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Grove City, Minn., Council fires city clerk

City Clerk Janell Johnson, left, embraces an unidentified woman Thursday after she was fired from her position by the Grove City Council. The maintenance supervisor was also reprimanded. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

GROVE CITY -- The Grove City clerk was fired and the city's maintenance supervisor was formally reprimanded Thursday for actions following the Father's Day storm that left the town without power for three days.

The action was taken by the Grove City Council during a special meeting as at least 100 people crowded into the room to listen to the allegations against city clerk Janell Johnson and Brad Jans, who oversees the city's electrical service that provides power to the town of about 600 residents.

The council said the two employees did not pass along information from Meeker Cooperative, a power and light association, about options for having electricity back-fed to Grove City while electricity was interrupted from their own supplier during the wind storm that downed numerous power lines in Meeker County.

Both Jans and Johnson, who opted to have the hearing held in a public meeting rather than a closed session, told the council repeatedly that the city's own engineer and the city's power supplier, Heartland Power Cooperative, told them it would not be safe to have power back-fed from another source.

"I am not going to go against our engineer because I'm responsible for the safety of our crews," Jans said. "I am going to listen to the city engineer before I listen to any outside utility."

In a summary of interviews a council committee conducted, it was stated that several Grove City residents called Meeker Co-op following the storm and delayed return to power and the co-op's director, Tim Mergen, told them the co-op could've have returned power to the city within 30 minutes.

Mergen later contacted Mayor Melissa Drange and told her the same thing and also said that he'd had a terse conversation with Johnson last winter about providing assistance to the town. He claimed Johnson told him at that time to "stay the hell out of Grove City."

Johnson said she never said that to Mergen.

The co-op later clarified that the coop would not have been able to provide full power to the city after the storm but that at least half of the power could've been restored safely to the town.

Councilman Bill Peterka said the city-owned and operated utility is a financial benefit and the city will never sell it, but he said the city could've used the co-op's help during the emergency last month.

Considering the high heat following the storm and potential health problems for elderly residents, Peterka said the town "could've had a life or death situation with some of the residents in this community."

Jans said he didn't ask for the co-op's help after the storm because they were experiencing their own outages.

As she was fielding calls and making contact with professionals following the storm, Johnson said she was told by the city engineer and their supplier that it could be unsafe to crews and citizens cutting down trees on power lines for power to be back-fed to the city.

Johnson also said the city didn't have the proper agreements to purchase power from the co-op.

The city's attorney, Kevin Rupp, said the city's contract with Heartland allows for special provisions during emergencies.

The council struggled to find the reason to reprimand Jans but said it was for not keeping the city informed following the storm.

The council took Johnson to task for her unprofessional contact with the co-op and for not taking action to work with Meeker Cooperative during the past year, or several years, to establish contracts and methods for back-feeding power for emergencies. They said she should've told the council about back-feeding options following the storm.

The allegations discussed Thursday were on top of several years of conflict Johnson has had with the council, which has resulted in creation of a union for the three city employees, lawsuits and extensive legal fees.

The council terminated Johnson on the spot and demanded that she turn in her keys.

After the meeting adjourned Johnson got hugs from supporters while others quietly cheered her dismissal.

As the crowd was filing out Johnson was escorted to the office by a sheriff's deputy, the attorney and councilman Kurt Nelson so she could get her personal belongings.

Johnson, clearly frustrated, was apparently trying to talk but was repeatedly interrupted by Nelson.

Drange said the city will look for someone to temporarily fill in the role of city clerk while they look for a replacement.

Drange said she expects Johnson will file a grievance against the city, ensuring that the legal battle is far from over.

An ironic twist to the story is that Johnson, Jans and Grove City's power company were praised for their work in a feature article in May issue of the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association newsletter.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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