Voices were raised, the gavel pounded and one letter read into the record asking for a council member’s removal from office.
The discussion, at Tuesday night’s Brainerd City Council meeting, revolved around the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport and its commission.
The city council previously requested representatives from the airport commission be present at the meeting and withheld operational funds until Tuesday’s session.
Airport Commission Chair Andy Larson attended with the commission’s newly retained legal counsel Dyan Ebert, attorney with Quinlivan & Hughes, St. Cloud.
Ebert requested a delay to get up to speed on the issues and offer fair guidance.
Mary Koep, city council president, said she was relieved to hear legal guidance was at hand but said the council was frustrated by not having answers. Koep pressed Ebert asking for assurance Larson would be able to address the council himself. Larson rose to address the council and said Ebert has been trying to talk him out of addressing the council but he appreciated the opportunity to address questions, concerns and misconceptions.
“Our goal as a commission is to improve things at the airport,” Larson said.
Larson said the commission was involved in nine initiatives, including policy reviews, and had a blunt discussion with consulting engineers from Short Elliott Hendrickson in terms of expectations.
“Change I assure you is in the works,” he said.
Larson said he also wanted to address misconceptions. At the top of his list, Larson said, was the thought that former manager Steve Sievek got a special golden parachute deal. The move to a get a new manager was not done blindly, Larson said, adding four objectives were sought in the transition — public safety, a successful conclusion to the terminal remodeling project, a revenue neutral transition and avoiding costly employment related litigation. The policy manual, taken from Brainerd’s own, said an employee in good standing gets accumulated sick time. If that was a deal, Larson said all Brainerd employees are open to it. Larson said they’ve been told by legal counsel the wording of “good standing” means nothing in terms of law and they took that decision and weighted it against costs of employment litigation.
Larson pointed to Crow Wing County’s lengthy and costly employment battle after it attempted to terminate an employee. Larson who works with pensions said there were many risks in terms of litigation costs.
“We didn’t take it lightly,” Larson said. “We approached it deliberately.”
The airport is searching for a new manager with an aviation background and strong experience in marketing. With the airport manager having a quasi-law enforcement role, Larson said they are taking the vetting process seriously.
Council member Bob Olson previously asked the council to consider requesting the resignations of two Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Commission — Larson and city council member Kevin Goedker, the city council’s liaison to the airport commission.
Tuesday night Olson asked why the airport commission needed legal representation if all their decisions had been legal and following statutes and city and county policies. Olson questioned if there were discussions outside the airport commission meetings and violations of the open meeting law.
“The public is very upset about this,” Olson said. “Calls after calls, they wonder what is going on.”
Olson said he doesn’t think the issues out there reflect well on the airport commission. Olson said he has questions and expects to get answers but he wanted to give Ebert an opportunity to provide legal counsel. Olson said if the commission was doing things based on statutes they wouldn’t have a need for an attorney. Ebert said with the accusations out there, the commission should have counsel to assist them and the commission has the ability to hire and retain employees, is autonomous and even if the council provides funding for the airport it doesn’t entitle it to summon a commission member to answer questions.
Olson said the Dispatch was present when an open meeting violation allegation was made at the Dec. 6, 2011, airport commission meeting and two council members, Lucy Nesheim and Mayor James Wallin, who along with a Dispatch’s editorial took him to task in 2003 for a allegation of an open meeting violation, never said a word this time. Olson said it reflected a double standard. Ebert said she would be addressing the conflict of interest and the open meeting questions.
“I think this issue is clearly premature,” Nesheim said, adding there was no proof of malfeasance at the airport. ”Just because Mr. Olson is accusing them of that doesn’t make them guilty.”
Nesheim said Olson has called for the resignations of more than a dozen hard working people over time and he should be the last person making an open meeting violation allegation. That’s when Koep had to hit the gavel.
Olson said Nesheim didn’t have a problem going after him in 2003. Then Koep read into the record a letter from Steven Wolff calling for the Goedker’s removal from office, saying his votes on the airport commission represented a conflict of interest.
Council member Bonnie Cumberland said reading the letter did an injustice to Goedker. And Council member Dale Parks questioned if Wolff would have been given an option to talk if he was present at the meeting. Koep said that had not occurred to her and no one from the gallery did speak when she opened it up to them.
“I think we do need a policy on when a letter is delivered and asked to be read,” Koep said, noting many are innocent but this one did raise a big questions and the city needed a policy on it. Koep said she hoped Goedker did not take it personally. City attorney Tom Fitzpatrick said
that isn’t how it works in removing an elected official as the city council doesn’t have the ability to remove another council member when they feel like it.
Olson said Larson and Goedker made the motion that reassigned Sievek to temporary construction coordinator at 75 percent of his salary after he was removed as airport manager in December. At that time, Rick Adair, a third airport commission member, was appointed as a temporary, volunteer airport manager. Olson has described the move as representative of a “good old boys’ club. Sievek, who served as airport manager since 1994, was removed from his post after the airport failed to ensure the required inspection and certification of de-icing truck that resulted in the cancellation of a Nov. 19 Delta flight from Minneapolis to Brainerd.
Koep recommended appointing Jeff Czeczok to the airport commission with a term to expire on Dec. 31, 2012. Czeczok, who regularly attends airport commission meetings, has been an outspoken critic of the airport commission. Czeczok was one of three applicants for the airport commission, along with Wolff and Jan Burton.
Larson said Czeczok has attended meetings and brought up some insightful things in some cases that Larson said he didn’t want to hear but probably needed to. “If selected we would welcome him to the commission,” Larson said.
Czeczok was later appointed to the commission.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at 855-5852 or firstname.lastname@example.org.