Monday night's meeting of the Rhinelander Common Council started with an appeal from the mayor to focus on the city's positive qualities and ended with the council president asking the city administrator to clarify controversial statements about city alderpersons and employees included in his annual work plan.
Chris Frederickson used the mayor's welcome portion of the meeting to appeal to those in the gallery, and the public at large, to keep the positive aspects of the Rhinelander community in mind this week.
"I want to thank the people in the gallery, and our media, and our department heads and our council for participating in government, but sometimes it's strange," Frederickson said. "So what I ask you to do this week is reflect on the good things that are here in Rhinelander; the people, the places, the stuff we have in common. It hurts me to know that right now if you Google us, we'd be looked at as a place of turmoil, a place that is kind of a joke right now.
And there is a whole lot of good in this city, in amongst the people, and I ask that you do look at that and express some of that this week. And I thank you for that."
The meeting continued without incident until the subject of expanding the city's contract with the law firm of von Briesen and Roper of Oshkosh came up.
This is the firm Frederickson retained to conduct an investigation into a "no confidence" letter signed by five city employees and presented to the council March 11. The mayor has used the city's existing contracts with the firm to justify using it to lead the new investigation.
The "no confidence" letter - signed by public works director Tim Kingman, city clerk Val Foley, assistant clerk Mary Stoll, utility clerk Beth Mannikko and administrative assistant Stephanie Rajnicek - expressed concerns regarding city administrator Daniel Guild's ability to lead the city.
James R. Lacy of von Briesen and Roper was in attendance at a special council meeting April 4 that ended with. a vote to terminate the city's contract with its current attorney, Carrie Miljevich.
At that time, alderperson Dawn Rog and council chairman George Kirby asked for an explanation as to who had hired Lacy and questioned whether it would be appropriate for him to advise the council on terminating Miljevich's contract.
On Monday, Kirby and Rog raised red flags on the question of expanding the city's contract with the firm to take over Miljevich's duties when she leaves May 31.
Kirby noted that Frederickson told the council at the April 4 special meeting that he had unilateral authority to use the firm under an existing contract and that a new one wasn't needed.
"That was with HR (Human Resources), which is the part they had with us in the past," Frederickson replied. "So this is a gap coverage for the municipality. If we were to hire one right away, their law firm has 219 lawyers in which they've identified as municipal lawyers that would fill in until we get that spot (city attorney) filled. We have Carrie for about the next 50 days."
Kirby asked if the contract was needed right away since the city has time to search for a replacement for Miljevich.
"You really can't add another law firm without council approval," Kirby pointed out.
Frederickson agreed but noted the prolonged search period that ended when Guild was hired on Sept. 10, 2018 should serve as a reminder as to how slow the council can be to make a decision.
"This is just so we have this for after 50 days, we would want that gap coverage," Frederickson said.
Under further questioning from Kirby, the mayor said Lacy's only work for the city at present is leading the investigation into the "no confidence" letter. He said the firm would assign a municipal lawyer to fill in for Miljevich after May 31.
"So we are going to be billed $275 an hour for anything that comes up in the meantime, any investigator's reports or any type of HR complaint?" Kirby asked.
"Correct," Frederickson replied. "Rick Hermus is working for him..."
"OK, who is paying Rick Hermus?" Kirby asked, referring to a former Village of Kimberly administrator.
(In a press release issued Friday, Frederickson stated that Hermus "has no history with any of the current people involved," in the investigation, however the River News has obtained an email sent from Guild's city account March 8 in which he refers to Hermus as a "trusted colleague." When the River News requested the mayor clarify his statement that Hermus has "no history" with any of the parties involved in the investigation, Frederickson emailed the following statement: "I have been assured that he is impartial and his knowledge of each other (sic) is in no way personal." The River News has requested the mayor clarify this statement, but he has not responded. Guild has also failed to respond to a request to clarify what, if any, connection exists between himself and Hermus).
After Frederickson replied "we are" to the question of who is paying Hermus, Kirby pressed for more information.
"Where is this money coming from?" he asked.
"From my budget," the mayor replied.
"You only have $500 left in your (legal services) budget," Kirby observed.
"We'll get it done," the mayor assured, without explaining where the money would come from.
Kirby tried again to get the mayor to commit to a funding source. He also noted the firm's existing contracts are to defend the city in two Dark Store lawsuits and for work related to police and fire union negotiations.
Frederickson then offered to get a senior member of von Briesen and Roper on the phone to assure the council everything that has taken place thus far is legal.
"So if he (Lacy) was hired to do investigative work for you, how did you end up firing Carrie?" Kirby asked.
"He didn't fire Carrie," Frederickson shot back. "And he wasn't investigating for me, he was investigating for the city."
Kirby then asked why Lacy led the closed session portion of the special meeting which ended in Miljevich's termination.
"He didn't," Frederickson said.
"He didn't? What happened? That's what happened," Kirby insisted. "Who asked (Miljevich) to leave the room and said she could not partake in that session?"
Alderperson Steve Sauer pointed out that the city's existing contract with the firm was not on that evening's agenda and therefore further discussion would violate the open meetings law.
"I'm asking you questions about the attorney you hired out of sequence," Kirby said, addressing Frederickson. "And that is a question that I think is a legitimate question."
Sauer, however, was ready to move forward immediately. He made a motion to approve the contract expansion as submitted.
"Aren't we being a little premature with 50 days away?" interjected alderperson Lee Emmer.
Emmer also noted it could be very costly for city taxpayers if individual alderpersons contact the firm with questions as they do now with Miljevich.
"Now it's going to kick in where they are going to charge $275 an hour if they are going to pursue it," Emmer said. "Where is the control?"
Rog pointed out that von Briesen and Roper charges significantly higher rates which could potentially strain the city's legal services budget.
"Carrie's service cost us $140 (per hour) where it will jump to $275 (with von Briesen)," she pointed out. "And we're over budget on several other items. I think this will make the city over budget once again."
Sauer said the firm's hourly rates are higher for labor negotiations then they would be for municipal services.
"Since they are on standby, I guess it doesn't do us any harm," he said, adding that only the council as a whole can direct a question to the city attorney.
"Just because the way we've been doing things up to this point is for each of us individually to make that phone call, does not mean it's the correct way of doing business," Sauer said. "And I guess that would be a concern that I would have in perhaps we're spending money without council's approval."
Having a firm that already does legal work for the city willing to take on additional duties is a plus, he added.
"I feel comfortable moving forward with having them as a stopgap," Sauer said, adding the contract can be terminated at any time.
However, after alderman Tom Kelly suggested that the matter be tabled until the April 22 meeting, Sauer withdrew the motion.
Later in the meeting, Kirby questioned Guild about statements he included in the conclusion to the work plan he submitted to the council earlier this spring. The board approved the plan March 25, while Kirby was absent.
At issue is this paragraph: "Unfortunately, during my formative early months of employment with the city, I personally had interactions with drunk council members, dishonest council members, council members who intentionally disrupted planned strategy and work product efforts, council members releasing closed session and attorney-client privileged information, and council members who bully, harass, defame, and outright lie publicly in both traditional and online social media."
(Although the language used, including the words "I personally had interactions," indicates Guild was reporting his own personal experiences with alderpersons, rather than experiences reported to him by other stakeholders during interviews, he has thus far refused to say when, where or with whom the alleged interactions took place or whether there were any witnesses present).
Kirby continued to urge Guild to be specific as to the allegations, which he claims have besmirched the city.
"I think to have this discussion in open session would probably not be the most productive," Guild replied.
When Kirby kept pushing, Guild offered this statement.
"The annual work plan is not about the conclusion, the annual work plan is about observations that I have made after interviewing over 100 people, employees, business owners, residents, stakeholders throughout the community," Guild said. "And I think that the biggest takeaway that people should grab from the plan is that there are employees, of which over 100 souls work for the city of Rhinelander, that have had various experiences and moments that have been less than ideal, which, if we can identify and address, hopefully we can prevent those things from happening in the future."
"You didn't answer my question," Kirby observed.
"No, I took it in a different direction," Guild responded.
"Daniel, I want to know why you put this in your work plan?" Kirby asked. "You put a lot of blame on the council members for a lot of the faults that really came out in the six months of you, of your time here."
"When you read through the work plan, that's kind of the bottom line here, a lot of it is unfair," he continued, noting that the report Guild presented to the council was "not what we were looking for."
"I wasn't here to really challenge this," Kirby added. "And I'm challenging it now. And I think you, as the administrator, should be a straight-forward gentleman and answer the question that I asked you."
Guild did not budge.
"I think that as an administrator, I am perfectly capable of identifying behaviors that all of us should aspire to not see happening in the organization versus wanting to identify individuals," he replied. "My work plan was my own observations and my own opinions about behaviors that I have seen during my time. If people look at that work plan and they talk to people, they talk to business people, they talk to stakeholders, and they can't come up with any of the observations or experiences that I have come up with, then I would say there is something to worry about."
"I am answering the question, I'm just not answering it exactly the way you want me to," the administrator added. "I feel that it would not have any value."
Posted: Thursday, April 11, 2019
Article comment by:
You have two men in the mayor and the administrator who want to make our city better. Always professional and do not get baited into petty arguments with certain alderman(Kirby,Rog). News coverage by the media has shown time after time of Kirby and Rog always trying to continue the petty games and undue drama. Daniel Guilds comments in his work plan are his observations of the people he has interacted with in his short time here. He is entitled to his observations and how he feels the city needs to move forward. Himself and the mayor are above playing the mudslinging game and petty arguments.
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