Divisions, rifts and disagreements seemed as cavernous and unresolved as ever Tuesday night at city hall, as those elected and hired to lead the City of Crookston clashed over topics likely familiar to their constituents who have been paying attention over the past couple years or so, as well as some new topics, too.
Here’s a rundown of what transpired:
CHEDA, Hoiseth, Stassen and the council
The Crookston City Council last fall voted 6-2 in favor of allocating an additional $350,000 to CHEDA in 2019 for Executive Director Craig Hoiseth and his board of directors to invest in various strategic fashions that boost economic development, the local workforce, housing or other large-scale initiatives.
Hoiseth’s initial “wish list” was modified, some his own doing, but he also made changes at the suggestion of others to make the wish list more agreeable to council members at the time.
The CHEDA Board earlier this spring held a strategic planning session to discuss ways the money could potentially be invested. Tim Denney, who’s been involved in various initiatives related to downtown and other things in the community, arrived about halfway through the session and subsequently questioned the process that led to the council approving the $350,000. City Administrator Shannon Stassen participated in the discussion as well, referring to Hoiseth’s initial wish list.
At last week’s CHEDA Board meeting, At Large Council Member Bobby Baird attended and stated at the start of the meeting that he thought Stassen owed CHEDA an apology for what had transpired at the previous CHEDA planning session.
At the conclusion of Tuesday night’s council Ways & Means Committee meeting, Ward 5 Council Member Dale Stainbrook called out Baird, not by name at first, for what he’d said at the May 21 CHEDA Board meeting. “It was not the place and time and it was uncalled for,” Stainbrook said, adding that if Baird had “done his homework,” he would have learned that Mayor Guy Martin had already “taken care of it.” In response, Baird wondered how the mayor had taken care of the matter and when he had done so. Martin said he’d addressed the matter “a few days after” the CHEDA planning session. Stainbrook added that Baird should talk to Martin or possibly Stassen “if you want to know what the outcome was.”
Stainbrook went on to say that Baird was “out of line” and that he could bring up some “fun facts” about him, too, if he wanted. Baird responded that he could do the same about Stainbrook. “Don’t start with me,” Baird said.
At that point, the exchange was brought to an end.
The child care shortage and CHEDA
At that May 21 CHEDA Board meeting, the board approved an allocation capped at $50,000 to go toward the “build-out” necessary to make the former Sisters of St. Joseph Marywood Residence/Glenmore Recovery Center a non-profit child care center licensed for 50 to 100 infants, toddlers and children. Developer Jeff Evers bought the building a couple years ago at a bargain price and had been working with Hoiseth and a committee of experts and stakeholders for months as they explored possible options for opening a child care center in the community. It’s possible that Regal Academy Child Care Center will be open by year’s end.
As the building about a mile east of Crookston began to emerge as the most attractive option, another group of people largely brought together by Mayor Martin held a meeting to discuss child care issues and challenges faced by a variety of providers in the community. When Hoiseth informed that group at their first session that he’d be providing detailed cost estimates to his board on the morning of May 21 regarding the building east of town, the group scheduled a second meeting on the evening of May 21, and Hoiseth’s cost estimates for Evers’ building was on the agenda.
At that evening meeting, when Martin convened the group, he said he had planned to make some opening remarks and that his goal was to give citizens a say in how to best tackle Crookston’s major child care shortage. But he wouldn’t be making those remarks, the mayor continued, because the CHEDA Board that morning had “graciously decided to fund a day care.”
Monday night, At Large Council Member Tom Vedbraaten said people had been asking him why the second child care group had held the second meeting on May 21. Martin said when it was scheduled he didn’t realize that the CHEDA Board earlier that day would approve funding for a child care center. “I was going to let citizens have their voice, but you guys decided to give them $50,000,” Martin said, adding that he hopes there’s “a lot more to give” to other child care providers in the community.
First Community Credit Union celebrated the new facility it’s building on Crookston’s north end with a groundbreaking ceremony last week, and the City of Crookston was not represented at the event.
Steve Krueger called out the council, Martin and Stassen at the beginning of Tuesday’s council meeting for the lack of any City representation. Krueger said he was on the Agassiz Federal Credit Union Board of Directors in Crookston for several years and was involved with the credit union’s merger with FCCU. Citing FCCU’s desire to be involved in the community and the money they’re investing in Crookston by constructing a new facility, Krueger said he was speaking Tuesday to express his disappointment that no City staff were present at the groundbreaking. He said he realizes that everyone has jobs and various commitments, but added that the Crookston Chamber and CHEDA were represented at the event.
Then Krueger went on to say he’s been following some of the “antics” at City meetings and said even though people are “passionate” about Crookston, they need to work together. “We want to move our city forward, but we need to stop all the game-playing and play nice,” he said. “Everyone has a seat in the sandbox.”
Several council members and City officials proceeded to apologize for not attending the groundbreaking – some were out of town, some had prior commitments, some were not aware of the event and some forgot about it. “I know FCCU has been fantastic in the community,” Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee said. “I apologize for dropping the ball.”
But later in the meeting, attempts were made to point fingers of blame for the City’s lack of representation at FCCU’s event, which attracted credit union representatives from as far as Bismarck. Baird brought up an email exchange between Mayor Martin and Chamber Executive Director Terri Heggie, noted that the groundbreaking wasn’t a Chamber event and, therefore, said it shouldn’t be the Chamber’s job to notify City officials or council members of the groundbreaking.
“It wasn’t a City event, either, Bobby,” Martin responded.
“I think that was really inappropriate,” Baird said of the email exchange.
Later in the meeting, during his report to his colleagues, Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson said the City’s lack of representation at the FCCU event was “embarrassing.” While saying he’s “just as much to blame as anyone,” Erickson said an event “this big” needs some type of email chain or other form of communication to make sure the City is represented. “If everyone has plans and no one can be there, then someone needs to change their plans,” he said. “I was flabbergasted when I heard that. …This can never happen again.”
Building official hired
In the wake of Matt Johnson’s resignation to take a position at RiverView Health, the City was having a hard time attracting applicants to replace him as City Building Official. Stassen said Monday that the profession as a whole is struggling because people possessing those skills realize they can make more money in the private sector.
But after some time, two people applied, and one of them was Greg Hefta, who last worked for Titan Machinery. Both were interviewed by a committee and two interview panels, Stassen said, and although both candidates were strong, Stassen said Hefta was the committee’s recommendation to be hired by the council. He was subsequently hired by the council Tuesday, but Baird voted against.
Although he said he had nothing against Hefta personally, Baird said he didn’t have any background on him and wondered how he was supposed to vote in favor of hiring him when he doesn’t “know who he is.”
Stassen said the only City position that involves the entire council in the hiring process is his position, city administrator. For other department heads, Stassen said a couple council members are typically selected to be involved in the process, and Ward 4 Council Member Don Cavalier and Ward 3 Council Member Clayton Briggs were on the committee that interviewed the two applicants and recommended Hefta’s hiring. Other community members who bring various areas of expertise to the process were also involved, Stassen added.
When Johnson was hired, he lacked experience and needed to earn various certifications early on in his tenure, which he did. Stassen said Hefta, who will begin at a $60,000 annual salary, has an engineering background and will need to earn a couple of certifications before he is an actual, certified building official. With each of the two certifications will come a bump in pay, Stassen said, which is meant to serve as a motivator for him to earn them.
Baird said no plumbers, electricians or lumber yard representatives were part of the hiring process, and that Hefta will have to work with all of them. “This guy’s got to work with everyone; why weren’t any of them asked?” Baird wondered. “I don’t see any credentials. I’m not going to say OK if I don’t even know the guy.”
Stassen said Hefta understands building codes and has an “outstanding demeanor” in dealing with the public. “I feel like we did our due diligence, without a doubt,” Stassen added.
Cavalier said the council as a whole needs to put its trust in the process and believe that the committee picked the best and strongest candidate.
Although Fee said he was inclined to vote in favor of hiring Hefta, he added that he’d like to know more about him, as well as the second candidate for the job. “If the council is voting yes or no, shouldn’t we know who these two people are?” Fee wondered.
To that, Cavalier said that council members have a duty to ask the people directly involved in the process for more information if they desire it. Fee responded that he didn’t know about the interviews and that he wasn’t able to consult his “magic eight-ball” to find out.
Stassen noted that it was inappropriate to share information about the second candidate in public. “You need to put your trust in the hiring committees,” he said, adding that Briggs has extensive experience as a contractor.
Briggs said he was discouraged by the lack of applicants early on, and said he even sought out some people in the community to see if they might want to apply. They didn’t, he said, because they could make more money in the private sector. “Finally, two applied,” Briggs continued. “We have a good candidate; he needs some training.”
“We have no question in our minds that Greg has the ability” to be a good building official for the City, Stassen added.
Awkward start to meeting
Normally, between the council and Ways & Means Committee meetings, there’s a lull for several minutes as the mayor signs various resolutions passed at the council meeting. During this time, before the mayor convenes the second meeting, council members, officials, City department heads and others in the council chambers mingle and chit-chat.
That was especially the case Tuesday, as several people that attended the council meeting to discuss the status of a community group’s pursuit of an outdoor skating/hockey rink on the north end stuck around to talk to council members and City officials.
Amid all the talking in the chambers and in the adjacent hallway and with Stassen and other council members not in their seats, Martin convened the committee meeting in less than a minute and began to work through the beginning of the agenda, even though his voice could barely be heard over the din and the entire council was not seated.
Eventually, everyone realized the committee meeting had started and they ended their conversations and took their seats.