By Ivan Raconteur
Council, fire dept. at odds over alleged conflicts of interest
NEW GERMANY, MN A large contingent of New Germany Fire Department members and their wives filled the council chambers during the Dec. 20 city council meeting to voice opposition to statements by city attorney Dave Hubert that the offices of fire chief and city council are incompatible.
Council Member Steve VanLith has served on the council and as fire chief for many years.
During the Dec. 6 meeting, Hubert told the council that the offices are incompatible, meaning that one individual cannot serve in both offices at the same time.
There was some discussion about the issue, but no action was taken, nor did the council take action on the proposed slate of fire department officers for 2012, which included reappointing VanLith as chief.
The topic surfaced again during the public comment of the Dec. 20 meeting.
An intense discussion continued for more than an hour and a quarter before the agenda for the meeting was approved.
Dan Ruschmeier, assistant fire chief, was the first to speak.
He took issue with the council failing to approve any of the officers for 2012.
He noted this has not happened before in the more than 100 years of the department’s existence.
He suggested the council has a vendetta against one person (VanLith).
Council Member Jim Paul said that is not the case.
Mayor Jason Kamerud said it is not a vendetta, and the city attorney’s advice is based on an attorney general’s opinion.
VanLith said both Kamerud and Paul serving on the council are conflicts of interest because Kamerud is employed by the Carver County Sheriff’s Office, and Paul’s wife is a member of the New Germany Fire Department.
VanLith questioned why he was singled out, and why the other alleged conflicts weren’t addressed by the council.
VanLith said because Kamerud works for the sheriff’s office, he cannot vote on any matter related to the sheriff’s office. He also said Paul voted in favor of approval of a pension plan change for the fire department, even after VanLith advised him to abstain.
VanLith said there is no state law preventing him from holding both offices, and suggested the council could approve some sort of variance, similar to a zoning variance, to allow him to continue to serve both offices.
Kamerud said he does not write the sheriff’s contracts; this is done by attorneys. He also said he is not the sheriff. He noted that, as mayor, he has a statutory duty to sign contracts on behalf of the city.
He did, however, agree to abstain from votes and discussions related to the sheriff’s office in the future.
Several times during the meeting, Kamerud said he does not have a problem with VanLith, and noted that no one is questioning his service to the city or the way he has performed his duties.
Kamerud read the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) statement on incompatible offices.
He said according to the league and to the attorney general’s 1971 opinion, the offices of city council and fire chief are incompatible.
The question was raised why the issue was brought up now.
Kamerud noted that a previous letter from the city attorney advised the council that the offices were incompatible, but the previous city council chose not to address this.
He noted that when he was elected, one of the first things he did was to read the LMC manual, and learned that the offices were incompatible.
It would be prudent for the city to follow the advice of its attorney, Kamerud said.
Paul said the council represents everyone in the city, not just those who are members of the fire department.
Kamerud told VanLith that the reason VanLith’s situation is different is because he is a department head.
Gerald Roepke said he was chairman of the fire department for many years, and one difference between New Germany and the department on which the attorney general’s opinion is based is the chief in that department had much more power, including running meetings and appointing his officers.
In New Germany, Roepke said, the chairman runs the meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order, and the chief cannot make decisions without approval of the majority of the department.
Eric Roepke, not VanLith, is the president of the department.
“He (VanLith) is only one vote,” Ruschmeier said.
He accused the council of picking on one person, and said VanLith has abstained from all votes related to the fire department.
“I have never seen him try to sway a vote,” Council Member Shirley Jaeger said. “He brings us information.”
“We had almost exactly the same meeting 10 years ago,” Jaeger added. “Steve has been on the council 27 years and on the fire department 20 years.”
“If there is a problem, you would have heard about it,” Ruschmeier said.
Paul replied that some people in the city are careful about what they say because there will be “push-back” if they question certain things.
“You want to change everything,” Ruschmeier said, addressing the council.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” Council Member Marc Trujillo said.
Kamerud said he is more interested in procedure than some previous councils were. He noted changes that have been made regarding the running of meetings and the implementation of purchasing procedures.
He specifically mentioned a fire department purchase that involved ongoing costs for the city, and noted that the council is responsible for approving expenditures.
Ruschmeier noted that the policy has since been changed.
“Yes, kicking and screaming the whole way,” Kamerud replied.
Comments were made by fire department members to the effect that the fire department is the face of the city of New Germany, and the council was advised to “weigh the risks” of challenging something that has been in place this long.
One member noted that there seems to be some inconsistencies between the New Germany Fire Department and the one on which the decision was based.
It was noted that “once he (VanLith) leaves a fire scene, he is no different than anyone else.”
However, despite the protestations by fire department members that, in the New Germany Fire Department, the chief has no more power than anyone else, Ruschmeier and others said no other New Germany Fire Department member is ready or willing to take on the chief position. It was suggested that VanLith is the only person qualified for this job.
Kamerud said he would need to find out if the facts in New Germany make the two situations significantly different.
Ruschmeier asked Kamerud what the council wants.
Kamerud said this is VanLith’s choice, (whether to keep the council or chief position).
VanLith indicated he is not willing to make that choice.
“The attorney said by accepting the fire chief office, he is resigning from the council,” Kamerud said.
VanLith said he is the only fireman and council member in town during the day, and there will be a lot of things going on in the city next year.
Another fire department member noted that change is not easy in a small town, and if something isn’t broken, maybe the council shouldn’t fix it.
It was suggested that the council and the department should work together without bickering to do what is best for both sides.
“What we said is our concern is someone holding both offices. There may be a crack here. We are trying to fix that, we are not against Steve or the fire department,” Kamerud said. “Part of the job is to do what people want, and part is to provide good governance. Sometimes, they are not the same thing,” Kamerud said.
“I don’t think anyone in this town realizes who is the mayor,” Ruschmeier said, suggesting that Kamerud is unknown. He said if anyone has a problem or an issue, they take it to VanLith.
Kamerud said he would send a letter to the LMC and ask the league’s attorney to provide an opinion on the situation based upon the facts.
VanLith predicted the league’s attorney will say the same thing as the city attorney
There was some discussion about the council “pushing” the fire department, and the department “pushing” the council.
“I want you to go home tonight and look in the mirror and ask yourself what is the right thing to do to keep peace in this town,” Gerald Roepke said, addressing the council. “There are times when you let a sleeping dog lie.”