L.E. council lifts communication restrictions on Smith

Council members say it’s time to move forward

At its Jan. 20 meeting, the Lake Elmo City Council voted to lift restrictions placed on council member Anne Smith, which barred her from one-on-one communications with city staff.

Council members voted to censure Smith at the Sept. 2, 2014, council meeting when Smith was absent due to illness. The approved motion stipulated that another council member must be present when Smith speaks to any staff member face-to-face or over the phone.

At the September meeting, mayor Mike Pearson said the council had past discussions regarding staff interactions with the council, specifically staff communications with Smith.

“I know some significant concerns were brought to our attention, discussions were had, suggestions were made, and council member Smith had made commitments to improve,” he said at the time. “It’s my understanding that these incidents continue, and we have two areas of concern as I understand it. One is exposing the city to potential employment liability, and two is not recognizing the chain of command.”

At the time Pearson would not elaborate on the nature of the incidents, but said he and the council received a letter of complaint from a city staff member -- who was later identified by city attorney David Snyder as being city administrator Dean Zuleger -- alleging inappropriate interactions with staff. The allegations, Pearson noted, were not criminal or sexual in nature.

“It’s a personnel employment related matter,” Pearson told the Review at the time.

Communications restored

Council member Julie Fliflet added an item to the Jan. 13 city council meeting agenda to review restrictions imposed on Smith regarding staff communication. That item was tabled until the Jan. 20 meeting to allow new council members Fliflet and Jill Lundgren time to speak with city attorney David Snyder about the matter and to review data-privacy protected information on the restrictions placed on Smith.

When the item came up again at the Jan. 20 council meeting, Fliflet said she had an opportunity to “thoroughly review the situation,” and had discussed the matter with both Snyder and mayor Pearson.

“Without a doubt these things that have occurred are problematic and are things that are difficult to deal with,” she told the council. “But, based on the discussions I have had and based on assurances given to me by council member Smith, I feel the restriction imposed on council member Smith should be removed.”

Fliflet said she was confident that the situation would be appropriately managed in the future.

“I’m confident that this is the correct decision to make at this time,” she added.

Lundgren agreed, and said she also spoke with Snyder on the matter and felt comfortable lifting the communication restrictions between Smith and city staff.

Pearson said, although discomforting in a public arena, he felt the restrictions placed on Smith were appropriate at the time. He said there were few options available and the council acted in the best interest of the city.

“This was never about limiting free speech or access,” he said. “Now these events are troubling to me still, however, I’m going to support this in the spirit of moving forward. I feel it’s the right thing to do at this time.”

The mayor said it was important that residents, staff and the broader public audience know that the council is committed to getting back to business as usual and attending to more serious matters in the city.

Council member Justin Bloyer remarked that he felt much more comfortable now that council members Fliflet and Lundgren had adequate time to look into the situation and to discuss its different nuances. He said he would support lifting the restriction if they felt comfortable.

After the meeting concluded Smith, who abstained from the motion to rescind previous restrictions placed on her, said she was relieved the situation had been resolved.

“We can finally move forward,” she said.

Joshua Nielsen can be reached jnielsen@lillienews.com or 651-748-7822.

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