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Report on investigation into Willmar, Minn., utility GM nears completion

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Willmar Municipal Utilities General Manager Bruce Gomm is pictured during a meeting Friday in Willmar. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny2 / 2

WILLMAR -- The law firm investigating possible misconduct by Willmar Municipal Utilities General Manager Bruce Gomm should complete its work by the end of this week, according to Municipal Utilities Commission President Dave Baker.

In an update near the end of the commission's regular meeting Monday, Baker said the commission will receive a copy of the report in advance of the Feb. 27 regular meeting when the report will be discussed and some decisions made. Gomm was placed on 30-day paid administrative leave Dec. 12, the same day when a complaint against him was brought to the commission.

City Attorney Rich Ronning has told the Tribune that the accusations against Gomm are not public data under state statutes; however, Ronning said Gomm has the right to review any private or non-public data the city or utility has pertaining to him.

Gomm's leave was extended 30 days on Jan. 5 and the commissioners voted 6-1 Friday to extend the leave by another 30 days because the report was not ready. Commissioners had anticipated the report would be completed by the end of January, but the report was delayed because the investigator was involved in a trial, the commissioners were told last week.

The investigation began after Doug Gronli, the claims manager at the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, initiated contact with City Attorney Rich Ronning on or about Dec. 16, said Paul Reuvers, a partner with the Iverson Reuvers law firm of Bloomington.

Gronli assigned the Iverson law firm to assist the Willmar Utilities in this matter, said Reuvers. He said Gronli routinely monitors news coverage for cities all over the state. Reuvers said Gronli saw coverage in the press about recent developments at the Willmar Municipal Utilities and offered the League's assistance.

Reuvers said the Iverson Reuvers law firm is directing the investigation of Gomm, including retaining the Quinlivan law firm of St. Cloud to conduct the independent investigation.

According to Ronning, the Quinlivan law firm is a well-respected firm which has conducted employment investigations in the past.

Also Monday, the commission authorized staff to begin the hiring process to fill a vacant coal handler position.

The position became open after Nefi Ibarra, 31, of Willmar, who was hired as a coal handler on July 11, 2011, was terminated Jan. 6, 2012, four days before his six-month probationary period was to expire.

Ibarra filed a claim on Jan. 26 with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging he was the victim of employment discrimination because of his national origin and religion.

The commission's Labor Committee met Jan. 27 and recommended the hiring process begin because the annual power plant overhaul is soon approaching, said committee member Matt Schrupp.

The power plant has 19 total staff members, including two coal handler positions, according to Jon Folkedahl, director of electric production. One of the coal handler positions has been vacant since Ibarra's firing.

Staffing will be a large part of an upcoming study the commission agreed to undertake Monday.

The commissioners voted to approve a proposal from Springsted Inc. of St. Paul to conduct an organizational and management assessment study of the utility. The cost is $17,500 plus $1,200 in expenses.

The commission had issued a request for proposals early in January for an assessment to include evaluation of the organizational structure; a review and analysis of job descriptions; identification of vulnerable areas regarding current and future regulatory issues; planning for succession and developing a plan for smooth transition as needs change; and determining the employee culture and current state of the organization.

Springsted was recommended by the Labor Committee. The committee also reviewed proposals from two other firms: Schulte Associates LLC of Eden Prairie for $35,000 plus expenses; and Raintek USA LLC of Vallejo, Calif., for $29,970.

Schrupp said Monday that Springsted has done a lot of work in this region. Springsted assisted the Willmar City Council last year in filling the city administrator's position.

Schrupp said the Labor Committee members spoke with references including officials in Melrose that had recently conducted as assessment of their organization.

"They were very pleased with the service provided,'' said Schrupp. "I think all three companies can provide what we're looking for and Springsted I think is most cost competitive for completing the assessment that we're looking for.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150