Meeker HRA board discusses mediation
By Jennifer Kotila
DASSEL, MN Meeker County Commissioner Tim Benoit (District 3) presented a petition calling for the resignation of board members Wally Strand and Amy Wilde at last Monday’s Meeker County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (Meeker HRA) meeting.
The petition, signed by 12 people, stated those who signed were “seeking an end to the controversy surrounding the Meeker HRA.” All but one of the petition signers are residents of Dassel Apartments.
The residents at the Dassel Apartments contacted Benoit, as their county commissioner, to present the petition at the Meeker HRA board meeting, Benoit said.
“With the new administration of the Dassel Apartments, and accomplishing much of what Meeker County wanted to establish here, it is now time for the current dysfunctional board to change also,” Benoit said in his statement to the board when presenting the petition.
He also noted that the residents at the apartments are saying “no” to mediation, because there is nothing to mediate (mediation was on the agenda for discussion under “old business).
“No amount of taxpayer money can ever reconcile this chasm that exists between these two board members and the residents of Dassel Apartments,” Benoit said, referring to the cost associated with mediation, which would be paid by Meeker HRA.
The petition called for the resignations of Strand and Wilde, to be effective on or before Tuesday, March 15.
“The board chair (Strand) and I have received complaints regarding the distribution of this petition,” Wilde responded at the meeting. “It appears that false and misleading information was used to solicit signatures. The situation is under advisement.”
When asked by Meeker HRA board member Lia Nistler what the complaints were, Wilde did not identify the complaints.
Although the petition was presented, no action was taken on it at the meeting.
“I don’t know if I have a further role with it, and I don’t know what the residents will do with it from this point,” Benoit said when contacted following the meeting.
When Wilde was contacted, she said, “I am extremely willing and hopeful that all sides will engage in mediation.”
Wilde also noted there were 12 signatures on the petition from people living at Dassel Apartments, but there are 25 public housing units and approximately 60 Section 8 vouchers, all of which are overseen by Meeker HRA board.
Residents who have concerns should bring those concerns to mediation for discussion, Wilde said.
When asked after the meeting about his thoughts on the petition, Strand said he looks forward to mediation, and if the mediator recommends his resignation, he will resign at that time.
When the issue of mediation was presented for discussion at the meeting, the majority of the board members spoke favorably about calling in a mediator to resolve the issues between the board and the residents.
The issue of mediation has been under discussion amongst the Meeker HRA board members since last June, when representatives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had been in attendance at a Meeker HRA meeting to try to resolve some issues.
The issues could not be resolved at the June meeting, and board members left the meeting angrily, leaving no quorum, according to meeting minutes.
The HUD representatives were asked if Meeker HRA could use its funds to pay for mediation, and the board was informed in July that it could.
Wilde and Board Member Maureen Melgaard-Schneider were appointed to a subcommittee to seek out mediation services.
At the September meeting of the Meeker HRA, members of the resident council were invited to be part of the mediation process in an attempt to overcome the issues it has been facing.
In October, the Meeker HRA board was informed by Melgaard-Schneider it could use Community Mediation Services of New Hope to conduct the mediation at a cost of $150 per session and a tentative date of Nov. 22 had been established.
The October meeting was a highly contentious meeting, and it was unclear whether or not members of the resident council would participate in mediation, so no action was taken.
Mediation was not brought to the table again until last Monday’s meeting of Meeker HRA.
“Mediation is not a bitch session, but a chance to get information from everyone and then work on the issues we have,” Melgaard-Schneider said.
Nistler did not see a benefit in mediation between the Meeker HRA board and the residents of Dassel Apartments.
She feels that trust between the Meeker HRA board and the residents has been damaged, and it would be a waste of money to try to mediate with the residents, she said.
Nothing has been done to apologize or make things right with the residents, and it is the problems amongst the board that need mediating, Nistler added.
Nistler said she believes all the issues would be resolved if Strand and Wilde resigned from the Meeker HRA board.
When Wilde pointed out that residents had issues and they should be able to talk to someone, Nistler said she would like the residents involved in mediation, “but I don’t want them led in thinking they should forget what has happened and what hurt them.”
Although no action was taken on the issue of mediation, Melgaard-Schneider moved to bring it up again next month, after the resident council has had a chance to decide whether or not it still wants to be involved with mediation.
Why the need for mediation?
The HUD representatives were at the Meeker HRA meeting last June to try to resolve issues that have plagued the Meeker HRA board over the course of the previous year.
One of the issues is the appointment of two county commissioners to the Meeker HRA board, which the executive director and other board members believed to be illegal.
That question has been addressed in a previous article, and it is not illegal for county commissioner to sit on the board of an HRA.
Another issue of concern occurred in October 2009, when a rumor began circulating that the Dassel Apartments were to be converted to assisted living apartments.
Residents at the apartments, fearful they would lose their housing, began writing letters to the Enterprise Dispatch voicing their disapproval of the apartments being converted to assisted living.
In an attempt to dispel the rumors, Wilde and Strand went to the Dassel Apartments one Friday afternoon to try to talk to Sandy Tischer, who was the executive director at that time, according to transcripts from the investigation into the alleged assaults.
Tischer was not in the Meeker HRA office at the time, so Wilde and Strand decided to talk to some of the residents to reassure them the apartments would not be converted.
Wilde and Strand also asked some residents where they had received the information about the conversion.
The following Monday, Strand and Wilde went back to the Meeker HRA office to speak with Tischer about the rumors, at which time Tischer accused Strand and Wilde of abusing the residents the previous Friday.
That Thursday, the Meeker County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call from former Meeker HRA Board Member Darrin Packard about an assault that had occurred at the Dassel Apartments the previous Friday, according to a Meeker County Sheriff’s report.
When a deputy arrived at the Dassel Apartments, there was a roomful of people that included residents of the apartments, Packard, Tischer, and her assistant, Tamara Switters.
In order to sort out what had occurred, the deputy asked to speak only to the people who were allegedly assaulted or had witnessed the assault.
Although Packard, Tischer, and Switters were not present at the time of the alleged assaults, Tischer informed the deputy she had a meeting to get to, and to speak to Switters for background information on the situation, according to the report.
The deputy recorded each of the alleged victims’ statements, as well as a lengthy conversation with Switters, who spoke very little about the alleged assault.
Instead, she focused on telling the deputy that county commissioners Strand and Wilde were appointed to the Meeker HRA board illegally, it was a conflict of interest for them to be on the board, and they only wanted to merge the Meeker County Economic Development Authority (Meeker EDA) and the Meeker HRA because “the EDA was negative in finances,” according to the transcript of the conversation.
The rumor of merging the HRA and EDA was also addressed in a previous Enterprise Dispatch article, and it has not been brought to the table at the county level, which is where a merger like that would begin.
Switters also admitted to the deputy that Tischer had asked the Meeker HRA board about bringing in home health services for some of the residents for things such as footcare, which had been brought to the most recent meeting.
“Amy Wilde’s friend, Maureen (Meeker HRA board member Maureen Melgaard-Schneider) had given her (Tischer) assisted living paperwork portraying that it was geared towards what Sandy was trying to do, but in essence it said that it was to get grants and start converting these units, a couple at a time, into assisted living,” Switters told the deputy.
Switters also said the residents had come to the Meeker HRA office concerned about when they would have to move out and to ask for assistance in e-mailing or faxing letters to the editor.
When the deputy asked Switters what made the residents feel intimidated by Wilde and Strand, Switters replied, “Because, they’re walking around here like they own the place, and because, now that they’re board members and different things, that they could just come in here and throw themselves around like they wanted to.”
Switters added, “[The residents] also have been concerned of whether or not Sandy and myself are going to have a job because of how they’re (Wilde and Strand), you know, coming in here and thinking they’re going to take over.”
When talking about what happened the afternoon of the alleged assaults, specifically, Switters told the deputy, “Amy Wilde approached a couple of different people, calling them liars and touching them, you know, with making them feel uncomfortable, and just going door-to-door, was intimidating to the residents.”
Because the complaint involved Meeker County commissioners, the investigation was turned over to the Wright County Sheriff’s Office, which found no grounds for charging Wilde and Strand with assault.
The Sherburne County attorney also reviewed the investigations and found no evidence for charging Strand and Wilde.
Although neither sheriff’s office or the Sherburne County attorney found grounds to charge Strand and Wilde with assault, there is a small group of people who do not believe the investigations were thorough because the investigator did not interview the victims of the assault.
However, both the Wright County Sheriff’s Office and the Sherburne County attorney had the transcripts of the Meeker County Sheriff’s deputy’s interviews of the victims.
Most the members of the Meeker HRA board have said they hope that mediation will help to overcome this issue, as well as the issue about whether or not county commissioners should be allowed to sit on the Meeker HRA board.
Meeker HRA is moving forward with the auditors from Babcock, Langbein and Company, rather than starting an audit with Westberg Eischens (it was mistakenly reported last month that the current auditor was Benusa, Gruber, Meyers, and Associates; rather than Babcock, Langbein and Company).
Although another auditor was recommended by HUD, the Meeker HRA decided at last month’s meeting that if Babcock, Langbein and Company was charging it for services already provided, the HRA would move forward with them.
Babcock, Langbein and Company have been given all the information needed to complete the 2010 audit.
When the payment of all bills was open for discussion at last Monday’s meeting, Nistler questioned why the caretaker, Gary Gilberts, was being paid by the Meeker HRA when Kandiyohi County HRA’s contract clearly states caretaking expenses will be paid by the Kandiyohi County HRA.
Rather than answering her question, Strand called for a vote on the motion to pay all bills, which passed 4-0, with board members Melgaard-Schneider, Rebecca Warpula, Wilde, and Strand voting in favor, and Nistler abstaining.
When asked about this after the meeting, Strand said Gilberts was hired as an employee of Meeker HRA before Kandiyohi HRA became the managers.
Since Gilberts has now resigned effective the end of February, any new caretakers will be paid for through the fee provided to Kandiyohi County HRA for management of Meeker HRA.
Strand was also asked why Nistler’s question was not answered during last Monday’s meeting. “I have no idea,” he replied.
Ed. note: The online version of this story has been modified for clarification.