Committee chair takes issue with letter overriding council action
BY KEVIN BONESKE
A directive made last November by recently terminated Rhinelander city administrator Kristina Aschenbrenner to temporarily authorize herself as the direct supervisor of superintendent of streets Tony Gilman and superintendent of water Tom Roeser was the topic of a heated discussion at Tuesday’s city Finance, Wage and Salary Committee meeting.
Committee chairman Mark Pelletier took exception to Aschenbrenner’s action, noting the full City Council, effective May 4, 2013, had reorganized the water/wastewater and public works (street) departments by creating a new public works department with new divisions of streets, wastewater and water, designating public works director Tim Kingman to oversee the street, water and wastewater superintendents.
Pelletier said the city administrator wasn’t authorized to override the action of the City Council, and that he hadn’t been made aware until recently of Aschenbrenner’s letter to authorize herself instead of Kingman as the supervisor of Gilman and Roeser. He made a motion to formally reverse the ousted city administrator’s action.
“Does an administrator have the authority to override City Council?” said Pelletier, who had also voted a week earlier to terminate Aschenbrenner’s contract. “I think we’ve watched that happen in the last month, the last year, and that’s been one of the bugs up my butt is that that’s been done.”
Aschenbrenner’s letter called for a “temporary change in supervisory oversight” that “will be in place until a permanent solution can be discussed and implemented.”
Committee member Dawn Rog, who seconded Pelletier’s motion, spoke in favor of the city having an organizational chart as to the oversight of employees.
“We would only hope that we have a lot of city employees that do nothing but work well together, and this community sees this all the time,” Rog said. “We see it right now with what’s going on with our downtown. We see it with how everything flows so well, and I can only hope that we would set ourselves just like any other city when it comes to an organizational chart.”
Committee member Tom Gleason expressed a contrary view, noting that there were “issues that are still pending” as to why Aschenbrenner’s letter was written in the first place.
Alluding to personnel matters that he did not want to specify in open session, Gleason said the reason Aschenbrenner’s action came to be needed to be resolved before there was a vote to rescind.
“I think you’re making a big mistake if you act on this tonight,” he said.
Pelletier said the full council, not the city administrator, should be the one changing a council action on supervisory oversight.
Committee members Sherrie Belliveau and Alex Young agreed that only the council had the authority to change the organizational chart. Rog added that she thought Aschenbrenner’s letter had no authority in light of the council’s previous action and urged the committee to move forward.
Mayor Dick Johns said he favored Aschenbrenner having designated herself the supervisor of Gilman and Roeser.
“She was hired here to run the city – that’s what she was supposed to do,” Johns said. “If we had problems in the city, she was supposed to take care of (them).”
Pelletier said the matter should have come to council members when there were issues last November.
“It would have been straightened out by the committee, and it would have been straightened out by the council,” he said. “It is going to need to be straightened out by them, because they are the only ones with the authority to do it, and the sooner, the better.”
Johns urged committee members to immediately investigate the underlying issues for Aschenbrenner’s letter.
Committee members took no formal vote to rescind Aschenbrenner’s letter, finding it had no merit to override a council action. They also agreed the underlying issues leading up to the letter should be dealt with at a future closed session.
DISSENTING OPINIONS EXPRESSED
Following her termination as city administrator Aug. 29 by the council on a 6-2 vote, Aschenbrenner has questioned the legality of the how the meeting was noticed and said she is looking into her options to possibly challenge her removal from the position. She has taken issue with the council not going through with a performance evaluation at that special meeting as she expected.
The two dissenting council members, Gleason and Steve Sauer, released a joint statement Tuesday commenting on what happened at the Aug. 29 closed session and also released copies of the performance review forms they completed for Aschenbrenner’s annual review, encouraging other council members to also release copies of their performance review forms.
“Walking into (the Aug. 29 meeting) we were planning on doing a performance evaluation, as we have been preparing for this process for months,” they said, also noting some other council members “had either chosen not to complete (the forms) or determined their own method for the performance review, which had been unanimously approved at the Aug. 8 meeting of the full City Council.”
Their statement further noted that after the meeting, “neither one of us know the ‘reason’ for this termination, since none of the concerns discussed were given with any supporting evidence, proof of factual standing or an opportunity for explanation.”
Though Gleason and Sauer agree the council had the right to remove Aschenbrenner at any time with a majority vote as an “at-will” employee, they question the procedure and effect on morale for doing so.
“What message does it send to (the city) staff when the council is willing to terminate any staff member, regardless of their position, with no warning, no explanation and no opportunity to respond?” they asked. “This action evoked a great amount of fear and concern as to the security of any job in the city, and any attempt the council would make to reassure city staff cannot be taken with any level of legitimacy base upon recent decisions.”
Gleason and Sauer concluded their statement by making reference to the “new direction” called for by the majority of council members who terminated Aschenbrenner.
“We were moving forward in a new direction, and decided to abruptly stop,” they said. “Our only hope (is) that this latest ‘new direction’ is not backwards.”
Young, who voted with the majority who terminated Aschenbrenner’s contract, issued his own statement late last week, noting “general performance concerns” voiced to her at a special meeting May 31 “had not improved, would not improve, and that it was time to move on.”
“Going into (the Aug. 29) meeting, I certainly didn’t know what the outcome would be, but characterizing it as a total surprise is disingenuous,” Young said. “It is wholly inaccurate to say that no performance concerns were voiced to the administrator prior to (Aug. 29).”
The council also scheduled an emergency special meeting Tuesday to meet in closed session to confer with legal counsel concerning strategy with respect to litigation in which it is or is likely to become involved regarding a personnel issue.