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Crosslake Council Discusses Sewer Plant Proposal

Web posted January 11, 2022
By Paul Boblett, Editor

The Crosslake City Council met for a 10:00 a.m. Special Meeting on Thursday, January 6th to discuss the hiring process for a Planning and Zoning Administrator position, the use of PeopleService to run the Sewer Plant, and to discuss moving Public Works Department to the Community Center.

Council members Dave Schrupp and John Andrews attended via Zoom.

Planning and Zoning Administrator Position
Mayor Dave Nevin opened the meeting by stating he was informed by city staff that out of the five applications received for the Planning and Zoning Administrator position, only three had the minimum qualifications for the position. Nevin expressed concern that maybe there were not enough applicants.

The application deadline was December 14, 2021, and council can decide to put another request out for applicants, however, the process will need to be reopened.

Nevin wanted to review the applications during this meeting but was informed that the process does not work that way.

City Administrator Mike Lyonais informed Nevin that the interview process needs to be enacted by the council and that applications and resumes will be presented just prior to interviewing applicants.

Council member Marcia Seibert-Volz asked why the Personnel committee has not seen the applications and asked that the meeting to be closed to review the applications.

Clerk Char Nelson informed Seibert-Volz that past practices has never had the personnel Committee review the applications and stated that was the reason for this meeting, to set up the process for the interviews.

Seibert-Volz continued to ask that the Personnel Committee interview all five applicants. Council member Aaron Herzog asked why would the council waste time interviewing people that were not qualified, adding that staff has already done the work to weed out unqualified candidates.

“I think you’re making something a lot more complicated than what it needs to be,” added Herzog.

Council member John Andrews agreed with Herzog, stating staff has a process and that council shouldn’t waste time on people who don’t meet the training and experience.

“I think we should move on,” said Andrews, “we‘ve got spring coming up and I don’t see any need to putz around.”

Nevin said his only concern was stopping the process and would rather go another month of looking for more [candidates] and suggested extending the process.

“I’m not interested in extending it,” replied Herzog.

Council member Dave Schrupp had a list of suggestions on the process: setting up a date to interview the qualified applicants and that the whole council would be involved in the process; Schrupp added that no single council member should be allowed to contact any of the applicants or past employers outside of the interview.

He suggested resumes to be passed out at the interview and returned when it is over. The applicants should be advised not to talk to any of the council and to inform someone if that happens, and that the same group of questions is asked of each applicant.

Schrupp added that at the end of the process, council can decide to hire, or restart the process. The interviews will be open to the public.

Council unanimously passed a motion to interview the three qualified candidates using the criteria suggested by Schrupp. No date was set for the interviews.

Sewer Plant Operations
Mayor Nevin brought up the possibility of outsourcing the running of the city sewer plant to a company called PeopleService, of Omaha, Nebraska.

Nevin toured the facility with representatives of PeopleService in May of 2021 and continued conversations with them, exchanging emails, eventually receiving a proposal on what PeopleService could provide to the city for sewer operations.

Nevin started to address the issue at the meeting, but Lyonais intervened and stated that normally when a city is looking to outsource something like [maintaining a sewer facility], the entire council directs staff to follow that process.

“My understanding is that is not what happened [here],” said Lyonais.

Nevin said he was contacted by a person with the Pine River Sanitary Water District regarding PeopleService and stated that they had been hired. It was clarified that PeopleService was not hired by the PRSWD.

Herzog then asked Nevin, “Why am I seeing today, a [proposal from PeopleService] that has a date on it of June 21st? The first time I saw it is today…. Which is what you would consider for a contract. Why in January of 2022 am I seeing a proposal from June of 2021? You’ve got seven months in there that I have no clue this is floating around.”

Andrews and Schrupp confirmed they had not seen it either. Schrupp said he had recently received it from Troy Bauch, the AFSCME business agent and the assigned representative of the Crosslake city employees, including those employees assigned to the operation of the city wastewater plant.

Schrupp stated that the majority of council members did not know what was going on here and is very sorry this was done.

“It doesn’t do much for employee morale or attitude to blindside them with something like this, said Schrupp.

“My big thing is that usually you have to sell a council on why you would do something like this, “continued Schrupp, “or why you’d be interested in doing this. And for at least twenty years, we have operated with the same arrangement that employs running the sewer plant when they can…. And they’re doing a fine job.”

The proposal amount from PeopleService was $280,000.

“Why you would want to do this is, is the question I would ask. I don’t get it, period,” added Schrupp.

Nevin said the ‘why portion’ of it is that Public Works Director Ted Strand will eventually retire.

“Then who will replace him?” asked Nevin.

Nevin said Strand told him during the sewer plant walkthrough in May that no one on staff was qualified to run the plant.

Bauch then addressed the council, “This entire process is something I have not seen in my career. The comment made that there is a process for doing these things is correct, and normally is a conversation with the [entire] city council about the desire or need, the benefits and the cost, of doing privatization or outsourcing or changing operations.”

Bauch said he received a phone call on May 13, 2021 that the mayor was doing a tour of the wastewater plant with representatives from PeopleService and the purpose of the tour was to assess operations and potentially bid for operations of the plant.

He added that there is no public record (council minutes) of any conversation and why the deception about why this is happening, and that raised a red flag. He confirmed in a conversation with the Lyonais, that [Lyonais] knew nothing about any of this. And that raised more red flags for Bauch.

“I didn’t understand how one council person could independently make a decision to reach out to a private vendor for operation of a multi-million dollar plant and do a request for proposal,” said Bauch.

Bauch said he then reached out to the City of Crosslake Labor Attorney Jessica Durbin.

“My concern is we’re talking about the livelihoods of the city employees of Crosslake that have based their careers, and made their family decisions on their employment of the city,” said Bauch, adding he had concerns about this process.

“Why was there a deliberate attempt to not include the whole council,” he asked, noting that Schrupp, Andrews and Herzog were left out of the conversation.

Bauch said Durbin told him the reason behind this was succession planning, and the city would be left without a plan. He told council that there is a current employee who holds the necessary licensing and wondered how could the city not know that.

Not finding any adequate answers, Bauch said he turned to data practices law.

“What I learned after receiving the email exchange from [Mayor Nevin] is that after the tour of the plant, there was a supper and adult beverages shared and some banter and that is the epitome of ‘Chicago politics’ to me.

“That is not how public services are operated nor how bids are received. We operate in the daylight with transparency and everyone in the city and council knows what’s happening and why.

“When I see officials using private emails rather than their public email, when I see exclusion of certain council members and city officials, when I see communication with individual council members and not the entire council, there is a purpose for doing those things.

“These things and this conversation should have happened here [council chambers] with you all before it ever got [to this point].”

Bauch suggested that if this is the path council wants to take, they follow the RFP process and do a cost benefit analysis on it, adding “There is no cost saving in this [proposal].”

“I don’t enjoy bringing forth this information, but I do believe in open and transparent government and I do believe in abiding by law.”

Bauch added there is a labor shortage in this country like never before and [the council] should be grateful to have the employees they have.

“They’re dedicated to this city and they want to make this their career and their lifetime home.” Bauch asked Nevin why he would operate in this fashion, and what is the end goal?

Nevin said the end goal is not to get rid of any employees, rather to free up the public works staff, so that they can do other things in the city.

“It’s not to get rid of anyone, it’s so we can do more,” said Nevin. Strand said that while it is true the department doesn’t have the time to get everything done, he has asked council for more staff, “But we keep getting turned down for more staff.”

Strand clarified that one of his current staff is qualified with a sewer operator license, adding that his staff is currently working on getting their licenses which makes them better employees for the city.

Nevin said he misunderstood about the staff member’s licensure.

Seibert-Volz then stated that she never received the recent email from Bauch, who replied that the original information and proposal had already been shared between her and the mayor, and he didn’t feel it was necessary to resend it to her.

“That was a year ago and I think I deleted it”, said Seibert-Volz, adding it would need to be brought before the entire council before any presentation for the proposal could be made.

“Something is not right here,” said Bauch.

Seibert-Volz replied, “All I can say is that I said ‘ask [Strand] about it, get Ted involved.’”

Nevin added that he didn’t think that the proposal was a [valid] contract, just a generic proposal to bring to the council.

Bauch then said the conversation being had now is one that should have happened a year ago with the full council.

“But it died because the council said it didn’t want to listen to PeopleService if I recall right,” said Seibert-Volz.

“So if it was shot down, why are we talking about it today?” asked Strand.

Bauch asked how it made it onto the agenda for this meeting, to which Nevin replied he requested it because he didn’t think there had been a conversation about it.

Bauch then said it would be more meaningful if it was brought forth in the normal scope and business of the council.

Siebert-Volz stated, “Just to close your eyes, to not listen to a proposal, you do that all the time, then you don’t know you’re not interested, and the council denies it. No one ever allowed or approved PeopleService coming and discussing what they can offer.”

“Which is normally how the process starts, not finishes,” stated Bauch.

“But it was shot down, no one wanted to listen so it was a dead issue,” said Seibert-Volz

Schrupp said, “This was never on an agenda. If it wasn’t on an agenda, why would you bring someone to the sewer plant before it was discussed with anybody? If you want to talk about stuff, you need to bring it to the council, put it on the agenda and talk about it.”

“We’ve just ruined our employee relations,” Schrupp added.

Andrews then made a motion to halt all discussion regarding PeopleService, which passed unanimously.

Public Works/Joint Maintenance Facility
The last thing on the agenda was the city’s agreement with Crow Wing County regarding the Joint Maintenance Facility. There is discussion that the County will be expanding their services and that could alter the current agreement between the two entities.

Nevin brought forth the idea of moving the Public Works department to the Community Center.

Council unanimously directed Lyonais and Strand to have discussions with the county as to what their needs are and to present their findings to council and to put it on the agenda for the February regular meeting.

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