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Editorial: Complete review of Willmar's Municipal Utilities is needed

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opinion Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

The recent turmoil at the Willmar Municipal Utilities has now boiled over onto the public stage as its General Manager Bruce Gomm was placed on paid administrative leave Monday pending an investigation of "activities disruptive to utility operations."

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The Municipal Utilities Commission members have apparently made matters worse in the process of attempting to govern the utilities.

First, the commission possibly committed an Open Meeting Law violation when it closed the meeting Monday for "preliminary consideration of possible misconduct." Those grounds for closure would now appear less than truthful. Commission members had asked Gomm for his resignation prior to Monday's meeting, revealing their possible intent to terminate his position since he refused to resign.

In addition, Commissioner Dave Baker told the Tribune on Monday that the co-interim general managers would serve until a new general manager could be found and that the search process would "be maybe a three- to six-month process."

Baker did backtrack Tuesday, telling the Tribune that Gomm is not terminated, but was being investigated for "activities disruptive to utility operations." Basically, Baker said what he said, and that may have put the city at further risk legally.

Second, the commission failed Tuesday to offer Gomm an opportunity in their regular meeting to request the closed meeting be held in open session. As the employee who was the subject of the discussion, Gomm has the right under Minnesota statute to have that meeting conducted in an open session if he so wishes.

Third, the commission allowed Willmar City Council Member Ron Christianson to attend the entire closed session considering Gomm's actions. Christianson claims he was attending as a private citizen -- that excuse is irrelevant. The fact remains that the commission allowed a non-member -- Christianson -- to attend a closed session concerning allegations against Gomm, which are private data under the state's Data Practices Act. Christianson may have heard, discussed or even recommended action to the commission, when he is not a commission member. Again, Christianson's action and/or presence may have created potential city liability if Gomm pursues any legal action.

Overall, this is one big mess. Among the multiple allegations are:

n Gomm has been accused of "activities disruptive to utility operations."

n Some utilities department supervisors have allegedly been resisting Gomm's management direction as well as attempting to circumvent the general manager's authority by seeking intervention by commission members and/or city officials.

n Some utilities commissioners allegedly have individually interfered with and/or countermanded decisions of the general manager.

n There is alleged employee and/or supervisor resistance to operational changes for efficiency or cost control purposes.

This turmoil reflects negatively upon all involved at the utilities as well as the city of Willmar.

We believe there definitely needs to be an investigation of the Willmar Municipal Utilities for "activities disruptive to utility operations."

However, this investigation should look into all facets of the operation, including Gomm's management, Municipal Utilities Commission's operation policy, all individual commissioner's activities, department supervisors' actions, employees' actions and any City Council members' involvement with utilities staff.

This investigation should not be implemented by or conducted by the Municipal Utilities Commission, or any commissioners or any co-interim managers.

This investigation should be conducted completely and independently by an appropriate entity selected by the Willmar City Council.

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