Vote approves first of four proposed phases, to dismay of large crowd
In front of a large, perturbed and at times vocal crowd, the City Council on Monday approved the concept of a significant city staffing reorganization plan and put into motion its first of four phases.
City Administrator Aaron Parrish gave an overview of the proposal, which calls for the elimination of 15 positions and the creation of 15 new ones. The plan, also recommended by the finance and personnel committees, is designed to address a shortage of daytime-available firefighters, align the staffing structure with city’s strategic plan and bring about budget savings.
It might also leave several current, longtime employees out of work due to qualification requirements of the new positions, while those still qualified might be left to contemplate whether to reapply for a similar position at a lower salary.
Mayor Chris Johnson and council members Molly Bonnett, Ben Winnick and Susan Young supported the concept, as does Councilman Mike Freer, who was absent, Winnick said.
In her second council meeting, Bonnett abstained on the vote to implement the first phase, saying it would be disingenuous to take a stance without having complete knowledge of the situation. The other three council members present voted in favor of the motion.
Phase I, as proposed, involves eliminating the positions of building official, building inspector, building secretary/assistant and custodian. Along with a fire technician position, four dual-employment positions would be created: firefighter/building official, firefighter/building inspector and two firefighter/custodian positions.
“When you start looking at the individuals that are affected by this, it is huge,” Winnick said. “I know the city of Forest Lake is going to work with those people, too. You’re not just getting thrown out. Unfortunately, a city is a business, however, and you have to make changes to keep up with the times. This is one of those tough decisions, but I think the time is now.”
In a statement carrying significant implications, Young said she views the reorganization as a much-needed succession plan.
“This is a framework, and I’m willing to look at it as a framework, but there is a great deal of bargaining need, discussion and bargaining,” she said. “It is not one way or the highway. I think the framework is something that we need to move toward.”
Young provided more background on her stance via email. She said she has talked to some employees who, through retirement or other plans, already had in mind to vacate their positions in the near future. Young is certain these plans will be part of the bargaining process.
She said she is not willing to rush the other phases, and hopes the reorganization is driven by retirements while layoffs are minimized.
“However, whether in the private sector or the public sector, there are no lifetime guarantees of employment for any of us, and if transitions must be made, I expect that these will happen within the collective bargaining and appropriate legal frameworks,” she wrote in the email.
John Ewaldt, a field representative for Local 517 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, also hopes the vote is only a starting point for discussion.
“I think the turnout to this meeting is unprecedented, and not just by members, but also by folks who live in the city,” he said after the meeting. “We’re not done here. There’s some things we need to do.”
Ewaldt, who noted that union members are in the middle of a two-year contract, said Parrish is “winging” the plan and will find out that parts of it are unworkable.
“It’s a bad plan,” Ewaldt said. “It’s a plan that hurts folks. It’s a plan that really flies in the face of our older and good workers who have been here a long time.”
It appeared the amount of audience members supporting the plan numbered fewer than those around the council table. A dozen spoke during the open forum at the beginning of the meeting, with 10 criticizing the plan and the other two seeking more information.
Those taking to the podium included several employees whose positions are on the chopping block.
Building inspector Tim Okan, an active union member, took issue with the nature of the plan’s unveiling.
“Residents deserve transparency in their government and staff should have had a voice in the plan,” he said. “We’re shocked that the city administrator’s reorganization plan was created in secrecy, without our input. A plan is destined to fail if it’s created without input from staff and the people who actually do the work.”
Aaron Buffington, the city planner, questioned why the Community Development department would be dismantled when just nine months ago it was reconfigured with a sensible incorporation of the former building department.
The reorganization’s second phase contemplates replacing the positions of Buffington, Community Development Director Doug Borglund and the planning department assistant with two positions focused on economic development and zoning.
“This is not a proven model,” Buffington said. “This is not a proven plan. In fact, I’m not aware of any other city that even has this type of function.”
He also referenced the city’s strategic plan, a source cited by Parrish as a key driver of the reorganization. Buffington pointed out that the strategic plan calls for the inclusion of staff in the decision-making processes relating to the budget and department makeup.
“City staff is simply requesting to be heard,” Buffington said. “We want the opportunity to participate. … Quite frankly, we want to be part of a team plan.”
Planning Commission member Dennis Batty said the lack of communication regarding the reorganization left him questioning what to think. His fellow board member, Kathy Kuehn, went a step farther in comments referring to the possible exit of Borglund and Buffington.
“I don’t know if I can continue to be a Planning Commission member, as I have been all these years, if I don’t have their support and their training and their knowledge to put together all of our plans for us so we can make knowledgeable, informed decisions.”
Airport Commission member Sam Husnick advocated making changes through attrition rather than layoffs.
“Doing this directly to the employees that are here now would be catastrophic,” he said. “It would leave a vacuum in the whole city.”
Residents with no city duties also voiced opposition. Lifelong Forest Lake resident Mike Walker expressed concern about having building inspectors split their time with firefighting duties.
“People got inspections. Things have to keep rolling,” he said. “If the inspector leaves for the day, you’ve got no inspections. People that have concrete coming, people that have closings the next day; it steam-rolls into a lot of things. I don’t know if you have answers.”
Mike Clemens, a 48-year resident, echoed the sentiment of many other speakers by warning against the loss of institutional knowledge.
“You’re screwing with lives of people here that have knowledge, that have been here many, many years, and I know a lot of them,” he said. “You can’t replace this knowledge at a lower rate. … What you’re saying – $155,000 – it’s a lot of money, but it’s a drop in the bucket to what our budget is. So I hope the council will not implement this here, and do it through attrition and people quitting.”
Parrish presented plan details later in the meeting. Some in the audience held high signs stating “Dump the Parrish Plan” throughout the nearly 30-minute presentation.
The city administrator did acknowledge that the proposal could take the form of a succession plan. He also said the phases could change after negotiating the impacts with the various bargaining units.
“I certainly can say that as we go through the process, there may be an evolution in how these things look,” he said.
Parrish reinforced the need to address daytime fire call response as a major factor in the plan’s development.
“You can see the landscape shifting, whether it be the opportunity within corporate America to allow people to make that commitment, especially during the day, whether it be with the added complication of people’s day-to-day lives, the opportunity and ability of people to commit to the type of responsibility they have when they sign up to be a paid-on-call firefighter is much more challenging, and particularly much more challenging during the day,” he said.
He also addressed criticism regarding the perceived suddenness of the reorganization and the lack of employee input.
“For me, it would be premature to bring this forward and start a protracted conversation about it, engaged in the bargaining process, if I don’t have some direction on the part of the governing body,” Parrish said.
Monday’s action approved position descriptions for the Phase I changes and authorized Parrish to enter into bargaining. City employees will have five days, starting Nov. 13, to submit letters of interest for the newly established positions. Parrish, Fire Chief Gary Sigfrinius and Finance Director Ellen Paulseth will recommend preferred appointments at a council meeting in December or January.