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Willmar, Minn., utility, GM unable to settle on severance package

Willmar Municipal Utilities General Manager Bruce Gomm says he doesn't want to get rich off the citizens of Willmar, but he expects the city to honor his contract and its severance provisions. (Tribune file photo)

WILLMAR -- The city of Willmar and the general manager of the Municipal Utilities who has been on leave pending an investigation of misconduct have been unable to reach agreement on a severance package.

Municipal Utilities General Manager Bruce Gomm says his attorney was contacted by an attorney for the city utility about settling on a severance package before an investigative report is completed later this month.

After some negotiations, Gomm says he offered to walk away and give up his rights to sue if the utility honored a severance provision in his employment agreement.

"I have no desire to get rich off the backs of the citizens of Willmar. But I do expect the city and the utility to, at the very least, honor the contract that I signed with them," he said.

The provision states that Gomm will be paid one year's salary, plus 12 months of medical and life insurance coverage, if he is terminated without cause.

Gomm says his offer was not accepted and that he has been told the utility does not intend to honor the employment agreement.

"We've said if they're willing to honor the contract, we would probably just go ahead and remove the liability from the utility that I could have otherwise," he said Friday. "But unfortunately now the utility is saying they aren't planning on honoring their contract. If they're not willing to honor it, I'm not willing to settle."

Gomm says he was told the reason is that state law limits severance pay to less than one year. He said he is concerned because he signed the contract in good faith on May 11, 2007.

"It's just hard for me to believe that they could provide me a contract that I signed, and they come along and tell me that their own contract is unenforceable to get out of some obligation that they have," he said.

Municipal Utilities' attorney Paul Reuvers, a partner with the Iverson Reuvers law firm of Bloomington, said in an email to the Tribune that he could not comment.

"Because there is an active investigation of Mr. Gomm, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act prohibits me from discussing any employment issues related to him," Reuvers wrote.

Reuvers was assigned by the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust to represent the utility. Reuvers said the Municipal Utilities Commission will consider the investigative report of Gomm at its Feb. 27 meeting.

Gomm believes there is nothing in the report that he would want to conceal, and he wants the public to have the facts and to know what happened.

Prior to the Dec. 12 meeting at which Gomm was placed on leave, Gomm met privately with Doug Lindblad, commission president at the time, and Dave Baker, commission vice president at that time. Gomm told the Tribune that Baker asked for Gomm's resignation and said things would get messy if he did not resign. Gomm refused.

Later at the meeting, the commission went into a closed meeting on a motion by Baker for "preliminary consideration of possible misconduct of a utility employee or employees." Under state statute, Gomm as the subject of the discussion should have been given the choice of having the discussion conducted in open session, but he was not.

The commission later reconvened in open session and, on a motion by Baker, approved placing Gomm on a 30-day administrative leave pending an investigation. Commissioners voting in favor of the motion were Baker, Lindblad, Marv Kray, Steve Salzer, Matt Schrupp and Dan Holtz. Voting against was Jerry Gesch.

Following that meeting, Baker told the West Central Tribune that newly appointed co-interim general managers Larry Heinen and Wes Hompe would serve until a new general manager was found after a three- to six-month search. The next day, Baker clarified his comments saying Gomm had not been terminated.

Baker has been acting as commission spokesman since December and was elected president of the commission for 2012.

Gomm's leave has been extended twice, most recently at a special meeting Feb. 10 when commissioners had expected to have a complete investigative report to review.

City Attorney Rich Ronning has told the Tribune that the accusations against Gomm are not public data under state statutes.

Gomm in several interviews with the Tribune has said he believes any complaints against him are the result of friction between himself and other longtime employees who resented his authority over them. Gomm also has raised concerns about micromanagement by some members of the Municipal Utilities Commission and has said he welcomes an investigation.

The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust contacted the city on or about Dec. 16 -- the day the Tribune published the first story based on interviews with Gomm after his removal from duty -- and a claims manager there assigned the Iverson Reuvers law firm to represent the utility. Iverson Reuvers then retained the Quinlivan law firm of St. Cloud to conduct the independent investigation.

Gomm said he has a difficult time believing this whole situation.

"I really felt that I had a very good relationship with a majority of the employees and majority of the commission and City Council members. And now to see these types of actions, I really don't understand it," he said. "It's really concerning to me and disappointing that they're willing to do this type of action."

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