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Law firm for utilities' GM investigation approved in Willmar, Minn.

Municipal Utilities Commission Vice President Dave Baker, left, speaks Tuesday during the regular meeting. At right is Doug Lindblad, president of the commission. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission on Tuesday approved the League of Minnesota Cities' selection of the St. Cloud law firm of Quinlivan and Hughes to investigate Utilities General Manager Bruce Gomm for possible misconduct.

Commissioners placed Gomm on a 30-day paid administrative leave on Dec. 12.

Commission Vice President Dave Baker said he had been in contact with the League and said the League moved forward with hiring an independent investigator. The investigation will examine the effectiveness of the utilities' management, said Baker.

The investigation will not affect service to utility customers, Baker said, and the utility continues to provide reliable water, electric and district heating services.

Baker made the motion to affirm the League's selection of the St. Cloud law firm and the motion carried.

Baker said the League of Minnesota Cities had shown an interest in the utilities situation.

The law firm's fee will be paid by the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust on behalf of the Willmar Utilities. The trust serves as the commission's insurance provider as well as the city's.

According to its web site, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust is a cooperative, member-owned organization that provides property, liability, workers compensation and employee benefit needs to Minnesota cities. Members contribute premiums to a jointly-owned fund used to pay for members' claims, losses and expenses.

Bob Bonawitz, a former member and president of the Municipal Utilities Commission, was given permission to speak Tuesday and he asked the commission to state the allegations against Gomm. Bonawitz said there are many rumors about the situation.

City Attorney Rich Ronning advised the commissioners not to comment.

The current situation with the utilities has raised several legal concerns, including possible violations of the state's Open Meeting Law and the Data Practices Act.

The Utilities Commission has held two closed meetings to discuss the general manager's performance. The commission may not have followed Open Meeting Law properly in closing those meetings. The commission also allowed non-commission members to attend the closed meetings, possibly disclosing private personnel data.

Gomm has raised several concerns about micromanaging by some commission members and some staff members resisting his supervisory authority. He has said he would welcome any independent investigation of the utilities situation.

In related management business, the commission received but took no action on proposals to assess the utility's organizational structure, identify the organization's strengths and weaknesses, and identify current and future opportunities and challenges.

The commission's Labor Committee met Dec. 13 and gave consideration to contacting management firms to perform the assessment. Baker handed out proposals Tuesday from three consultants: Springsted Inc., $7,750; McCarthy Consulting, $10,000 to $15,000; and Schulte Associates, $35,000.

Commissioners said they will study the proposals for discussion Jan. 9.

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