UPDATE: Former director confirms discrimination charges filed against Northfield Chamber - Northfield MN: News

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UPDATE: Former director confirms discrimination charges filed against Northfield Chamber

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Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 8:00 am | Updated: 11:53 pm, Tue Jul 22, 2014.

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.”

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  • Discuss

Welcome to the discussion.


  • unconcernedcitizen posted at 9:06 pm on Wed, Jul 30, 2014.

    unconcernedcitizen Posts: 632

    Have to agree with steak on this one Ed. These people are masters at covering stains on their skirts.
    They may be like to inbred nobility but they're still smart enough to bury anything with two heads or warts.

  • steakholder posted at 8:43 pm on Wed, Jul 30, 2014.

    steakholder Posts: 1726

    Spec. Ed.....none of the above......

    Are the board meeting minutes public? If they are, my guess is someone could find out what went on by reading all the minutes....if they still have them?

    My guess is, this thing will get settled out of court, and one of the conditions will be a gag order, so the general public will never find out what happened.

  • parentvoice posted at 10:11 am on Mon, Jul 28, 2014.

    parentvoice Posts: 481

    This ominous innuendo is worse than simply coming right out and saying what the ED's did that was grounds for termination. How despicable.

  • Northfieldtad1 posted at 9:53 am on Mon, Jul 28, 2014.

    Northfieldtad1 Posts: 54

    I wonder what downtown business you own that I don't patronize.

  • steakholder posted at 8:44 am on Mon, Jul 28, 2014.

    steakholder Posts: 1726

    At-Will Employees

    A majority of workers are employed "at will," which means they do not have a formal employment contract with their employer. This means their employment may be ended at any time. In other cases, workers have signed a written contract that contains an "at will" clause stating an employee can terminate for any reason without cause. But even “at will” employees have certain rights against a wrongful termination and can not be fired for reasons that violate public policy, or the law.

    Other forms of wrongful termination include:

    Being fired while on pregnancy or medical leave
    Being retaliated against after filing a sexual harassment or discrimination complaint
    Being retaliated against for complaining about some unlawful workplace practice
    Being sexually harassed
    Being discriminated against or fired because of your race, age, sex, ethnicity, religion, pregnancy, sexual orientation or disability
    Not being compensated for overtime
    Not given lunch breaks or rest breaks

  • steakholder posted at 8:22 am on Sun, Jul 27, 2014.

    steakholder Posts: 1726

    GoeGiamo can say whatever he wants. Other people can say different things. We'll have to see what comes out in the news. I'll just say...I predicted there would be a law suit....and I was right wasn't I?

    Well...I also say GoeGiamo is completely wrong in just about everything he says.

    GGiamo shows a complete misunderstanding of, if not employment law, then certainly of the way that these events play out in real life. A lot of people and companies make the same mistake, and they often pay a price.

    People think that because it's MN and we're an employment at will state, you can just fire anyone, anytime, and you've got nothing to worry about. Reality is a little different.

    First of all, just because you can do something, that doesn't mean you should do it, or that it's an ethical or proper way to treat someone. Is that really how the chamber thinks an organization should treat people? You just don't renew someone's contract with no explanation, or you fire someone after 3 weeks after they moved from Iowa and their wife got a job in town and they almost bought a house? No effort to work out the issues or help the employee change what's wrong?

    These are the leaders of our business community?

    Also, the state investigation is one thing, but even if they find nothing was done wrong, that doesn't mean it's the end of the story.

    Second, while technically the chamber can claim they didn't break any laws, even if they didn't, which has yet to be determined, that's still a very foolish and unprofessional way to deal with such an issue, because there's a very good liklihood that you'll get sued, and at that point, you've clearly lost.

    Anyone can sue anyone else, for anything, any time. I've seen several instances where someone was fired or "didn't have their contract renewed", and they turned around and sued the organization, and got a nice big settlement.

    Because the organization either spends $40K going to court, and having their dirty laundry aired for the world to see, or they decide that it's cheaper and better for the organization to cut their losses by settling out of court, and then they put a gag on the employee so they can't ever tell the story.

    In my opinion, the people who made this decision either have no HR experience themselves, or got no advice from an HR professional, or they got really bad advice.

    Again, it's sort of scary to think that this is reflective of Northfield's business community, as this is sort of a random sample of our business leaders.

    In fact, Burns was really Savvy to make the Chamber fire him, because then they clearly can't say he resigned. They really stepped in it when they did that.

    If you're going to terminate someone, it really needs to be a last resort. You need to bring up the issues in question with the person, and give them opportunities to correct their behavior. Again, that's assuming what you're asking them to do is even legal or reasonable. If the issue is that you keep complaining that the organization is being run illegally, counter to their bylaws and articles, well, their might be things that someone would decide you were unreasonable to fire them for.

    Could you fire an employee for failing to follow your instructions to break the law, etc, etc.?

    Anyway, you need to give an employee an opportunity to correct their behavior, and if they don't you need to go through a progressive disciplinary process of repeated discussions, opportunities and efforts to solve the problem, and you need to document all of it, and the employee needs to be aware of all of it.

    Lastly, this bit from GoeGiamo that we should somehow excuse the Chamber board because they are volunteers is ridiculous. Lay boards of volunteers are held to the same legal standards as paid managers in for profit companies.

    So what he's saying also is that if we didn't have these wonderful board members, we wouldn't have this huge mess? I don't follow the logic.

    A question to end with is...if this is how poorly the chamber board is handling these issues, doesn't that bring into question how they're handling other issues? Like promoting the community and attracting businesses, etc. etc.. The CVB gets' tax dollars, and is overseen by the Chamber. Should we be afraid that they're not doing their job very well either?

    My suggestion is that the CIty Council should look into this issue and decide whether we should freeze the money that is going to this/these organizations until this whole thing plays out. Isn't it possible that if there's a lawsuit, our tax dollars would end up going to pay for settlements?

    The fact that someone is a volunteer board member isn't a "get out of jail free" card.

    Even the fact that Goe says we should excuse their behavior because they're volunteers, is an admission on his part that they did something wrong.

  • GoeGiamo posted at 1:50 pm on Sat, Jul 26, 2014.

    GoeGiamo Posts: 5

    What you just posted means that they have "jurisdiction" to look into that complaint. It does not mean that the State is making a ruling in favor of one side or the other. Why do I need to be "VERY careful"? Am I not allowed to voice my opinions?

  • Hopeful posted at 6:05 pm on Thu, Jul 24, 2014.

    Hopeful Posts: 253

    I am pretty sure the previous board did a pretty good job of smearing their own reputations.

  • Soitgoes posted at 9:55 am on Thu, Jul 24, 2014.

    Soitgoes Posts: 1009

    "this is volunteer for her and what is there to gain by doing this "volunteer work""

    Seriously? You don't think that there isn't "gain" for a business owner to be a member of the Chamber Board? The EDA? Any other organization that has a hand in a communities growth, or lack thereof? Connect the dots, not that difficult to see the "value" of being a Board member for an organization that impacts the direction of the business community that you are also a member of.

  • nfcitizen posted at 8:12 am on Thu, Jul 24, 2014.

    nfcitizen Posts: 3


    It is clearly stated on this above link:
    "MDHR determines if complaint is covered by the Minnesota Human Rights Act.";
    "If complaint is not covered, there is no filing"
    "If complaint is covered: charge is filed and sent to the respondent."

    GoeGiamo, I urge you to be VERY careful

  • GoeGiamo posted at 8:15 pm on Wed, Jul 23, 2014.

    GoeGiamo Posts: 5

    Actually, honesty and integrity has served me quite well. Thank you for your concern.

  • GoeGiamo posted at 8:14 pm on Wed, Jul 23, 2014.

    GoeGiamo Posts: 5

    Maybe...just maybe, the reason the board has not gone public is to try and save face and not smear the image of the past directors. I would think that would be an admirable stance. To say it does not look good for the board is like reading half a book and saying it had a horrible ending.

  • GoeGiamo posted at 8:10 pm on Wed, Jul 23, 2014.

    GoeGiamo Posts: 5

    Actually, the State has an obligation to look into the complaint and gather ALL evidence and/or both sides of the story. That is why the State has yet to make a determination. Otherwise, you would have heard that already. Try again.

  • nfcitizen posted at 9:11 am on Wed, Jul 23, 2014.

    nfcitizen Posts: 3

    If the state thought that there was nothing more than just a disgruntled employee, they would have stated so. Instead, they feel there is just cause to proceed.

  • someguy posted at 8:44 am on Wed, Jul 23, 2014.

    someguy Posts: 293

    >And you "Someguy" why don't you hold your breath until that actually happens.

    You must have me confused with some other guy. I have no idea what "that" is, and the only thing I did in this thread is post an accurate list of the board members from the time period in question.

  • Northfieldtad1 posted at 8:21 am on Wed, Jul 23, 2014.

    Northfieldtad1 Posts: 54

    Love the tone. I bet that serves you well in your business.

    Also, what exactly does the Chamber do that benefits the public? Winter Walk. That's it.

    I see many, many businesses that aren't Chamber members that still get customers. If the Chamber was gone tomorrow, I doubt anyone would care except those on the board and its members. It's been a joke of an organization for a long time. Blow it up.

  • Brent Burns posted at 7:07 am on Wed, Jul 23, 2014.

    Brent Burns Posts: 8

    "Burns is a bit more touchy, but you will all understand when it comes out." That's a pretty ominous quote. If anyone wants a day by day recount of my activities, I'll be happy to share, but my days were spent meeting with my new staff, setting expectations, planning future events for the Chamber, meeting business owners (Chamber members and non-members alike) and attempting to get some level of organization into the Chamber. If there is a "smoking gun", it will be news to me, unless drinking too much Pepsi or eating too many Sweet and Salty Nut Bars is a crime.

  • Hopeful posted at 6:25 am on Wed, Jul 23, 2014.

    Hopeful Posts: 253

    GoeGiamo, thanks for chiming in but I suspect that unless you are an employee of the chamber or a member of the board you don't know anything more then the rest of us who are chamber members. Yes, the facts will come out but from what we know thus far it is not looking good for the chamber, the board members or anyone involved in these two fiascoes. The (former) executive directors have shared their side of the story yet the chamber board has failed to share their side. As a chamber member, who has and continues to question the value of the chamber, I find that a bit insulting.

    So, unless you have more facts and information to bring to the table, I am afraid you are in the dark like the rest of us.

  • GoeGiamo posted at 9:18 pm on Tue, Jul 22, 2014.

    GoeGiamo Posts: 5

    Okay news freaks...here is the REAL scoop. First of all, you will all be amazed at how the last two E.D.'s (that's executive director in case you didn't know parentvoice), are in for a rude awakening after all of the details go public. I can only hope that the Northfield News is vigilent in reoporting the actual truth instead of bits and pieces from each side and calling it a story. I have been a member of the chamber for nearly seven years now, so I am aware of what actually went on for BOTH terminations, and the whole story has yet to come out. Not even the tip of the iceberg. Schmelzer was not terminated, it was an acutal declination to renew her contract by the board. Absolutely within their rights to do so. Burns is a bit more touchy, but you will all understand when it comes out. Now, as for you you "parentvoice". If you are not a merchant, how can you actually determine whether or not the chamber is doing well or not? an entity founded on integrity or corruption? a tightly run organization or a raging dumpster fire? You are simply uneducated, therefore you should not pass judgement until you are up to speed on the actual goings-on at the chamber and what all came to pass when the directors had left. And you "Someguy" why don't you hold your breath until that actually happens. It may be a while, so get practicing. All of you need to realize that the Board of Directors is a group comprised of Volunteers. If it weren't for those people and the local members, you wouldn't have anything to complain about. They could always volunteer to NOT participate in one of the more important civic organizations in this town.

  • lisa16 posted at 5:28 pm on Tue, Jul 22, 2014.

    lisa16 Posts: 1

    since when are those guilty until proven innocent???? why are we all jumping to conclusions when not all the facts are laid right out in front of us so we can make the appropriate judgment. I have known Beth for over 6 years and I have seen her put more time and energy into this chamber than her own business and what for? this is volunteer for her and what is there to gain by doing this "volunteer work". it is just a sad day that we judge before we know the true facts. some of you making some of the derogatory remarks should look up and read the "Desiderata" and think about what your saying about others and the harm it can do.

  • Glo posted at 10:54 am on Tue, Jul 22, 2014.

    Glo Posts: 7

    Let's not forget that on the day that Mary Schmelzer was "let go" the Northfield News online article headlined that she was fired, with quotes from Dave Neuger. Within a few hours the article was no longer visable. I'm just saying.....

  • parentvoice posted at 9:26 am on Tue, Jul 22, 2014.

    parentvoice Posts: 481

    Hmmm. More stonewalling in this morning's comments from Ayotte. I would say, look at the former and the current board members, and think about whether or not you really want to do business with them or vote them into office.

  • takeachillpill posted at 9:14 am on Tue, Jul 22, 2014.

    takeachillpill Posts: 3

    This is just the tip of the Chamber iceberg! The Chamber has been run poorly for years now and until major changes are made it will continue to cover up and make no returns on investments by local businesses. It was suggested years ago that the Northfield Area Chamber be combined with another chamber, and form a county chamber. Some of these problems go back to years long before either of these people arrived on the scene.
    Hats off to the individuals who have been brave enough to raise questions about how this chamber operates. An external party needs to come in and do a full audit of this organization. I can only imagine what they might uncover.
    Other internal things have taken place there over the last few months that have gotten no media coverage. There is no transparency in this organization, only secrets that are closely guarded.

  • treefrog posted at 8:37 am on Tue, Jul 22, 2014.

    treefrog Posts: 9

    Charges were filed against the Chamber Board but the Human Rights department hasn't determined guilt or innocence at this point, right?

    I find it difficult to believe that this many business people (from two different Board Members) would agree to terminate employees under said conditions.

    I'm not taking a position either way, but I think I'll wait for more information before passing more judgement.

  • parentvoice posted at 8:11 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    parentvoice Posts: 481

    While normally I would agree, the "hush money" thing, combined with Ayotte giving a false statement about the termination of Mary S. this week makes me very skeptical. The Chamber is digging its grave right before our eyes.

  • Ximenes posted at 7:52 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    Ximenes Posts: 66

    Have you ever heard of the concept of "innocent until proven guilty"? We should especially remember this when vague charges of "discrimination" are in play.

  • someguy posted at 7:03 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    someguy Posts: 293

    This is the directory as it was on October 26, 2013:

    Mary Schmelzer, Executive Director
    Jerry Anderson, Self Storage, President
    Richard Estenson, First National Bank of Northfield, Past President
    Ernie Hurlbut, McLane Minnesota, Treasurer
    Beth Ayotte Naumann, ServiceMaster By Ayotte, Vice President
    James Schlichting, James J. Schlichting PLLC
    David Neuger, Neuger Communications Group, Inc.
    Mille Berg, Coldwell Bank Metro South Realty
    Leif Knecht, Knecht's Nurseries & Landscaping, Inc.
    Becky Zrimsek, Carleton College


  • parentvoice posted at 5:33 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    parentvoice Posts: 481

    Fair enough, Jaci.

  • Jaci Smith posted at 5:29 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    Jaci Smith Posts: 146 Staff

    Hi Brent, thank you so much for being part of our conversation. Actually, chamber board meetings are NOT public. I would imagine members could attend, but I expect, since the board will be discussing personnel issues, that they would convene behind closed doors, even to members.

  • Jaci Smith posted at 5:28 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    Jaci Smith Posts: 146 Staff

    Hopeful, I am responding for Managing Editor Jerry Smith because he's coaching travel baseball out of town right now (Go Raiders 14AA!). The reason the post was taken down is because those board members were not the same ones involved in the Schmelzer decision. There is some overlap but not completely. We didn't think it would be fair to point the questions their direction when they weren't the ones who made the decisions. Hope that helps.

  • Brent Burns posted at 5:12 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    Brent Burns Posts: 8

    There is a scheduled Board of Director's meeting tomorrow morning at 7:00 am at the Chamber office. I sure hope some Chamber members and the media are planning on attending this "open" meeting.

  • Brent Burns posted at 5:10 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    Brent Burns Posts: 8

    Mary is right, my attempt to warn the Board of Directors of the pending investigation created a trust gap between the Board and myself, which was ultimately the excuse the Board used to ask for my resignation. Both members of the Executive Committee that I discussed this with absolutely blew it off, maintaining that it was "closed", "over with" and would never come back against them. My goal was to protect my Board of Directors by sharing this information and to demonstrate my loyalty to them. Instead, they evidently felt that I was getting too close to the truth....

  • Brent Burns posted at 5:06 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    Brent Burns Posts: 8

    I wrote a "Guest Editorial" outlining many of the same things you mentioned here, hoping that the Northfield News chooses to publish it soon...

  • Hopeful posted at 4:55 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    Hopeful Posts: 253

    I don't understand why they would remove your post since it is public information. Perhaps the NN can enlighten on why they took such measures.

  • parentvoice posted at 3:50 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    parentvoice Posts: 481

    They took down my comment posting the names of the board of directors. But you can find it on the Chamber website.

  • Hopeful posted at 2:29 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    Hopeful Posts: 253

    Since the chamber board can not figure out a game plan I have drafted one for them.

    1) Chamber board resigns en mass.
    2) City temporarily takes over the chamber and names a temp exec director.
    3) Chamber settles the legal matters out-of-court with full details being released to the membership.
    4) Bylaws, policies, procedures of the chamber are re-written and reviewed by lawyers.
    5) New chamber board is elected by the membership and installed.
    6) New executive director is hired.
    7) Members of the board (Item #1) are banned for life from membership in the chamber.

  • parentvoice posted at 12:41 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    parentvoice Posts: 481

    Good God. I am very much looking forward to the statement from the Chamber, because it looks god-awful the way they've treated two people and tried to hush things up. If I were a local merchant, I would withdraw--immediately--from this dysfunctional group.

  • Jerry Smith posted at 12:22 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    Jerry Smith Posts: 47 Staff

    DrNo ... The details of the MN Department of Human Rights investigation are not public at this time. Here is a brief description of what the organization does ... The Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) is a neutral state agency that investigates charges of illegal discrimination, ensures that businesses seeking state contracts are in compliance with equal opportunity requirements, and strives to eliminate discrimination by educating Minnesotans about their rights and responsibilities under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).

  • DrNo posted at 12:06 pm on Mon, Jul 21, 2014.

    DrNo Posts: 121

    What kind of "discrimination"? I'm confused.


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