"We just got stuck with this big can of worms," said Clarkfield Mayor Gene Kockelman as the city council discussed the tangled issues of reviewing the Ecumen contract and accepting the resignation of councilwoman Erin Crosby at their regular meeting Tuesday night. "But it's our responsibility to untangle this whole mess. And it's not looking very easy."
At their last city council meeting the council was shocked by the concurrent revelations that Clarkfield Care Center Administrator Paul Luitjens had been terminated by the Care Center's management company, Ecumen, and newly elected councilwoman Erin Crosby, an employee of the Care Center, was unknowingly serving on the council while in violation of state statute.
Both revelations came while the council was reviewing a new management contract with Ecumen. The old contract ran out April 1 and the council is continuing negotiations for a new contract, with a decision on that new contract being at least several weeks away.
Meanwhile, at Tuesday night's meeting, Crosby submitted her resignation and the council cheerlessly accepted, while also passing a motion to post the now vacant council position.
By state statute the council will now post the vacancy for a month, review any interested candidates and appoint a new council person to serve the remaining year and nine months of Crosby's term. Crosby was elected during the last election through a write-in campaign.
"I want to make it clear to everyone that this isn't something that I want to do. And it's not something the council wants to do either. It's important for the residents to know that. Everyone's trying to do what's best and what's right. It's just a tough position for the city to be in."
Several times Crosby and the council reiterated this point during the discussion by directly engaging the Advocate Tribune. "We just need Clarkfield residents to know that this is just an unfortunate situation. And we really have no choice. We want to make that abundantly clear. We're doing this because we have to. We want [Crosby] on the council and she wants to be here, but our hands are tied. People just need to know that we're working in good faith here and trying to take on a problem head on, while being as transparent as possible," said councilman Neil Linscheid, again directing his comments to the Advocate Tribune.
After Crosby's 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 and found that the city is technically responsible for every Care Center employee but Administrator Luitjens.
Page 2 of 2 - After reviewing the contract and the state statute more fully, Gilbertson reversed his opinion.
State statute 410.191, which was amended 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."
Gilbertson, who attended Tuesday night's meeting said later that there's a strong possibility that there are many cities in Minnesota that are in violation of this statute—they just might not know it yet.
Crosby vocalized the difficulty a statute like the one above puts small cities into. "It's hard enough for the city to find people willing and able to serve. There's about 900 people in Clarkfield. Now we have about 120 people of that group that can't serve (indicating the 100-plus Care Center employees). Then you take away people too old to serve on the council and then those too young—and you're not left with much of a pool to draw leadership from."
As for the contract negotiations with Ecumen, the council identified that there are obvious questions that need to be addressed before they consider entering into a new contract. Chiefly: the segregation of duties and responsibilities. Gilbertson will now help the council fashion a counter-offer of how they'd like the contract updated.
At the end of the discussion with Crosby the council passed a motion thanking her for her service. "We just want to acknowledge that you served your community when you didn't have to and that's a special thing," said Linscheid.