I spoke at the West St. Paul city council meeting tonight. Not my favorite thing to do. I don’t like public speaking or confrontation.
Here’s the short version: Two new council members elected in November and sworn in last week tipped the balance, and City Manager Matt Fulton was forced to resign. The city council members behind this offered no rational for firing Fulton, other than wanting a “fresh start.”
Of course that “fresh start” will require an interim city manager, increased burden on the staff as they wrestle with all the changes, a search for a new city manager that’s likely to cost thousands of dollars, and—oh yeah—the severance package for Matt Fulton that will include an additional six months pay.
Why do we need this costly and time-consuming “fresh start”?
The council members opposed to Fulton hid behind the legal details of the severance package that prohibits either party from making disparaging comments about the other, and they offered nothing:
- Council member John Bellows said we should trust his good judgement.
- Council member Ed Iago said he takes everything into account and this is the best chance for a “clean slate.”
- Council member Bob Pace said that in the coming months and years we’ll see that this was the best move for our city.
- Council member Anthony Fernandez refused to say anything, citing the legal restrictions (despite the fact that the city attorney OK’ed everything that had been said so far).
Yet nobody offered any reason.
I understand the legal limitations. But there shouldn’t be any legal restrictions on speaking about the facts. If Matt Fulton failed to perform his job, he should be fired. Yet no one could say that.
In fact, council members Dick Vitelli and Dave Napier, as well as Mayor Jenny Halverson, expressed full support of Matt Fulton and frustration over the refusal to work together. Dave Napier even noted that Fulton is nationally recognized in his field—he lamented that we’ll look for somebody good to replace Fulton, but we had somebody great.
Apparently a fresh start means a divisive vote and a lack of accountability to the residents.
This is a perplexing decision for the new city council, especially when both Pace and Fernandez ran on a platform of lowering city spending. One of their first acts in office is to approve a costly and unjustified staff change.
I don’t expect we’ll ever get any justifiable explanation for this. But if you care about West St. Paul, it might be a good time to start paying attention and let your city council representatives know what you think. A good opportunity would be the upcoming neighborhood meetings on Jan. 19, 26, 30 and Feb. 1.
(And I’d recommend watching the video of the entire exchange [it starts at about 43:13]. Vitelli offered some interesting details, including an apparent vendetta the former Mayor David Meisinger had for Matt Fulton. Pace also expressed frustration about harassment he’d received over the issue [which is crap—express your opinion respectfully], and threatened legal action.)
Update: Cost & Alliances (Jan. 11, 2017)
Newspaper stories on the council meeting were published last night, giving us more specifics, perhaps a broader perspective and both quoted me. Despite being nervous as hell, I don’t sound like a complete idiot. So that’s something.
- Pioneer Press – Notes the full cost of the severance: $115,000. Plus we’ll be hiring a search firm. So add another $10-20,000.
- Star Tribune – Notes the the meeting revealed a “deeply fractured council with distinct political alliances.” Good thing we have that fresh start, huh?
Notice that neither article gives any rationale other than the clean slate and fresh start lines. Nobody will explain why a fresh start is necessary.
Update: Lengthy Account (Jan. 12, 2017)
The South-West Review published their article on the council meeting, which has the most detailed account yet.
Former Mayor David Meisinger is quoted with some dubious logic:
Fulton made the choice to resign, so “obviously he wanted to move on as well.”
Seeing the votes to fire you and agreeing to resign peacefully is not the same as wanting to move on.
Meisinger also seems to imply that losing the city manager will have no impact:
“We’re perfectly capable of running the city without a city manager, so that whole line of reasoning that was trying to be conveyed last night I take exception.”
Meisinger seems to be overlooking the strain on existing staff, the additional costs, the delays, and the ongoing distraction. Certainly our West St. Paul city staff will make it work, but not without some cost.