Princeton Public Utilities leadership reached an important transitional date when the calendar reached Friday, May 31.
Connie Wangen was preparing to leave service after 33 years of PPU service.
Newly hired General Manager Keith Butcher was completing his first days on the job, working with Wangen to learn the ropes.
And Commissioner Henry “Hank” Findell decided to step down after many years of commission involvement.
Findell served on the PUC from April 2005 to October 2010 and in his most recent capacity since December 2013.
He submitted a letter of resignation that was sent via mail to the Princeton City Council May 31.
At the same time, Findell also mailed personal letters to Councilor Jack Edmonds and Councilor Jules Zimmer, addressing them to city hall.
Discussion of Findell’s resignation, the process to fill his empty position and the status of the three aforementioned letters provided plenty of sparks at last week's Princeton City Council study session.
Mayor Brad Schumacher told other council members last week that Findell had mailed in his resignation letter, and City Administrator Robert Barbian had received a copy.
Schumacher also said that the council’s next step would be to approve the resignation letter.
Barbian concurred that would be the appropriate action. A related council action would be approving advertising the PUC opening in the city’s official newspaper.
Edmonds said the PUC would recognizing Findell for his service, He make a motion to accept the resignation, with regrets.
Schumacher said he reached out on Tuesday, June 4, contacting Findell at his home, talking with him for a short period,
“I thanked him for his time in our community in being a voice and leader on the PUC board,” Schumacher said.
Edmonds said he spent a half-hour talking with Findell last Thursday morning (June 6) and Findell never brought up his conversation with the mayor.
At that point, the meeting became heated after Edmonds further explained how he initially learned about Findell’s resignation from the managing editor at the Union-Times newspaper during a community event.
Discussion Heats Up
“I’m very upset, very upset,” Edmonds said. “I learned about this resignation yesterday [Wednesday, June 5], at Sherburne State Bank’s Customer Appreciation Lunch from the managing editor at the newspaper.”
Edmonds said that Findell had mailed his letter on Friday, May 31.
“Nobody at the city would have seen this until Monday morning at the very soonest,” Edmonds contended. “So how did Mr. Schumacher know that he [Findell] had resigned? I would like to get an answer to that question.”
Edmonds said three people should have been informed of Findell’s resignation before anyone: Butcher, the new PUC general manager, the Mindi Siercks, chair of the PUC board, and himself, because he’s city council liaison to the PUC.
“Why was the mayor told before anybody else? And how did he know on Friday?" Edmonds asked.
Schumacher replied, “You want to know how I knew? Well, I have ears on the ground, and they are listening to what’s happening in our community.” He added: “There are many concerned constituents who want to know information, and these constituents are listening at all times and that’s how I knew.”
Edmonds said that Findell told him only one person [Former PUC General Manager Connie Wangen] knew about his resignation.
Schumacher replied: “If Connie knew, that’s a violation of her Public Employees Retirement Association agreement regarding her employment separation. If you are saying on the record that Connie knew and understood this to be happening, she can’t participate in city government.”
Exchange Gets Angry
The exchange between Edmonds and Schumacher continued to heat up during the study session discussion.
Edmonds: “I said she was the only one who knew that Findell was going to send the letter in.”
Schumacher: “Which means she’s participating in city government. That absolutely breaks PERA law.”
Edmonds: “Somebody’s lying here.”
Schumacher: “I just told you how I knew.”
Edmonds: “If Hank didn’t tell anybody, how could you have known?”
Schumacher: “Somebody told somebody who told somebody. We live in a small town.”
Edmonds and Schumacher continued to argue back and forth until Barbian interjected. “When I received it [Findell’s resignation letter], and opened it and became aware, I believe an email then went out to all of the city council members,” Barbian said.
Edmonds replied he didn’t receive an email. Councilor Jeff Reynolds said he did get the email, and Zimmer said he hadn’t received an email.
Schumacher said as part of his study session follow-up, he would be sending an email to PERA officials that states “I think there is a retired city government official still participating in city government.”
Edmonds said he was going to contact the Mille Lacs County attorney for assistance regarding possible investigation of the matter.
Single Letter Surfaces
City Clerk Shawna Jenkins left the council chambers and returned with a letter for Zimmer. “That’s the only letter in there. It’s addressed to Jules," she said.
After city leaders voted unanimously to accept Findell’s resignation, Edmonds then made a motion to waive the PUC commissioner application process.
“We already have applications on file from the last appointment,” Edmonds said. “It’s imperative that we get this position filled, right now, with a qualified person who knows this community.”
He then moved to wave the application process, and appoint former mayor Paul Whitcomb to fill the remainder of Findell’s term, with Zimmer seconding.
Councilor Jenny Gerold wanted to see if there were other people who were interested in the position.
Edmonds replied, “There are only six months of the term left. Then it will be an open application process again.”
Schumacher said he wanted to speak with former PUC commissioner applicant Greg Hanson.
Reynolds said he wanted the council work through a full application process. “I don’t see why we should short-circuit this,” he said.
First Motion Failure
Edmonds’ motion to appoint Whitcomb failed 3-2, with Schumacher, Gerold, and Reynolds voting against.
Schumacher then asked the city council to approve newspaper advertising for PUC position opening.
“I’d like to have this go back out to public notices advertising for a 30-day period, conduct interviews and complete the process,” Schumacher said, also bringing up Butcher’s current salary of $112,000 a year, comparing it with an approved city pay structure calendar for 2019.
“Nowhere on this pay structure calendar does it say $112,000 for a salary for the PUC general manager,” Schumacher said. “This sheet is public information and has been put into our meeting minutes many, many times.”
Edmonds said Schumacher was trying to make an apples-to-oranges comparison, because Princeton Public Utilities runs as a separate entity,
Schumacher said the current two members of the PUC could complete any needed work over the next two months.
“Those two members [Erickson and Siercks] are the ones who approved the $112,000 for the new PUC general manager,” Schumacher said. “ I think they will do just fine for 30 days on their own.”
Edmonds again stated he thought it best to fill the position with someone who has a good awareness of the Princeton community. Whitcomb fits that qualification, he said.
Schumacher replied, “[That’s your] personal opinion. We have a motion on the table to advertise this position and get this out to members of the community.”
Second Motion Made
Schumacher wanted to appoint a new PUC commissioner on July 11.
His motion passed 3-2, with Zimmer and Edmonds voting against.
As of last Friday, June 7, Butcher said he had not received any official notification from Princeton City Hall regarding Findell’s resignation letter.
“There wasn’t any resignation submitted to me,” he said, adding Findell has been a tremendous asset to the utility and the community at large and will be missed.
Siercks stated in an email to the Union-Times that she had not been officially notified of Findell’s resignation.
“I’m not sure where the lack of information is coming from,” Siercks wrote. “We try tirelessly to work together and open communication so I would hope this is just an oversight. Hank has been a valuable asset and will be greatly missed both for his knowledge and amazing ability to work with people.”
Findell Is Contacted
Findell said he mailed three letters on Friday, May 31. One letter was his resignation letter to the city, and the other two letters were personal and addressed to Edmonds and Zimmer.
“The letter to Jack is the missing one,” Findell said. “I was getting ready to call it quits [from the PUC], but I wanted to keep it to myself until May 31. Nobody knew about it. Absolutely nobody, other than Connie [Wangen]. She’s the only one I told. Nobody else. I sent the three letters on May 31. One to Jack, one to Jules, and the letter to city hall, which was addressed to the city council. I mailed all three of them out of the same mailbox, and they went out.”
Findell said he found out in a roundabout way that only one of the three letters was delivered to the proper authorities at city hall.
The other two letters, Findell said, should have arrived at the same time.
“I don’t know what goes on at city hall with the mail sorting,” he said, again stating that all three letters should have arrived on Monday, June 3.
He added: “Evidently, one of the letters was handed to the mayor right away. I just don’t understand how Jack’s letter could just disappear. I just don’t.”
New GM Gets Support
Regarding Butcher’s salary, Findell said he deferred during a May 9 meeting to PUC Commissioners Mindi Siercks and Dan Erickson. “I left it up to them,” he said. “They are currently active business people.”
Findell said that Butcher is running a multi-million dollar utility in Princeton.
“I did a little background checking on that. It’s hard to compare apples and oranges for various positions, but to me, with his total experience and background, I would have liked to given him more,” Findell said.
He added: “He [Butcher] has a heavy responsibility, and that’s why I believe he’s worth everything he’s being paid. Remember, he’s getting a full six-month review. I did research on salaries with other utilities, and he’s worth much more than anybody locally in this type of position. He’ll be worth everything the PUC will pay him,” Findell concluded.