Update: Willmar, Minn., Utilities Commission fires its General Manager
WILLMAR -- The Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission voted 5-2 Monday to terminate General Manager Bruce Gomm, effective March 28.
The commission terminated with cause -- thus owing no severance package under Gomm's contract -- based on policy violations and other findings from an investigation into allegations of misconduct by Gomm. Commissioners voting to terminate were Matt Schrupp, Steve Salzer, Dan Holtz, Doug Lindblad and Dave Baker. Voting against were Jerry Gesch and Carol Laumer.
Laumer had no comment on the report's findings, but Gesch said he did not believe this is the right way to go.
"I think this has been mishandled from the start,'' he said. "It's not that these questions should have been ignored by any means. But I can't agree with this myself.''
Gesch commented that Gomm's accomplishments were not considered in the report, and that there were many complaints related to personnel.
"I often wonder if this is because of change being brought about in our organization. I think change is always difficult to deal with for everyone," he said.
The commission on Dec. 12 placed Gomm on 30-day paid administrative leave. Gomm's leave has been extended twice pending completion of an investigative report into his possible misconduct.
Gomm and the commissioners received copies of the report in mid-February from attorney Dyan Eberts, with the Quinlivan and Hughes law firm of St. Cloud, which was engaged to conduct the investigation.
There were several "findings of fact" in Eberts' report, mostly centered around hiring decisions and communication between Gomm and the commission or between Gomm and other employees. (A copy of the report summary is posted online at www.wctrib.com. Personnel data other than Gomm's has been redacted.)
Schrupp said Monday that there was no one single event that led to this point. "It is the culmination ... of events that have occurred that have got us to the point where we are at today."
"The findings speak for themselves," Salzer said. " ... I feel Mr. Gomm is not capable of managing the utilities."
Lindblad said, "I don't think there is any chance that we can reconcile our differences."
Holtz said the findings were disappointing.
Baker, president of the commission, said he saw the situation spinning out of control in the past 18 to 24 months.
"There are items there that we just cannot ignore." he said.
Gomm disputes most of the findings in the report, and he provided written responses to the commission on Monday. (Gomm's written responses to the report's "findings of fact" are posted online at www.wctrib.com.)
Gomm also made a statement Monday, saying that he wanted to continue serving the community and deeply regretted how the situation had developed.
He said the report contained "false accusations," and he specifically refuted allegations that he was hiring members of his church -- the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- over other qualified candidates.
" ... I do need to ask whether, had I been a Lutheran or a Catholic or a Methodist and had I hired two Lutheran employees or Catholic employees or Methodist employees, whether anyone on the commission would even have taken notice," he said.
Gomm said he sees this as religious bias that he suspects is the reason for "the commission's hostility towards me and members of my (Mormon) faith."
A fired coal handler has recently alleged discrimination by the utility because of his Mexican origin and Mormon faith.
The commissioners recessed for about 12 minutes to consider Gomm's additional documents before taking action toward the end of Monday's hour-long meeting to terminate Gomm's contract.
Also, the commissioners voted 6-1 on a resolution to extend Gomm's paid administrative leave, which began Dec. 12, to March 28, and voted 6-1 to approve a resolution to provide 30-day written notice to Gomm of the commission's intent to terminate him as required by his employment contract. Gomm has been general manager since May 2007.
Commissioners Salzer, Schrupp, Holtz, Lindblad, Baker and Laumer voted in favor of both resolutions.
Gesch voted against both resolutions.
Gomm had offered to walk away -- and take no further legal action -- if the terms of his contract were honored with regard to severance. The provision states that Gomm would be paid one year's salary, plus 12 months of medical and life insurance coverage, if he were terminated without cause.
Commission attorney Paul Reuvers of Bloomington said the provision of payment of one year's salary is a violation of state law and is unenforceable. Reuvers said state law allows for severance package of up to a year but only six months for what are termed "highly compensated individuals."
"There are a number of exemptions,'' said Reuvers, "but Bruce Gomm doesn't fit in one of those exemptions. So that the most he is entitled to under state law is six months.''
"I was not here representing the commission or the city (at the time Gomm signed his contract),'' said Reuvers. "I can't speak to the dynamics of how that was put in.''
If that is the commission's position, Gomm said, "I was fraudulently induced into taking this position in the first place.''
Reuvers also told the commission that Eberts will be providing an additional report regarding a complaint that Gomm had a firearm at work. Gomm has a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but Reuvers said that does not exempt Gomm from rules that prohibit him from having a weapon in the workplace.
Among the 40 people at the meeting Monday were 25 utility employees, four City Council members and Mayor Frank Yanish and City Administrator Charlene Stevens.