After several months of closed meetings, during which Cologne City Administrator John Douville was placed on leave three separate times, the city council voted 4-1 to fire Douville during a meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 10.
“The City of Cologne determined that Mr. Douville did not meet the City’s expectations of his expected performance as the City Administrator while he was placed on a performance improvement plan beginning in June of 2012,” said Mayor Bernie Shambour Jr.
As evidenced by councilor Matt Lein’s vote against the termination, however, the decision was not unanimous, and Douville himself said he felt the actions taken by the council were inappropriate.
“I completely disagree with the process that I was put under this summer and the corresponding results,” Douville said. “I plan to appeal the decision of the Council regarding these allegations. I feel I have very objective evidence in my defense whereas most of the Council’s allegations are subjective and very general in nature. I have asked for clarification of the general allegations so that I can put together a proper defense for each and every one of them. I have yet to receive that documentation.”
Lein agreed, at least in part.
“I am not completely convinced that Mr. Douville’s side was accurately portrayed to the City Council,” he said. “The City Council did not get negative feedback about Mr. Douville from three of our five employees at the time. There was a grievance filed against the Personnel Committee that never played out, that I wanted to hear the outcome of. On the other side, the Personnel Committee had some pretty compelling arguments for termination. Some of those arguments I argued against and some I have a hard time arguing.”
Reasons for termination and cost
A summary statement from the council listed 17 reasons for the termination of Douville, who had been employed with the city since 2004. Among them were ineffective working relationships with certain co-workers, engaging in retaliatory conduct against certain employees who complained about his conduct, and engaging in conduct that threatened, intimidated, or coerced other employees and a council member.
Also included were a repeated refusal or failure to follow the city’s directives, substantially disregarding the city’s interests in performing job duties on several occasions, destruction of city property without the council’s consent, “questionable activities” involving a city-issued laptop, and a failure to provide administrative supervision to the council’s satisfaction.
Douville disputed those findings.
“It all started to change this spring when I reported to the Council an employee had failed to do critical work and intentionally hid that work from me. At that point the Council decided to come after my performance and not my subordinate’s,” he said. “Early on I requested that an independent investigator be used as recommended by the League of MN Cities (LMC) to avoid conflicts of interest. This didn’t happen, causing a large burden on the taxpayers and I feel a very flawed outcome.”
The expenses for the city to obtain legal guidance through the process, which included no fewer than nine closed meetings in August through October, have added up rapidly. The city budgeted $3,500 for legal expenses for this year, but has already paid $33,000 to the Melchert, Hubert and Sjodin law firm.
“The legal fees incurred were unexpected and not budgeted for. Fortunately, the City’s cash position is good and we have been able to absorb these unexpected legal costs,” said Shambour, adding that the cost would be covered with the city’s general fund. “Over the course of most years the City winds up spending more than planned in some areas and less than planned in other areas. Every year our objective is to have enough ‘cushion’ built into the cost centers and within the cost elements within the General Budget to carry the City through the expected. In 2012, the unexpected costs we incurred were legal fees. As I stated earlier, the City has a good cash position and can absorb these unplanned legal costs without too much difficulty.”
Douville, however, said those expenses could have been avoided, or at least reduced.
“I told Mayor Shambour on June 11 that if he didn’t appreciate my work anymore he could have told me this spring that it was time to move on. It would have saved the taxpayer a lot of money and the Council and myself a lot of headaches,” he said.
Without an administrator in place, Shambour said that city administrative workers will be under close supervision from the city’s personnel committee, consisting of Shambour, and councilor Jill Skaaland. While the end of the year can be a critical time with budget setting and the election this fall, Shambour said the city is in relatively good shape as the personnel committee prepares to recruit and interview applicants.
“We anticipate minimum issues during the interim period while a search ensues to hire a new City Administrator,” he said. “Personnel changes are never easy in any organization and city government is no exception. Fortunately, Cologne City’s 2013 budgets are set. The City’s Deputy City Clerk has managed elections previously and is ready for the pending election on Nov. 6.”
At the council meeting Monday evening, however, Shambour acknowledged that he was a little nervous about setting water and sewer rates for 2013, something he said Douville was very good at during his eight-year tenure. Council members will work with remaining city staff to set those fees while the administrator search is underway.
The council plans to check with the League of Minnesota Cities for candidates, as well as advertise locally. Shambour said it would be preferable to find a local candidate with knowledge of the area and the local culture. The objective of the personnel committee is to hire a new city administrator by the end of December.
Lein said one of his reasons for voting against Douville’s termination was the shuffle that would ensue to make sure all the city’s needs were covered.
“I also have first hand knowledge of the road that the City Council will be traveling down if we remove the City Administrator. It will be up to the City Council to assume all of the roles of the City Administrator to be able to keep the City rolling seamlessly ahead. Some of the work can be passed to our employees, but there is no way with the size staff that we have that they can do it all,” he said.
The strain will be exacerbated by the recent departure of the city’s public utilities supervisor, a position the council is still working to fill. To help bridge the gap until new employees can be hired, the council approved an extension in working hours to remaining public works and office staff during the Monday meeting.
Other considerations now on the minds of city officials and remaining employees include assembling a crew for snow plowing this winter and getting the city’s fall newsletter completed and sent to the production in time for distribution.
Statement from John Douville
I want to take this opportunity to express my appreciation in working for the community of Cologne these past eight years. When I started, the City Hall parking lot was gravel and the Fritz field retaining wall was collapsed both an eye sore and a liability.
A lot has changed since then. City Hall was upgraded with new technology, document imaging among other software improvements. I helped guide the City through two bond rating increases and after the severe recession of 2007 our bond rating of A+ was reaffirmed this past February. Along with a new trail system and parks plan the new city hall/community center was built along with the ever-expanding Cologne Academy. In 2011 we started the Cologne-ISP Internet service, a service that will be profitable in its first full year of operation providing low cost service in the area. I have received eight years of excellent employee reviews, the most recent being February of 2012.
It all started to change this spring when I reported to the Council an employee had failed to do critical work and intentionally hid that work from me. At that point the Council decided to come after my performance and not my subordinate’s. Early on I requested that an independent investigator be used as recommended by the League of MN Cities (LMC) to avoid conflicts of interest. This didn’t happen, causing a large burden on the taxpayers and I feel a very flawed outcome.
I completely disagree with the process that I was put under this summer and the corresponding results. I plan to appeal the decision of the Council regarding these allegations. I feel I have very objective evidence in my defense whereas most of the Council’s allegations are subjective and very general in nature. I have asked for clarification of the general allegations so that I can put together a proper defense for each and every one of them. I have yet to receive that documentation.
I told Mayor Shambour on June 11 that if he didn’t appreciate my work anymore he could have told me this spring that it was time to move on. It would have saved the taxpayer a lot of money and the Council and myself a lot of headaches. I am proud of the work I have done in the community and how I have handled the constant scrutiny of the City Council this summer. I want to express my sincere gratitude to Administrative Assistant Brenda Good and Public Works Supervisor Jeff Wildung for their tremendous work for the community and that it is much appreciated.
John A. Douville