It was shock and disappointment Tuesday night for the Clarkfield City Council as upheaval came with the concurrent revelations that Care Center Administrator Paul Luitjens had been terminated and newly elected councilwoman Erin Crosby may no longer be able to serve on the city council.
The first bombshell came during the Care Center's monthly report when Ecumen Regional Director Carol Kvidt approached the council rather than and without Luitjens. She announced that as early as that morning Ecumen (the non-profit company that manages Clarkfield Care Center) and Luitjens had "parted ways".
Kvidt continued saying that an interim administrator named Mike Miller would be installed as soon as Wednesday and a replacement for Luitjens would be found in about three to four months.
Pressed for a reason why Luitjens would be let go, Kvidt spent more time on the reasons Luitjens was not fired. "This is not a result of any misconduct on Paul's part. It's nothing criminal, or anything that could cause any trouble for the city," said Kvidt.
In answering questions after she left the council table, Kvidt gave Ecumen's statement in regards to Luitjen's termination saying, "It is due to leadership and Paul's fit with Ecumen."
Bafflingly, Ecumen's announcement comes while Clarkfield and Ecumen are negotiating a new management contract for the Clarkfield Care Center.
Those negotiations have been going on since Ecumen presented the council with a new contract over a month ago. Since then the council has reviewed the new contract (with the old contract running out on April 1), made adjustments and additions and are about to send their changes back to Ecumen for review.
Areas of the contract the council is adjusting include Ecumen's management fees, right-of-termination and information transparency. Prior to Luitjens firing, the biggest obstacle to renewing the contract appeared to be Ecumen's valuation of assisted living and home health care, as currently, the city loses money on both programs.
As for Luitjen's replacement, Kvidt assured the council that the compensation for that replacement will be less than what Luitjens was paid, or at least budget neutral when Luitjen's severance is factored in.
After Kvidt had left the council continued discussion. "I don't like the smell of this," commented councilmen Scott Vold.
In review of the contract, the council was informed that they have say on all Care Center employees besides Luitjens. In his work for Ecumen, Luitjens also administrated the nursing facility in Balaton.
Clarkfield Mayor Gene Kockelmen reported that he learned of Luitjens termination roughly 10:00 a.m. Tuesday morning after a call from Kvidt.
As a couple of Clarkfield citizens questioned the council on the matter, Neil Linscheid responded saying, "We understand that you support and like Paul, we do too. But, at this point, it seems that it's an employment matter between Ecumen and Paul. While we're in the middle of it, I don't think we have a lot of say."
Page 2 of 2 - Jeff Lobdell, there to advise the council on other matters, also spoke up, "Speaking now just as a citizen, I'm really surprised by Ecumen's actions with Paul. I thought he did a great job and he's a big part of this community. I just don't get this."
Furthering, the confusion is the situation with Crosby, which is also tied to the Ecumen contract review.
Crosby is an employee of the Care Center. After her election to the council by write-in ballot, the council questioned her validity to serve on the council while also technically a city employee (as the Care Center is owned by the city). Yet an opinion from City Attorney David Gilbertson, at that time, said that Crosby was eligible because Ecumen managed the site. However, as the council and city administration reviewed the Ecumen contract for the renewal negotiations, they found the section that detailed employment (the same section that states Luitjens is an Ecumen employee) and found that the city is technically responsible for every Care Center employee but Luitjens.
After reviewing the contract Gilbertson reversed his opinion.
State statute 410.191, which was ammended as recently as 2010, and is concerned with city council members and city employment states: "Notwithstanding any charter provision, neither the mayor nor any city council member may be employed by the city. For purposes of this section, "employed" refers to full-time permanent employment as defined by the city's employment policy."
In both regards to Luitjens and Crosby, it will most likely be weeks before everything is cleared up. Though while the Crosby situation may remain up in the air, there appears to be little the city can do in regards to Luitjens.
The question of Crosby's eligibility will remain at the top of the council's agenda for at least several weeks. The Ecumen contract will next be reviewed, with Kvidt attending the April 16 meeting.