Former employees speak about ‘hostile environment’ for Lake Elmo city staff

Six employees at Lake Elmo City Hall have quit since March. At least three have publicly cited a hostile work environment as a factor. (Gazette staff photo by Alicia Lebens)
Six employees at Lake Elmo City Hall have quit since March. At least three have publicly cited a hostile work environment as a factor. (Gazette staff photo by Alicia Lebens)

With a 6-month-old daughter and two other small children at home to care for, some stress and late nights are expected for former Lake Elmo city clerk Adam Bell. However, Bell can say for the first time in many months that he is happy. Any kind of stress from being a stay-at-home dad is nothing compared to the alleged “hostile environment” at Lake Elmo City Hall, Bell said.

“People have told me that I look happy now — that I look better,” he said.

Bell left Lake Elmo June 25 after almost three years in his position. In his resignation letter, Bell said a hostile environment caused by the city council led to health issues, both physical and mental.

“I had lost 15 pounds in the last six months just from the stress caused by my job,” Bell said.

Bell now spends his time focused on regaining his health, being with his children and figuring out what to do next with his career.

While employed with the city, Bell said, he couldn’t talk about the working conditions in Lake Elmo without fear of retaliation. But now he feels it’s time to speak up about what took place during his time as at the city.

Employee complaints

Although Councilmember Anne Smith and city attorney Dave Snyder have claimed there are no “formal complaints” against Smith, multiple employees have said complaints were filed.

The Gazette had previously obtained a copy of an employee complaint that alleged a hostile interaction between Smith and Bell. The complaint was written Aug. 5, 2014. Bell confirmed he was the author of the complaint and had filed it through a process outlined in the Lake Elmo Employee Handbook.

In the complaint, Bell states he was dropping off a copy of a city council agenda at Smith’s
residence on Aug. 1, 2014. According to the complaint, Smith was visibly upset and making comments to Bell regarding issues with other staff members.

“I had to back up a step or two, because Ms. Smith was very close to my personal space and visibly agitated,” Bell wrote. “I did not feel physically threatened, but my personal space was violated.”

As the human resources director for the city, Bell felt he had reported the incident correctly by first notifying his supervisor (then-city administrator Dean Zuleger) and Mayor Mike Pearson.

“When I returned to the office on Monday, I put it all in writing,” Bell said. “Then not a lot happened.”

Bell said that because Smith’s actions in the incident didn’t rise to the level of assault, there wasn’t much he could do.

“It isn’t illegal for a boss to be a jerk,” Bell said.

However, on Sept. 2, 2014 — about a month after the complaint — the city council took action, which Bell said was a result of his complaint. The council in place at that time voted 4-0 to forbid Smith from having one-on-one interaction with city staff following claims of ongoing “inappropriate behavior” of a non-sexual nature. Smith was not present at the meeting. Mayor Mike Pearson said at the time that this wasn’t the first instance where “significant concerns” were raised about Smith’s interaction with staff.

Following the restriction placed on Smith, Bell believes the environment at city hall improved, because Smith was required to have a second council member present when interacting with staff face to face.

“(The restrictions) were effective,” Bell said.

Smith was allowed to make phone calls to staff during the restrictions, and Bell said former deputy clerk Beckie Gumatz filed a complaint on Sept. 16, 2014, following a phone call from Smith. When reached for comment, Gumatz stated that she also left Lake Elmo due to a hostile work environment, but did not wish to comment further because she is currently searching for a new job. The Gazette had previously obtained a copy of the complaint by Gumatz, and she confirmed she was its author.

According to Gumatz’s complaint, Smith called city hall looking for Bell to deliver copies of a map for the meeting agenda. When he could not be reached, she spoke with Gumatz.

“She was very loud and yelled,” Gumatz wrote.

Both Smith and city attorney David Snyder have maintained that no formal complaints have been filed against Smith.

“There are many rumors and unfounded allegations that are floating around specifically directed at me,” Smith said during a March 24 city council meeting. “They are simply not true and they did not happen. There are no formal complaints filed against me — is that accurate to say, Mr. Snyder?”

“That is accurate to say,” Snyder responded.

But Bell disagrees. Any definition of a formal complaint other than what was in the employee handbook is unclear to Bell, who served has the city’s human resources director.

“We don’t have a complaint form or a document except for what is outlined in the employee handbook,” Bell said. “I don’t know how to make it any more formal than that.”

When reached for comment regarding the alleged incident in the complaint by Bell, Smith responded in an email July 20:

“There have been no complaints filed against me so if Adam has indicated to you that he filed a complaint on Aug. 5, that is not true,” Smith wrote.

Smith also wrote that the restrictions placed on her by the council in September 2014 were not a result of Bell’s complaint.

“The restrictions placed on me last year were a politically motivated attempt to discredit me and the candidates I supported in the election,” Smith said. “There was no formal complaint and no investigation.”

Councilmember Justin Bloyer disagrees with Smith’s interpretation of the problem and said staff have numerous complaints about her actions.

“When one says no formal complaints have been filed against councilmember Smith, they’re speaking in the formal legal terms,” Bloyer said. “It is true a lawsuit has not been filed against Smith. The truth of the matter is six harassment complaints have been internally filed within the city of Lake Elmo. It is sad and disturbing after everything that’s transpired Councilmember Smith refuses to acknowledge any accountability for her actions.”

Pearson declined to comment for this story, but he said in March that there had been “a pattern of complaints of a hostile work environment related to Councilmember Smith.”

Details found within the complaint written by Bell are corroborated by details found in a “draft complaint” written by Zuleger and given to the city council. Zuleger’s complaint also includes information regarding other staff complaints. Zuleger also told the council that staff felt their work environment was hostile.

New council members
allegedly add to hostility

Bell said he knows that working in government means there will be some politics at play.

“You can’t publicly speak out,” he said. “If you want to stay employed, you keep your mouth shut. It can be difficult, but that’s what you do.”

Bell alleges that actions taken by the council with the arrival of council members Julie Fliflet and Jill Lundgren exacerbated an already hostile environment. Efforts made by the previous council to improve council and staff relations were removed, Bell said.

“Mayor Mike Pearson and Councilmember Justin Bloyer were powerless to protect the staff,” Bell said.

At the first meeting of the year, the council voted 3-2 to end the “Speak Your Peace” program, which was started to promote
civility (just this month the council approved council decorum guidelines that are somewhat remeniscent the program). Later in January, the council voted to lift the restrictions on Smith’s interaction with staff.

Fliflet maintains that staff supported lifting the restrictions and shared a Jan. 19 email from Zuleger to the city council.

“It is our understanding that the city council will soon be adopting protocols to improve council-staff communications,” Zuleger wrote.  “With that knowledge, a spirit of reconciliation, and a commitment to organizational progress, the city staff has no objections to lifting the communication restrictions on council member Smith at this time.”

However, Bell alleges that council-staff communication did not improve after the restrictions were lifted.

Bell said lifting restrictions on Smith wasn’t the only problem since the new council members took office. He felt some council members treated staff disrespectfully and interfered with employees doing their jobs.

For example, when staff complete a memo to be included in a meeting agenda, Bell said, it’s meant to be the professional opinion of a staff member for the council to use as they deliberate. Bell alleges that Fliflet and Lundgren have edited the content of staff memos before the agenda has been made public.

“It is highly offensive professionally,” Bell said. “You can disagree with the staff’s opinion, but don’t change the memo.”

Fliflet disagrees with Bell’s allegation, and states that any changes to memos are collaborative.

“Staff often ask for input as they are creating the memos,” Fliflet said in a July 19 email. “If staff do not concur with any proposed changes, then those suggested changes would not be included in the memo and I would instead make that part of the discussion at the council table rather than part of the memo.”

A memo that has been reviewed by a council member will note that it was “reviewed by” or “recommended through” that council member, Fliflet said.

The sum of behaviors

Bell said it is hard to articulate the sum of the behaviors and actions that have created the hostile work environment. Some instances were simply aggressive questions by council members, while another instance rose to criticism for cooperating with a law enforcement investigation.

“Multiple staff, including me, were criticized by the majority for being interviewed by a Ramsey County investigator for alleged improper conduct by Smith,” Bell said. “Staff did not contact the investigator or initiate the investigation.”

The invevstigation was closed without charges.

Ultimately the working conditions were enough to convince Bell to quit his job and stay at home to heal the damage it did “physically and mentally.”

“It’s the totality of circumstance — the blame, accusations and questioning of motives,” Bell said. “And you can’t go to the city administrator for help because he was under assault the whole time, too.”

Bell said staff would be required to put in a full day of work in the office, and then go to a city council meeting that could be an additional five hours long.

“It has nothing to do with personal politics,” he said. “The council doesn’t like each other, and the staff has to be at those meetings,” Bell said. “It isn’t a healthy environment.”

Fliflet said the council is trying to improve interactions at meetings.

“I have requested less meetings several times, have removed things from agendas in attempts to shorten them, and myself and council member Lundgren have tried to find ways for better interactions amongst the council,” Fliflet wrote in a July 20 email. “However, we find council member Bloyer to be extremely hostile at meetings and unwilling to work towards change which hampers any ability to make real progress in this regard. I guess I do understand why the staff would find him very hostile and have heard many comments from city staff about his hostile actions.”

The last straw

The final action by the council that caused Bell to tender his resignation was the decision to combine the vacant positions of receptionist and taxpayer relations coordinator, a move driven by Fliflet.

“I was (the receptionist’s) supervisor, and I was not consulted about the plan or the staffing levels,” Bell said. “Only Mayor Pearson asked my opinion.”

When reached for comment, Fliflet said she had met with Zuleger about the issue, and had assumed that he spoke with Bell.

Without the position filled, Bell said he spent much of his time answering phones and could not get any of his own work done. It was time to leave.

“The administration department all quit, and there are not many people left,” Bell said. “We had a good team. We were all there for public service.”

In addition to Bell, five other employees have left Lake Elmo since March 2015 with at least two others publicly citing a hostile work environment as a factor.

Preventing future staff loss

The League of Minnesota Cities’ (LMC) Civility Task Force cites incivility as a reason for staff turnover.

“Problems with interpersonal relations between staff and councils are not super common,” said Lena Gould, a policy analyst for LMC. “But our trainings at our annual convention are always full. Cities want to prepare and prevent it, or experience it and want to stop it.”

Gould said it is uncommon for staff the leave their positions due to incivility, and more uncommon for staff to publicly state it as a reason for leaving. The LMC has begun a relationship with the newly-formed Office of Collaboration and Dispute Resolution within the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services to help provide a neutral third party to help cities with issues.

The cities of North St. Paul and North Branch have worked with the mediation service to resolve civility issues. During Lake Elmo’s July 21 council meeting, city attorney Snyder approached the council with the option to use the service in Lake Elmo, and the council gave direction to seek mediation.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]

  • PSAGuy

    More evidence (albeit anecdotally from all sides) that the ENTIRE council needs to go. They all need to be fired by the citizens of Lake Elmo, who by now should have had enough. Blow it up and start over. There is absolutely no way to salvage this mess.

    • dearlydeparted

      Actually, PSA, the current Council majority (Anne & Co.) now have matters firmly in their control – like it, or not. The City staff “dissidents” have been purged. City Hall Staff remaining after the “purge” includes 2 FOA’s (“Friends of Anne” from before she was on the Council, and then hired by the City after she was elected). New staff (hired by the current Council majority) includes a City Clerk “re-learning” the job after 8 years absence from the profession, and an Interim Administrator who’s LinkdIn page says he has 2 months local government experience (as an intern) – can that be correct? But, any reconsideration of former City land use decisions requires 4 votes – which they do not have.

      • PSAGuy

        You misunderstand. The fact that the ENTIRE staff has let the situation get so far out of control so as to be an embarrassment to the residents they represent, means that they ALL need to go. If this group were working in a major corporation, each would lose their job for not being able to function within a group setting, and with a modicum of professionalism. I agree Anne and her allies have acted in a juvenile and ridiculous manner. But ALL council members need to go. It’s not just as simple as “get rid of who you don’t like”. It’s an untenable situation.