No matter what the reality is, perception is a critical part of the battle. Whether those perceptions are accurate is of little significance; if a lot of people mistakenly think something to be true, it's going to take a heck of a lot of effort to steer them toward the truth.
That first paragraph probably could have been written hundreds of years ago. But in this digital age with communication threads mushrooming before our eyes in the blink of an eye, the previous paragraph might as well be re-typed and bold-faced with all capital letters and 50 exclamation points.
Which brings us to the current state of affairs with the Crookston City Council and City Administrator Shannon Stassen. Whether Stassen is still on the job next week, next month, or six months from now, the perception is out there, the damage is done.
Because the perception is that this council and Mayor Wayne Melbye's administration are messed up. And what can or should the council do to remedy this? Conduct a super-tight vote to keep Stassen on the job? Conduct a super-tight vote to terminate him? Offer him a sweet severance package and hope he resigns? None of those options will improve the current situation one iota, because each would at the least perpetuate and more than likely pour gas on the notion that current council is dysfunctional, populated by a mix of elected officials who have their hearts in the right place and are trying to do what's best for Crookston, and elected officials who are putting their personal agendas first, positive productivity be damned. Whether it's 5-3 to terminate Stassen, 5-3 to retain Stassen, or a 4-4 deadlock that Melbye is forced to break, within Crookston's borders and extending beyond Crookston, the perception that Crookston’s leadership team is a mess will flirt dangerously close with reality.
And that was before dozens of people packed the council chambers last Thursday to witness a meeting that adjourned a minute after it was convened. The way that meeting was scheduled in the first place and the reasons it was immediately adjourned – at least the reasons detailed to the Times – border on embarrassing. On the bright side, it seems that a least a couple decision-makers seem to acknowledge that the current state of affairs is unacceptable and must improve.
That's not to say that complete harmony and agreement is the absolute preferred method of getting things done on the Crookston City Council, either. No one is saying this council and administration have to run like a seamless, well-oiled machine all of the time. That's not possible, and likely not even desirable. Some dissension is good.
Stassen’s predecessor as city administrator, Tony Chladek, seemed like a bad fit from the get-go. He was extremely qualified, matter-of-fact and slick, probably too slick, and he clashed with some council members and other officials and various appointees almost from day one. The council that hired him made a mistake. It was awkward at best and ugly at the worst when Chladek was unceremoniously fired at a council meeting and he had to get up and walk out of the chambers.
So that council, perhaps predictably, did a 180-degree turn and hired Stassen, who was under-qualified to be city administrator. But he was local, he was a nice guy, and he could communicate with people in an inclusive, easy-going manner. He was the anti-Chladek, and as one person put it to the Times, it took the “perfect storm” for the council to go from Chladek to Stassen.
In addition to his pleasant, welcoming persona, Stassen has championed things for the community that are interesting and exciting to talk about, things that relate to attracting people to Crookston's high "quality of life." But after the November 2016 election, Stassen's way of doing things started to wear thin with the new council he was tasked to work with, and the way he communicates, the way he manages and works with or doesn’t work with people and some of the decisions he’s made were and continue to be intensely scrutinized. There’s a belief among some that Stassen also hasn’t done enough to further his expertise as an administrator, in the form of various training sessions, certifications, and other educational opportunities. This angle seems to be growing more prominent by the day. Stassen has done some things, but apparently not enough. But he was hired four years ago; shouldn't this red flag have been risen earlier?
Had the council and Melbye not immediately adjourned last Thursday's special meeting, who knows how long it would have gone? It seemed as if almost every person packed into the chambers was prepared to step to the podium and voice support for Stassen. What a circus that would have been.
Whether or not that public display of support still needs to occur at some point remains to be seen. Maybe just the fact that the room was overflowing with Stassen supporters was enough to make the point. But here's the deal: The council members who want Stassen's tenure as city administrator to end need to also speak publicly, in detail and with tremendous honesty, why they want him gone. If he is dismissed at any point and the people who vote to dismiss him are never compelled to publicly state the list of things they have against him, then they're getting off easy.
There seems to be a lot of communication taking place out of the public eye, and various alliances are being formed in the shadows. If a couple people want to chat about things, that's fine, and disseminating basic information to a group is fine, too. But if you're communicating in any fashion in a group setting, whether it's over coffee, sitting in someone's office or emailing, and you're offering opinions or trying to sway opinions, that's not legal in the eyes of the open meeting law.
Firing Chladek was difficult. There were council members who thought he was getting a raw deal. Replacing him with Stassen was no picnic, either. There were council members who wanted to hire another finalist, or start the entire search process over. And throughout the entire saga, there were council members who wondered aloud how dysfunctional the council and possibly the entire City of Crookston operation must look, both within the community and beyond, because of all the turmoil, nit-picking and back-biting.
The applicant pool that resulted in Stassen’s hiring was more like a puddle at the end of your driveway. It wouldn’t have drowned an ant. You think you’re going to lure a Mariana Trench of applicants if Stassen goes? What applicant without a closet already bursting with skeletons would want this job?
Take the high road and work this out. End these turf wars, even if it means giving up a bit of your real estate.
A famous advice columnist long ago advised those who wrote letters seeking counsel on whether or not to leave their relationships to take a careful look at their situation and ask themselves honestly if they felt they were better off with the person, or without.
Is Crookston better off with Stassen, or without? If a handful of people among the powers-that-be choose the latter, then we’d all better hang on, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.