Council votes 6-2 to terminate contract
BY KEVIN BONESKE
Not quite a year on the job as Rhinelander’s city administrator, Kristina Aschenbrenner has been terminated from the position.
An announcement the city ended its employment with Aschenbrenner was made in a media release sent out Tuesday morning and came on the heels of Monday’s special City Council meeting, in which a closed session was held to consider employment, promotion, compensation, performance or evaluation of the city administrator.
The media release went on to state that a search to replace the city administrator will begin “in the near future’ and that “day-to-day operations and ongoing projects will continue to be overseen by the city’s employees and staff.”
An annual review form for Aschenbrenner, who began as city administrator last year on Sept. 8, had been finalized by the City Council at its regular monthly meeting Aug. 8.
Council president George Kirby said the City Council “decided to move in a new direction” with the city administrator position.
Kirby also noted council members had previously met in closed session May 31 to discuss/approve a performance evaluation/status review for Aschenbrenner, for whom the City Council set goals and objectives of 90 days for her to come up with “more communication and cooperation” in the position.
“They just weren’t attained,” said Kirby, who did not elaborate when asked for specific examples as to how the goals and objectives for more communication and cooperation sought by the City Council from Aschenbrenner didn’t get achieved.
Mayor Dick Johns said Aschenbrenner’s ouster was a “council issue.” Johns, who did not vote on whether to terminate Aschenbrenner, declined further comment and referred questions on the matter to city attorney Carrie Miljevich.
Miljevich said the City Council voted 6-2 to terminate Aschenbrenner’s contract with council members Tom Gleason and Steve Sauer dissenting on the motion made by Mark Pelletier, seconded by Sherrie Belliveau and also backed by Kirby, Tom Kelly, Dawn Rog and Alex Young.
In accordance with Aschenbrenner’s contract, in which she was an “at-will” employee who could be terminated at any time without reason and without cause by a majority vote of the City Council, Miljevich said Aschenbrenner will receive severance pay equivalent to three months of her salary as well as accrued vacation pay for which she is eligible.
When asked for specific reasons why Aschenbrenner was terminated, Miljevich would only say the city wants to move in a “new direction” with the city administrator position.
Sauer said he was shocked by the council’s vote to terminate Aschenbrenner.
“In all that I have seen, Kristina has been stellar in her position as a city administrator,” Sauer said. “I believed she was doing what was in the best interest of the city the entire time.”
As a result of Aschenbrenner’s termination, Sauer said “the city is taking quite a hit because the new, fresh ideas that were being brought forth were spectacular.”
“It was such an abrupt issue that I personally feel like there could have been corrective action taken towards whatever issues some may have, but it didn’t need to be an immediate termination,” he said. “That was my personal belief coming out of (Monday’s meeting).”
When reached for comment Tuesday, Aschenbrenner said her termination “was completely unforeseen and (I) do not understand their rationale behind the decision.”
Aschenbrenner said the City Council never discussed her performance in her presence at Monday’s meeting and, after about an hour and half when the council met in closed session while she left the meeting room before returning, Kirby read a statement that the council members wanted to go in a “different direction.”
She said she was first offered the opportunity to resign and hold the city harmless and, after she refused to resign, then was terminated as the city administrator.
Aschenbrenner said she holds no personal grudges following her ouster as city administrator and would come back to the position if given the opportunity to do so.
“I enjoyed the job,” she said. “I think I was doing good things.”
Prior to coming to Rhinelander, Aschenbrenner was the district court administrator for just over a year in Wisconsin’s 10th Judicial District in Eau Claire, after having been the Eau Claire County Clerk of Court for almost six years, and also served 10 years in the Wisconsin Army National Guard that included a deployment to Iraq. She took over last year as city administrator from Phil Parkinson, who had been in the position on an interim basis, with an annual salary of $85,000.
The same firm the city used last year in the search that led to hiring Aschenbrenner, Kirby and Sauer both noted, will also be used to hire her replacement.