Open meeting violations alleged in Lake Elmo city administrator selection

Lake-Elmo-signThe Lake Elmo City Council has extended an offer to a candidate for the position of city administrator, but one council member alleges that the process to select the administrator violated the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.

The city council decided Feb. 16 to offer the position of city administrator to Kristina Handt, former city administrator of Scandia, one of six candidates interviewed for the position.

According to the agenda for the city council’s Feb. 16 meeting, city staff made a recommendation for the council to “approve the City Administrator Contract as presented.”  Councilmember Justin Bloyer alleges the council has not had a public discussion or vote on the candidate that was selected and that he and Mayor Mike Pearson have not seen a copy of the contract.

The council began the discussion about offering a contract to Kristina Handt at 1:40 a.m. Feb. 17 — six hours and 40 minutes into the regularly scheduled Feb. 16 meeting. During the meeting, the council did not discuss the merits of any candidates interviewed. Instead, the city council argued about the interview and selection process.

According to a special meeting notice, the city council met Jan. 20 to interview six candidates for the position of city administrator. The group started at noon and adjourned at 5:15 p.m., but Councilmember Justin Bloyer left the meeting at 2:45 p.m. in order to go to work.

A second round of interviews were held with three finalists at the Holiday Inn, Capital Suite, at 8511 Hudson Road in Lake Elmo at 8 a.m. Feb. 8, Feb. 9 and Feb. 10.  Although a quorum of the council was in attendance — Bloyer was absent due to work obligations — the meeting notice states that no formal meeting was called and no action could be taken.

However, Bloyer alleged during the Feb. 16 council meeting that a majority of the council — Anne Smith, Julie Fliflet and Jill Lundgren — entered into a discussion following the last interview and selected a candidate outside of a public meeting.

“Our attorney just told us that she has provided a contract, and Councilmember Fliflet has commented on it,” Bloyer said. “I would like to see the comments on it. I haven’t seen the contract, and I would like to see the contract if other council members have. I’d like to vet it out and have some discussion on it.”

Bloyer asked for minutes of the meeting where he believes the council majority selected its candidate.

“There are no minutes because it was not a formal meeting and no action was taken,” city clerk Julie Johnson said of the Feb. 10 gathering for the final candidate interview.

“The consensus of those present after the final meeting was to offer the position to Kristina Handt,” city attorney Sarah Sonsalla said.

Fliflet said some council members went to every interview — both first and second interviews — and that they stayed for discussion because quorum was present, and that they had the discussion in order to keep the process moving.

“And to come back to the council table and complain about that you weren’t part of that because you choose not to be part of that is not acceptable in my mind,” Fliflet said. “If you had been at the meeting, you could have been a part of that.”

“It seems like we have already made a selection and are directing to contract,” Pearson said. “I would just like to see the contract.”

Sonsalla told the council that the contract wasn’t presented to the council tonight because the council is required to have a discussion and vote on selecting the final candidate during a council meeting.

“That’s why I asked for the contract to not be approved tonight,” Sonsalla said.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen tonight, normally there would be a selection process,” Pearson said.

Pearson pointed to the meeting agenda, questioning the way in which the process had been presented.

“It probably would have said, ‘select city administrator,’” Pearson said, instead of asking the council to vote on a contract.

Fliflet explained the process by which city administrator candidates were selected.

“We had a process in which we wouldn’t influence others on how we voted on who we wanted for second interviews,” Fliflet said. “I was glad to see there was overwhelming agreement on candidates and really good second interviews.”

Pearson was present for all of the interviews, but said he left the final interview when the discussion on selecting a final candidate began.

“We were in the throes of discussing the candidates because we were all there, and Mike had to leave,” Smith said. “With all do respect, you threw you hands up and said, ‘I see how this is going to go,’ and you left.”

“I did leave, but what we were doing was interviewing candidates, and I thought we would have the discussion of that here,” Pearson said. “I left, not because of work, to be clear, I heard charges of sexist — not with the candidates — but this victimization, this reliving the past about staff. I left because the process was done in my opinion.”

Pearson said he wouldn’t make a judgment about if the final meeting on Feb. 10 was a violation of the open meeting law.

“The candidate you have chosen is fine,” Pearson said.

Bloyer disagreed.

“This has been a violation of open meeting law,” Bloyer charged. “These discussions have taken place behind closed doors. Everyone sitting here knows it, but no one is going to stand up and say it. This is the worst thing your government can do.”

Sonsalla did not agreed with Bloyer’s charge of an open meeting violation.

“I believe it is proper but my opinion is that it needed to be brought back to the full council,” Sonsalla said. “That’s why I opined that it needed to come here today and the council needed to talk about it and decide as a whole and whether it wanted to make an offer to someone.”

“I don’t think the process was as when the previous city administrator was hired,” Pearson said.

After reviewing the notice given by the city for the interviews, the attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, Mark Anfinson, believes the discussion held by Smith, Lundgren and Fliflet on Feb. 10 was a violation of the open meeting law.

“In the Open Meeting Law, there is no such thing as a notice of potential quorum — it was a special meeting,” Anfinson said. “Special meetings are different than regular meetings. The agenda at a special meeting is limited to the purpose stated in the notice.”

Because the notice for the special meeting on Feb. 10 did not include the discussion of the candidates or selection of a city administrator, Anfinson believes the city council violated the open meeting law by doing so.

“The public may not be interested in the content of the interviews, but they are certainly interested in the discussion surrounding the selection of the city administrator,” Anfinson said. “The Lake Elmo City Council exceeded the scope of the notice of the special meeting by having that discussion.”

Last year, Anfinson said the Lake Elmo City Council had a “serious legal problem” because of the way it handled the hiring of interim city administrator Clark Schroeder. During the meeting at which it selected Schroeder, the council not only refused to release the names of finalists being considered (as required by law), but also refused to release the name of the candidate selected for the job.

During the discussion of this year’s selection process, Bloyer made a motion during the Feb. 16 meeting to extend the contract with interim city administrator Clark Schroeder until the end of the year, but did not get the votes needed to pass.

“Clark doesn’t want the job — he told me so,” Smith said. “He wants to move to a different place.”

The council voted 3-1 — with Bloyer dissenting and Lundgren absent due to the lateness of the hour — to direct city attorney Sarah Sonsalla to enter into contract negotiations with Handt.

Handt is the former city administrator of Scandia. According to the minutes of the Nov, 17, 2015, meeting of the Scandia City Council, Handt’s last day in Scandia was Dec. 3, 2015.

In a letter of resignation to the Scandia City Council in June 2015, Handt cited child care as the reason for her resignation. Handt gave birth to her first child Sept. 5.

Handt holds a master’s degree in advocacy and political leadership from the University of Minnesota – Duluth and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. Handt was hired by Scandia in 2012 and had previously worked as the administrator for Luck, Wis.

Handt will be the ninth person to hold the top job in Lake Elmo in the last 10 years.

Handt was one of three finalists selected for a second round of interviews by the city council. Diane Miller, the former city administrator of Canby, and  Kandis Hanson, the former city administrator in Mound, were also final candidates.

In the first round of interviews on Jan. 20, the council met with a total of six candidates. Those not selected to return for a second interview were Kim Moore Sykes, Robert Barbian and Reginald Edwards. Moore Sykes is the current director of human resources for Sibley County, Barbian is the city administrator in Foley, and Edwards is an instructor in the graduate public administration department at Minnesota State University in Mankato.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]

  • Gary Horning

    I read this two times, and I find the workings of this city council, if you can call it that, to be “Unbelievable”. This group behaves like five little school children fighting over three Tootsie Rolls. Unprofessional, incompetent and inept are the only words I can think of to describe this band of nothings. I really question the mentality of candidates who have masters degrees, and who have worked in local government, who even consider applying for an administrators position in Lake Elmo. I would think that anyone with an IQ of 10 or more would steer clear of this circus, but there are some who are gluttons for punishment. I give the lady from Scandia my best, but I give her only a year.

    • dearlydeparted

      Your comments are spot on. Unless the new administrator recognizes that Council Member Smith is the de facto city administrator (until Jan. 2017, at least), and also recognizes that anything she says or does that may be overheard by a couple of her staff goes to Council Member Smith within minutes, she will not last long. But, good luck to her never-the-less. Lake Elmo is a great place in need of equally great local government.

      • Janet

        This council has even had mediators come in and try to help them solve the dysfunction…as recently as October of 2015, they were met with both as a group and as individuals. Mediation was halted for failure of progress. http://kstp.com/article/stories/s3943837.shtml