Mayor James Wallin, recently recovering from an illness, said he lost sleep as he was choosing appointments for the Public Utilities Commission.
Tuesday, Wallin asked for and received council support for his choice of appointments. But Wallin was also asked to provide more information on why certain candidates were picked and others not.
Wallin appointed Lucy Nesheim, former city council member, to the Brainerd Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Wallin said Don Stang served for 12 years and should be commended for his service and dedication, but he felt it was time for a new appointment.
“Don’s done an excellent job,” Wallin said.
Nesheim, a former liaison to the PUC, is knowledgeable and as a former business person understands the cost of utilities, Wallin said. He said Nesheim has attended PUC meetings for 24 years on her own time.
“To lessen Lucy’s qualifications with remarks of cronyism is not true,” Wallin wrote in a letter to the council. “Lucy is the best candidate for the position at this time.”
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Ed Shaw, whose wife Sara Hayden was a PUC applicant, said he wasn’t there to promote his wife or criticize anyone.
“I’ve been concerned about this issue for a number of years,” Shaw said. He added the city has made progress in putting openings on its website. But Shaw said more transparency was needed, including qualifications of applicants and an interview process to make sure all candidates are considered. Providing more data, such as a deadline for applications, could help to increase the applicant pool, Shaw said.
Shaw suggested the council postpone the decision.
“It looks a little bad when we are appointing a former colleague, a former council member to a board that has two other former politicians on it,” Shaw said. “That’s not taking anything away from anyone but it doesn’t look good. It opens us up to a lot of criticism when we are trying to move forward.”
Shaw said when someone is chosen information should be included to let the community know why as well as qualifications, credentials, interest, etc.
Council President Bonnie Cumberland asked Wallin if, based on comments Tuesday, if there would be consideration of laying out criteria and interviewing top candidates and coming back to say, ‘Yes Nesheim was the pick,’ or perhaps another candidate.
Wallin said he could do whatever the council wanted, but he reiterated his earlier points for choosing Nesheim.
“To me her involvement within public utilities has been excellent,” Wallin said.
Council member Gary Scheeler said the decision was gut-wrenching for the mayor.
“I have lost more sleep on this than I have on the fluoride issue,” Wallin said.
Cumberland said Shaw’s suggestions had a lot of value and should be considered by those who need to make appointments.
Council member Chip Borkenhagen said as a new member watching city politics from a distance, the important concept that comes to mind is communication and the process the city uses to attract new blood, new ideas, new people to apply in the first place.
“I don’t have a problem with Lucy whatsoever,” Borkenhagen said. “... The process seems funky.”
Cumberland said often the council is just happy to have one person interested in an opening but — not that it was the case with the mayor’s choice — there were other times when it seemed to be more sloppy in general.
Council member Mary Koep said she didn’t see much value in postponing the decision. Koep said she remembers trying to make appointments when she was chairwoman only to be told the people there were doing a good job and should stay there.
“I have always felt in some of those positions there ought to be some change and I did interview all the people. I don’t know if we are going to change anything here.”
Koep said the PUC has so much more responsibility, she would like the positions to be elected. Koep suggested asking the city’s charter commission to look at that. City Attorney Tom Fitzpatrick said it would require a city charter change and that is a fairly steep hill. Koep’s motion died for a lack of a second.
The board then went back to consider Wallin’s recommendation.
“Somehow we need to fix this,” Borkenhagen said. Cumberland agreed, saying she believed both she and the mayor now had direction in making appointments.
The council voted to appoint Nesheim to the PUC as its lay person. Scheeler said he’d support the mayor’s choice as it was Wallin’s decision to live with.
Council member Dave Pritschet said the mayor was an elected position and the appointments were part of his responsibility.
After the vote, Wallin said: “Thank you everybody. Now I can sleep.”