At a special meeting Monday night, the Crookston City Council conducted a “confidence vote” on City Administrator Tony Chladek, who’s been on the job for a little more than a year, and when the council deadlocked 4-4, Mayor Dave Genereux broke the tie in Chladek’s favor.
So where does everyone go from here? Well, as has been a pretty much constant theme since Chladek was hired in early 2012, he will continue to know, likely in more specific detail than ever, the areas in which the council, or at least half the council, wants him to improve.
“I love my job, I love working with you guys, and I know what my marching orders are,” Chladek said after the vote, adding that he looks forward to an opportunity to speak to some of the prominent community members and business people who, according to some council members, are concerned about his job performance. “I like it here in Crookston and want to raise my family here. This is where I want to stay, so let’s work toward that,” he said.
The special meeting was unusual, in that the vast majority of the time when meetings of such a nature are called to discuss a specific employee’s performance, state statute allows the meeting to be closed due to data privacy issues. That was the case in December, the last time the council evaluated Chladek’s performance. But this time, upon being informed that some council members had called for Monday’s special meeting, Chladek on Friday exercised a legal option available to him by signing the necessary documentation to make the meeting open to the public.
Council members Dana Johnson, Wayne Melbye, Tom Jorgens and Bob Quanrud cast no confidence votes in Chladek. Council members Tom Vedbraaten, Keith Mykleseth, Hector Santellanes and Dale Stainbrook expressed confidence in him with their votes. Genereux, who spoke largely in defense of Chladek throughout the special meeting, didn’t hesitate before voting in the city administrator’s favor. Santellanes, who’s been on the council for only three months, said he didn’t feel entirely comfortable voting on Chladek’s performance after such a short time. But, after having some early disagreements with the city administrator, Santellanes said he deserves a second chance, especially if the council provides him some clear objectives on areas he needs to improve. Mykleseth, who announced at the council’s regular meeting earlier Monday evening that he’s accepted a job with the DNR in Bemidji and will be resigning from the council and leaving Crookston, said he preferred to abstain from voting since he’d be leaving. But, encouraged by other council members and City Attorney Chuck Fitzgerald to vote yea or nay, Mykleseth, who said very little at the special meeting and instead told the council the feelings he expressed at the December evaluation remained the same now, voted yea.
Page 2 of 5 - Confidence
Johnson and Melbye were the most vocal and brunt in their criticism of Chladek, but among the four who voted against him, the clear theme was “confidence,” with the four council members repeatedly saying that over time they have lost confidence in Chladek’s ability to do the duties demanded of the city administrator. Johnson said Chladek too often rode on the “skirt-tails” of others who were doing the real work on the housing, economic development and downtown fronts. Melbye echoed Johnson’s sentiment, saying Chladek had ridden on CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth’s “coat-tails” on the Barrette Estates housing development, part of the Crookston Workforce Housing Homestead Act.
Melbye said he pushed for Monday’s special meeting because at the last evaluation in December, he said a couple council members, in an apparent informal vote on Chladek’s performance, didn’t voice a vote either way. He said there was no real closure or direction in December, but Genereux responded by saying that if a council member does not voice a nay vote, he takes that to mean that the council member doesn’t want to make a change in the city administrator position.
“I guess I felt that everything was satisfactory,” Vedbraaten said of the outcome of the December evaluation. “We’ve asked Tony to do some things and he’s done some things. I don’t really see why we’re even having this meeting.”
Johnson repeatedly mentioned the “prominent people” in the community and “business leaders” who are concerned about the city’s direction under Chladek’s leadership. To put it more “blunt,” Melbye added, people in the community feel that Chladek doesn’t take a leadership role, he’s not forthright in how he gets things done, and that since he’s been hired, momentum the council and community had been experiencing has stopped. Melbye said he often doesn’t feel he has the information he needs from Chladek to make sound decisions on various matters. “I lack the confidence in Tony to get some things done,” Melbye said. “I’m sorry, Tony, but I don’t think you have that type of imagination, education or finesse to handle the things that are going on in the city, and there are a lot of things moving right now.”
Melbye said Chladek may go to lots of meetings, but he rarely has much in the way of input or ideas to add to various discussions. When the council hired Chladek, Melbye said they knew finance wasn’t his strong suit. But, he continued, they were comfortable in knowing that then-City Clerk/Treasurer Betty Arvidson could ease him along. But when she left to become CFO at RiverView Health and the less experienced Angel Hoeffner was hired as her successor, Melbye said the council and community needed Chladek to step it up on the finance front, but he hasn’t.
Page 3 of 5 - With it appearing more and more likely that Cobblestone Hotels will break ground this year on Crookston’s north end, Quanrud said he asked a Cobblestone “insider” what role Chladek had played in the deal. “They said if they’d waited for you to get going on it, it would have never happened,” Quanrud said to Chladek in the city hall council chambers. “A city administrator has to put his thumb print on something like that, not just go to a meeting and not say anything.”
Quanrud said it’s not fair to compare Chladek to his predecessor, Aaron Parrish, who was seen as an innovator and leader during his seven years here before leaving for a job in Forest Lake, Minn. “But we hired you to be a leader, and that’s what you said you could do, but I’m not seeing it from you,” Quanrud said, adding that Chladek should be juggling five or 10 separate things a day, but it seems as though he can only handle one or two things at a time. “I just don’t have the confidence in you, and I’m not going to apologize for saying it, not with what you sold us on yourself when you applied here.”
Genereux said council members doing “things they’re not supposed to do” isn’t helping Chladek’s cause. He’s referring to the Downtown Square and the city’s interest in purchasing the property instead of simply leasing it. The Ways & Means Committee two weeks ago directed Chladek to contact the property owner to initiate a meeting, and he said he did so, leaving a message that the owner returned earlier Monday. But in the meantime, Melbye, who heads up the committee working on the Downtown Square, contacted the owner and a meeting is scheduled for Thursday afternoon. “The direction from the council was for Tony to call her. Tony,” Chladek said. “Then I hear a council member had jumped on it.”
Jorgens said he was an early Chladek supporter, but by the December evaluation, he was “neutral.” Now, he said his confidence has waned. The city administrator needs to be dynamic, a leader, a cheerleader and a rallying point, he said. “Unfortunately, I haven’t seen what I’m looking for, so I’m disappointed,” he said.
Longtime council member Frank Lindgren, who didn’t run for re-election and has been off the council since Dec. 31, attended the meeting and said from the audience that, even though he may be somewhat out of the loop now, he thinks the biggest problem lies in the council, not in the city administrator. “Within two months you started complaining about Tony; you never gave him a chance as far as I’m concerned. You’re constantly firing on him. Anyone who works with that much negativity and is still here is doing well,” Lindgren said, adding that nameless complaints from the community are difficult to respond to. “I just don’t understand what you’re saying that he’s not doing. He’s just getting shot at all the time, and I don’t think you guys know what you want, I really don’t.”
Page 4 of 5 - Chamber President/CEO Shannon Stassen, also in the audience, spoke up even though he said he wasn’t sure if he should. But he said he’s been on the job about as long as Chladek, and that they have a “very good” working relationship. As far as business leaders having issues with the city administrator, Stassen said he “doesn’t know about that stuff.” If complimenting Chladek’s performance “hurts me with some sectors of the community, so be it, but I have to speak the truth,” he said.
Genereux cautioned that if Chladek was let go, it might be tougher than some council members think to hire a highly qualified successor. Word would get out that the City of Crookston is a difficult place to work, he said. “It’s going to be tough, I’ll just leave it at that,” the mayor said.
Asked by Jorgens prior to the vote to respond to what he’d heard, Chladek said he was told at the December evaluation to “get more shots on goal” and that’s what he’s tried to do in the months since. He told council members to look at all of the important agenda items on Monday’s council and committee agendas, which included things for Drafts Sports Bar & Grill, Cobblestone Hotel, Barrette Street housing, the Downtown Square, and other matters. “There’s a lot going on out there,” he said. But, he added, if the council wanted someone to jump up and down on the table and proclaim what ideas are his specifically or every single thing he’s done, then “I’m not the right guy for the job, because I don’t work that way,” Chladek said, raising his voice slightly. “I work as part of a team. I work through people.”
Had the vote gone against Chladek, he wouldn’t necessarily have been let go. Melbye said he was open to the option of taking other steps in the wake of a no confidence vote, such as putting Chladek on probationary status, but as it stands, he will remain on the job with a narrow vote of confidence in his favor. Genereux told council members to think about specific areas they’d like to see more progress on and detail them for Chladek.
“Give Tony a constructive map,” the mayor said. “After tonight, I think he has a pretty good idea of what people are talking about and looking for.”
Melbye told Chladek he hopes he takes the comments to heart. “None of us have our own agendas; we’re on the team, too,” Melbye said. “This is the first time I’ve heard you have any emotion about anything. Maybe we touched the nerve that’s going to get some things done.”
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