Open records request reveals details of council unhappy with ex-city administrator
BY KEVIN BONESKE
Copies of annual performance review forms obtained through an open records request by the Star Journal bring to light details behind the majority of Rhinelander City Council members who decided to go in a “new direction” by terminating the contract of former city administrator Kristina Aschenbrenner.
Prior to council members voting 6-2 at a special meeting Aug. 29 to end Aschenbrenner’s employment with the city, they approved the review form at their regular monthly meeting Aug. 8 to fill out for the city administrator’s annual performance review. She had been the city administrator for almost a year before being voted out of that job.
The two aldermen who opposed Aschenbrenner’s termination, Steve Sauer and Tom Gleason, released the review forms they filled out in an email message sent Sept. 6 to local media. Council members held a special emergency meeting that evening, in anticipation of possible legal action being brought by Aschenbrenner, and unanimously passed a resolution directing all city officials and employees to keep all information regarding her employment with the city confidential, unless required to disclose by law, and to cease any communication with her.
The Sept. 6 release of the review forms Sauer and Gleason filled out spawned state open records and city ethics complaints filed against them by two other aldermen with Mark Pelletier submitting allegations of open records violations to the Oneida County district attorney’s office and council president George Kirby filing the ethic charges with the city clerk’s office.
Not only was the Star Journal able to obtain the review forms Sauer and Gleason filled out, forms from five of the six council members who voted to terminate Aschenbrenner’s contract were also legally obtained through the open records request. The other council member, Sherrie Belliveau, said she did not fill out the performance review form, according to city clerk Val Foley, whose office provided copies of the forms.
In contrast to the reviews given by Sauer and Gleason, who both rated Aschenbrenner as doing “a great job” as city administrator, the council members voting to terminate her had a different view of her performance, for which they previously have not been forthcoming with many details.
For instance, Kirby noted in late August that council members had also 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.
But 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, Kirby wouldn’t elaborate.
In the review form Kirby filled out, however, he said he felt Aschenbrenner “picks whom she wants to work with.”
“As one of the persons responsible for hiring her I do feel, at some point, she should respect our positions and/or opinions,” Kirby said. “She is not open enough with (the) council and [possibly] not up and up with all her information. What I am picking up on is her governing style is perhaps by influence of some department heads (in) her approach on the business of the city rather than reaching out to the members of (the) council.”
Kirby went on to state in the review that Aschenbrenner had never “reached out to me with any question, suggestions, advice, concerns, help, nor even a five-minute conversation.”
“I would expect at least once in a year’s time I would actually get to know her and what has been going on so maybe now is a good time for all to get involved,” he said.
Pelletier, who made the motion to terminate Aschenbrenner and only wrote comments on the final page of the review form, noted he didn’t fill out the evaluation because “I feel there won’t be another to compare to” and called for her immediate dismissal.
“A couple of months ago we had a meeting to show Kristina the direction we wanted her to go,” he said. “She has totally defied every bit of it.
“For not involving the city attorney to a baseball contract with the [School District of Rhinelander] without committee approval to no (organizational) chart to violent outbursts to riding with (fire chief) Terry [Williams] on (the citywide) inspection to department head favoritism to totally bungling the (public works director Tim) Kingman issue to working around committee chairs to illegally using utility billing info for inspection are far enough reasons for immediate dismissal.”
Last November, contrary to an organizational chart approved by council members in 2013 to have the public works director oversee the street, water and wastewater superintendents, Aschenbrenner didn’t receive council approval when she temporarily authorized herself, instead of Kingman, as the direct supervisor of superintendent of streets Tony Gilman and superintendent of water Tom Roeser.
That issue came up last month at a Finance, Wage and Salary Committee meeting when Pelletier took exception with Aschenbrenner overriding the City Council and Gleason alluded to personnel matters that he didn’t want to specify in open session leading up to Aschenbrenner issuing the directive in the first place.
Alderman Tom Kelly also made reference to Aschenbrenner having “mishandled (the) Tim Kingman issue” in the form he filled out, in which he noted he didn’t “have any positive feedback.”
Kelly indicated he was “very unsatisfied” with Aschenbrenner’s achievement of results, people management, program management and board-staff relationship.
“My understanding is that morale at City Hall is at an all-time low,” he said.
Council member Dawn Rog gave Aschenbrenner eight “very unsatisfied” rankings out of nine categories related to organizational responsibilities with only fiscal management getting the “satisfied” ranking. When evaluating Aschenbrenner’s personal leadership qualities, Rog noted Aschenbrenner had no “major strengths” and “needs to develop better leadership skills.”
“I ask myself what are the top-10 skills for a leader to be successful, and I find the administrator is substantially or completely lacking in some or all of these critical skills,” Rog said.
Along with noting in the review that Aschenbrenner lacked confidence, vision and people skills, Rog said the former city administrator created “significant tension among and between city employees, elected officials, and others.”
Alderman Alex Young also gave Aschenbrenner a “satisfied” ranking only for fiscal management with “unsatisfied” or “very unsatisfied” ratings in the other eight categories for organizational responsibilities.
For instance, Young noted “communications and public relations are areas gravely in need of improvement,” which had come to light with “several issues, particularly involving the parks.” He also expressed concern about Aschenbrenner not bringing items to the City Council for consideration.
“I am concerned the administrator at many times seems overwhelmingly to err on the side of not bringing items to the elected officials as opposed to bringing items for our consideration and has not developed the ability to use judgment in determining which issues should be considered by committees and the council,” Young said.
After being contacted for comment about the performance reviews, Aschenbrenner released a written statement:
“After reading the performance evaluations, it is clear that there were some individuals within the city who believed it was in their personal best interest to work behind the scenes and provide select council members with misleading and incorrect information,” she said. “It is unfortunate that decisions were made without research or obtaining facts. I hope the City Council can resolve their internal issues because the residents and employees deserve better. I have new opportunities ahead of me and I am excited about moving forward.” – Former Rhinelander city administrator Kristina Aschenbrenner
Under the terms of her contract as city administrator, Aschenbrenner was an “at-will” employee and could be terminated at any time without reason and without cause by a majority vote of the City Council. Upon being voted out of her job, she was entitled to receive severance pay equivalent to three months of her salary as well as accrued vacation pay for which she was eligible. Her annual salary was $85,000.
Read the council’s individual performance reviews of the former city administrator, obtained through an open records request by the Star Journal, below. Note: Alderperson Sherrie Belliveau did not submit a review.
Dawn Rog’s evaluation of Aschenbrenner here.
Tom Kelly’s evaluation of Aschenbrenner here.
Council President George Kirby’s evaluation of Aschenbrenner here.
Tom Gleason’s evaluation of Aschenbrenner here.
Steve Sauer’s evaluation of Aschenbrenner here.
Alex Young’s evaluation of Aschenbrenner here.
Mark Pelletier’s evaluation of Aschenbrenner here.