been spent contacting our city attorney — that’s outrageous.”
Swenson continued to address his issues with Voss’ conduct before calling for a meeting demanding the council reconsiders the previous motion to table the agenda item.
“I’m going to take a recess for five minutes and I’m going to call for this vote again,” Swenson said before council took a 10-minute recess.
Upon returning from the recess, council member Voss was the one who fulfilled the mayor’s demand of reconsidering, and he asked the council to reconsider tabling the item.
“I’m sorry I upset you,” Voss said. “I love this city too, I do. I don’t need this position. I don’t need the stress. And I don’t need to lose friends over it, Jim. I know in the last week I’ve lost a few over this, and as presiding officer, I’m speaking to one,” Voss said.
“There can’t be a ‘good boys club’ when one person is overrunning the will of the council and directing things from the background. That is the information I have been suggested that may be true. Our staff does a damn good job, even those that I may end up having to accuse. But when there’s predetermined conclusions and things happen in the background so that one person, an unelected official, can get their way, regardless of if it’s good or not, that’s not how city governance is supposed to work,” Voss added.
Expressing to the council his willingness to throw his own name under the bus, Voss voiced it would be a small sacrifice for being able to have a functioning council back.
Neider asked Voss to divulge the accusations and share his findings with council, but he said doing so would violate data privacy laws and refused to do so.
The council was redirected by City Attorney Doran back to the motion on the table, and the council should be discussing that matter.
The motion to reconsider the vote was approved 4-1 with Joel McPherson voting nay.
As discussions continued, Neider again asked Voss about the accusations, and as a result another recess was taken by the council.
Following the recess, Doran told council Voss was prepared to make a motion to strike the remaining agenda items and call for adjournment. Before the motion was made, both Fry and Voss addressed the council for a final time.
“I know my role as a city administrator is somewhat different in this circumstance,” Fry said. “But sitting behind me is a majority of my staff, and my job is to serve this city to the best of my ability, and that also means taking into consideration the best interests of my staff.”
During the second recess Fry, Voss and Doran had a discussion that lead Fry to address council with her desires after the discussion.
“In talking with Mr. Voss, we talked through the fact the city, my staff, the team here at the city, everybody concerned is going to be best served if we simply close this chapter, close this door, close this topic, or this division and conspiracy or whatever the underlying claims and theories might be between the council and the Water and Light Commission, and let’s move forward in the spirit of a brand-new beginning,” Fry said.
“If there’s anything to be learned from tonight, it is that what occurred here cannot happen again,” Voss said.
The council united to vote unanimously to strike the remaining items from the agenda and adjourn the meeting.