In November 2013, former Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Schmelzer was terminated by the board of directors of the organization.
Months later, after she “emotionally” separated herself from what transpired, Schmelzer contacted the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to see if an investigation was warranted.
On Friday, Schmelzer made a statement about that investigation, saying that the state has gone forward and that there are formal charges forthcoming against the Northfield Chamber.
The Northfield News reached out to the state Department of Human Rights, but deputy communications director Jeff Holman said the information contained in the charge is is not public data until a case is closed.
“When I felt ready to understand what actually happened, I contacted the Department of Human Rights again and asked them to move forward,” Schmelzer said in a statement. “They will provide an impartial investigation and those details will be made available by the state soon.”
The time limit for filing a charge with MDHR is one year from the date of the incident.
Northfield Chamber president Beth Ayotte Naumann said in a prepared statement released Tuesday evening that the chamber board has received nothing from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, but if an inquiry is forthcoming, the board is ready and willing to respond openly, fully and completely to help resolve any outstanding issues.
In what Schmelzer calls a coincidence, the person who was hired to replace her as executive director − Brent Burns − was fired by the chamber board on Thursday.
In a story in the Northfield News on Saturday, Naumann said that Schmelzer was not terminated and that her contract was simply not renewed.
In her statement, Schmelzer said that wasn’t the case.
“I was terminated, not unrenewed,” said Schmelzer, who had been the Chamber’s executive director since June 2012. “Unlike Brent, I was not given a resignation option. It may appear that his attempt to understand [my] situation may have cost him his employment.
“It’s ironic that the two incidences − the charge by the state and Brett’s termination − would be so closely timed since I hadn’t met him or knew nothing of his desire to get the Chamber house in order.”
Schmelzer said in the statement that at the time of her termination, she received a letter from the lawyer hired by the board of directors offering a sum of money “for my silence and to surrender any ability to seek legal action against them at present or in the future.”
The former Chamber director said that not understanding what the letter’s parameters meant, she contacted the Department of Human Rights and explained what transpired prior to her termination.
“At that time, the department indicated there was probably a reason for them to delve further,” she said. “I did not sign and return the letter to the chamber board’s lawyer.”
The board stands by its decisions to release Schmelzer and Burns, the Chamber statement said.
“We acted appropriately and legally,” Naumann said. “If a grievance is filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, the board looks forward to discussing the matter with them. We are convinced that they will find that our actions in both instances were fully justified.”
Because there have been erroneous facts released to the media, the release said, the board felt it was necessary to make a statement. While it is unwilling to address each of the misconceptions point by point, the statement said the board stands by its assertion that it has been fair and appropriate in its dealings with the two clearly disgruntled former employees.
“While we recognize the emotion involved in most termination circumstances, we are confident that in the instances that have been reported in the media regarding Brent Burns and Mary Schmelzer that our conduct was appropriate, fair and in the best interests of Northfield and the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce,” the statement said.
The Chamber statement went on to say that the board does not feel that productive discourse on personnel issues can be best addressed in a public forum until the issue is resolved. Consequently, the statement read, it will await any notice from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and then work closely with their representatives to resolve the issue.
“In the meantime,” Naumann said, “we ask people to respect the difficulty of the circumstance and withhold judgment on the Chamber until resolution is achieved. I’m convinced that the people of Northfield will be satisfied that we handled these issues in an appropriate manner.”
Reach Managing Editor Jerry Smith at 645-1136, or follow him on Twitter.com @NewsNorthfield