Former city administrator sues Lake Elmo

Outgoing Lake Elmo City Administrator Dean Zuleger received much community support as he left the council chambers March 10. (Gazette staff photo by Alicia Lebens)
Former Lake Elmo city administrator Dean Zuleger, center, is suing the city for alleged violations of the Minnesota Data Practices Act. (Gazette file photo)

Former Lake Elmo city administrator Dean Zuleger filed a civil lawsuit July 29 in Washington County Court against the city of Lake Elmo and former city council member Steve DeLapp. The suit alleges defamation and violations of his privacy rights under the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

Zuleger, who was employed by the city from January 2012 to July 2015, alleges in the court complaint that his tenure with the city of Lake Elmo was complicated by significant dysfunction within the city and cites numerous news articles describing dysfunction, conflict and hostility within city hall and from elected officials.

Zuleger’s attorney, David Asp, outlines several events related to Zuleger’s departure from Lake Elmo in July 2015 that have allegedly damaged Zuleger’s ability to find new employment in municipal government administration. Asp states in the civil complaint that Zuleger has incurred a significant loss of income and opportunity and has experienced emotional distress that has required medical and psychological treatment.

There are two counts in the civil suit brought forward by Zuleger and his attorney — violations of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act and defamation.

According to city documents, in Dec. 2014, Lake Elmo finance director Cathy Bendel alleged that Zuleger was subjecting her to a hostile work environment based on her gender and in retaliation for her alleged report of unlawful conduct by another. In response to these allegation by Bendel, the city council hired third-party attorney Jessica Schwie to conduct an independent investigation of the claims. On April 7, 2015, Schwie submitted her report to the city council. The report — now known as the Schwie Report —  outlined a review of recommendations to the city, including no disciplinary action to Zuleger. Instead, Schwie reported that much of the dysfunction within the city came from elected officials and specifically named Councilmember Anne Smith as the source.

The report in its entirety was then deemed by the city to be private data under the Minnesota Data Practices Act, and the city barred Zuleger and the public from viewing any part of the report, even when Zuleger requested to see portions of the report that pertained to him. Zuleger later resigned from his position June 17, 2015.

In a July 21, 2015, article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Councilmember Jill Lundgren is quoted as saying, “a city employee had filed a harassment complaint last year against Zuleger.” Her statement came more than three months after reading the Schwie report that found the allegations against Zuleger to be unsupported and the council’s decision not to take any disciplinary action against Zuleger. This statement by Lundgren, which revealed the type of complaint filed against Zuleger, is one of the alleged violations of the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

On Jan. 27, then-interim city administrator Clark Schroeder sent a letter to Zuleger informing him that The Gazette had a copy of the Schwie report and that the report “had been deemed by the city to be a non-public document.” The alleged release of the Schwie report is the second alleged violation of the Minnesota Data Practices Act brought forward by Zuleger against the city of Lake Elmo.

After The Gazette obtained a copy of the Schwie report, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation into the alleged breach of data security at the city. However, the investigation was closed when the Washington County Attorney’s Office opined that the entire report was public data and no crime had been committed by its release. The city attorney, Sarah Sonsalla, however, continued to have the opinion that the contents of the report are private data.

The second count outlined in Zuleger’s civil complaint, alleges that comments made by DeLapp in a February 2016 article on the news website MinnPost are defamatory and have caused damages that include loss of income and emotional distress.

In the article, DeLapp is quoted as saying Zuleger was “fired” by the majority of the city council. DeLapp allegedly said, among other statements, that “the guy they fired (Zuleger) couldn’t be trusted.” Zuleger claims these statements have affected his ability to find a job within his business, trade or profession.

Zuleger is currently employed in a field outside of municipal government.

In the lawsuit, Asp asks Judge B. William Ekstrum for a trial by jury and seeks actual and statutory damages, as well as costs and attorney’s fees. If the city of Lake Elmo is found to have violated the Minnesota Data Practices Act, the liability for exemplary damages is no less that $1,000 and no more than $15,000 per violation.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]