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Mistakes of the past plague Medford's new administration

Danny Thomas, just 60 days into his second turn as Medford’s mayor, said it feels he’s putting out one fire after another.

On top of a deteriorating wastewater treatment plant and an ongoing investigation by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency into two discharges of biosolids, Thomas has been dealing with issues that include broken lines of communication between city staff and elected officials, staff who aren’t properly certified, unexpected expenses for needed repairs and a financial transfer that wasn’t made, all of which have fallen on new city leadership.

“It just doesn’t quit,” Thomas said. “This has been the 60-day muck up from the past.”

Former City Administrator Andy Welti did not return several requests for comment. Former Mayor Lois Nelson said she could not comment on many of the newly discovered issues as they were not in her purview as mayor.

Welti resigned in December shortly before Thomas took the helm as mayor, putting Thomas in the role of both mayor and administrator until Jed Petersen joined the staff Feb. 16 as administrative director of operations, a position with many of the former city administrator’s responsibilities. Thomas said the time he spent serving as city administrator showed him that communication with the city staff needed to be repaired.

“The city employees were not allowed to communicate between one another,” Thomas said. “That’s not how it should be. The employees are running the city and they need to be able to communicate, so that needed to change immediately. We have to build a team together, that is my goal for the staff. That is my vision.”

Beth Jackson, who has worked as the Medford city clerk for five years, said this week that she and the other city employees were not allowed to speak to one another about the activities in their respective departments.

“The flow of information from City Hall to City Council to the residents was all very controlled,” Jackson said.

In November, the four full-time city employees decided to unionize in response to issues with the former administration, but they’ve since had a change of heart, she said. Negotiations and mediation about unionization are still ongoing.

Council left uninformed

The Medford City Council wasn’t told after 40,000 gallons of biosolids went into the Straight River in April 2020 following an equipment failure at the wastewater treatment plant. Nor did it learn of allegations that city drinking water test results were being falsified in early to mid 2020. Mayor Thomas says he learned of the incident only last week.

Internal city emails to then administrator Welti and obtained by the People’s Press through a public records request show Andrew Fischer, Medford’s contracted wastewater treatment plant operator, told Welti that he had no choice but to report his findings to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Fischer said he realized last June that mandatory drinking water test data was improperly recorded between February 2020 until the end of June. According to Fischer, there were entries made in the log, but computer records show the tests were never done.

“There are chemicals we feed into the water that need to be checked and regulated constantly,” Fischer said. “If there was a potential overfeed, especially of radium, it could be seriously harmful to the citizens. Radium can have a negative effect on human health and is the main reason the tests are put in place to begin with.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, different doses of radiation cause different health effects, including a higher risk of getting cancer. All community water systems in the state are required to test for radium and ensure levels meet the Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standard or Maximum Contaminant Level.

Former Councilor Marie Sexton said the City Council was never told about the falsification.

“The less council found out, the more you could say everything was good,” Sexton said.

Nelson, the former mayor, said she, too, was unaware of the wastewater spills and the falsification of water tests.

“That was Andrew and Andy’s responsibility,” she said.

Unexpected issues

A lack of training for staff became apparent to Thomas when a water main broke and began flooding two homes earlier this year.

During the February City Council meeting, Thomas explained to the council that they discovered staff was not certified to fix the water main and therefore had to wait two days for a contractor to repair it. This resulted in the city settling with the property owners for a total of $8,233.

Petersen said he has reinstated day-to-day maintenance and on-the-job training to help avoid these type of issues.

The water woes don’t end there. Thomas and Councilor Chad Langeslag have been tackling the issue of failing water meter radios since the beginning of the year. When looking into why so many radios were breaking down, Langeslag discovered that the radios were being purchased too slowly to prevent the failure.

As of Friday, 105 water meter radios are down and not sending the meter readings used to determine usage and amounts customers’ owe to City Hall.

Things came to a head Jan. 24 when the city’s water meter software went offline. Thomas said they discovered the software, which should be updated annually, had not been updated in years. The failed system took more than two days to get back online, disrupting the billing process and forcing the city to reflect the missing usage on February bills.

During the February council meeting, the council agreed to spend $36,000 to replace 150 of the more than 500 meters and for updated software. Additional radios will be purchased in increments of 50 until every meter has been replaced.

To add to the problems, auditors reportedly alerted Jackson of $104,000 that was supposed to be transferred in 2020 to the capital improvement projects fund for the upcoming Main Street project, but had never been completed. The current council was able to make the transfer in time for the audit to be completed.

The state of the city’s municipal liquor store floor has also been called into question. A $6,579 contracted for the replacement of the floor was approved in December. But in January, after Councilor Grace Bartlett wondered why the new floor was already looking shabby, it was discovered that the contract for the project was incomplete and that the floor needs to be seal coated every six months at a cost of $712.

Looking ahead

Jackson, the city clerk, said she’s already noticed a drastic difference in daily operations and the relationships being built with city officials and the community since the first of the year, and that residents have told her they feel more informed about what’s happening in the city.

Thomas said it’s important for residents to know where the city currently stands for them to move forward and that he’ll continue to be transparent with the taxpayers as issued are addressed.

“I’m not giving up,” Thomas said, “in fact I’m turning the dial up an extra notch (on my work as mayor).”

Nonprofit looks to expand land restoration work in southern Minnesota
  • Updated

The snow has melted, and soon greenery will pop up and rivers will flow, welcoming an array of wildlife back to the area. Southern Minnesotans can do their part in ensuring habitat is available for flora and fauna.

Great River Greening is looking for volunteer supervisors to lead groups of five to 20 volunteers through ecological restoration events held in the region. Activities such as planting native flowers, trees and shrubs, as well as removing invasive plants, will help restore the land.

“The supervisors like the connection that they get with the volunteers a lot,” said Amy Kilgore, GRG outreach program manager. “There’s always something super rewarding about teaching and seeing people learn, and inspiring them in that way.”

GRG is a nonprofit organization that hosts community-based restoration projects on-site from the headwaters of the Mississippi River through the Anoka Sand Plain to the Twin Cities metro and down into southern Minnesota. The organization holds large scale habitat restoration events on public lands and natural areas, relying mostly on volunteers to get the work done. In a typical season, GRG hosts six to eight volunteer events both in the spring and in the fall, totaling around 18 to 20 events in a year.

Pre-pandemic restoration events could see anywhere between 100 to 200 participants, but have since been scaled back, with an event participation cap around 30 and designating volunteers into staggered shifts. Activities include planting native plugs to enhance biodiversity and creating healthy habitats, as well as removing invasive species like Buckthorn.

“That’s usually the first step, to get these invasive out and then we can come back in and do habitat maintenance or enhancement with native plants,” Kilgore said.

Volunteers participate in a seeding event at the Big Woods Heritage Forest Wildlife Management Area in Lonsdale. Great River Greening is currently looking for volunteer supervisors. “Supervisors are passionate about the outdoors and the environment and they share that passion with other volunteers and the general community,” said Amy Kilgore, GRG outreach program manager. (Photo courtesy of Manu June Photography)

Those interested in becoming in a volunteer supervisor position are asked to attend spring training from 10 a.m. to noon, March 20 via Zoom. During the training, prospective supervisors will learn more about GRG’s background, mission and different leadership skills, while focusing on teachable moments to engage small groups of volunteers during the event. Scientific and natural resources knowledge is beneficial, but not necessary, according to Kilgore.

Those interested in continuing the volunteer supervisor process will then be invited to participate in field day training from 10 a.m. to noon, March 27. Participants will be seeding at Sunktokeca Creek Wildlife Management Area located northwest of Faribault or Dora Lake WMA west of Faribault.

“It’s gonna be a field day for those newly trained supervisors to kind of connect in person with one another and with Great River Greening staff, just to get a little more of a hands-on feel for what we’re doing and get additional background to the work that we are doing in southern Minnesota,” Kilgore said.

Kilgore hopes supervisors sign up to attend at least one event per season to keep them engaged with restoration work and occasionally retrain. Prior to the events, volunteer supervisors will get additional information about the specific restoration activity and should plan to arrive early to go over last-minute details with GRG staff. The supervisor will help divide volunteers into smaller units to work on specific tasks. Kilgore wants supervisors to feel confident and supported in their work, so that confidence can be translated to community volunteers.

“Becoming a supervisor is a really great way to connect with other supervisors, volunteers and a great way to connect with the natural area in your community,” Kilgore said. “Some of these spots, especially in southern Minnesota, that we are working on are lesser known, they are not big regional parks, a lot of them are wildlife management areas.”

Even if southern Minnesota residents aren’t interested in taking on a leadership role, they can participate as community volunteers. Event volunteers will divide into staggered shifts to allow for greater social distancing and are required to wear face coverings.

In April, GRG will host a tree planting event at Big Woods Heritage Forest WMA near Lonsdale, with plans to plant 3,500 trees, Kilgore said. GRG has been working on the site for a couple of years, according to Kilgore. Volunteers are working to restore the land to its original pasture state prior to the land being cleared for agriculture. A team of volunteers helped seed the WMA last fall.

“It’s going to look really different eventually,” Kilgore said.

A volunteer works at a seeding event at Big Woods Heritage Forest Wildlife Management Area in Lonsdale. (Photo courtesy of Manu June Photography)

Kilgore hopes GRG events expose people to green spaces and build a sense of responsibility to the environment. Volunteers will be making a difference, Kilgore said, highlighting that volunteers who return will be able to see the environmental benefits of their work from previous events.

Today GRG is looking to build a network of volunteers and partners further into southern Minnesota. Kilgore anticipates as the organization grows, and the pandemic subsides, that the organization will offer opportunities in other areas of southern Minnesota, including the Minneopa State Park, Seven Mile Creek area and other lesser known areas in southern Minnesota.

“We’re really kind of building that network of work down in southern Minnesota now,” Kilgore said. “Our goal is to connect with local community members, so we try to do targeted outreach and networking through partners like the Cannon River Watershed folks, to schools, to colleges and corporations, things like that to try to get as many people engaged.”

Steele County boosts emergency management job to full time
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Steele County is moving forward with hiring a new emergency management director and bumping the position up to full time.

Owatonna Fire Chief Mike Johnson currently serves as Steele County’s part-time emergency management director. But with Johnson’s upcoming retirement in May, the city of Owatonna has notified the county that it won’t be providing its fire chief to fill the position after the retirement. The city wants to focus its fire chief position on the fire service and the city’s emergency management work, Johnson told the Steele County Board Tuesday. The city fire chief/county emergency management director combination has been in place for several decades.

State law requires counties to have an emergency management director and deputy director on staff. Johnson noted that the state recommends counties have a full-time director because of the workload.

“I agree with that. I know the last five years have been really difficult trying to balance the two jobs, but I was able to do it because we had a collaborative effort,” he said. “But I think the concern of the city at this point is it seems like the job has grown and the responsibilities have grown and the demands of the job have grown.”

The Sept. 11 attacks added responsibilities to the position related to potential terrorism and the increasing number of severe weather events every year adds to the workload, Johnson said. The job responsibilities include ensuring the county has an emergency response plan and serving as the liaison to the state during disaster recovery, in addition to mitigating future disasters. The position oversees volunteer programs such as weather spotters and the Community Emergency Response Team that has 200 people trained in first aid and disaster preparedness in Steele County. In the past year, the job has also included working with public health officials to address the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

County Administrator Scott Golberg said counties of similar size to Steele County have one to three full-time positions dedicated to emergency management. Johnson noted that the counties surrounding Steele County have a full-time emergency management director.

In addition to the emergency management director, Steele County has two part-time deputy directors and Johnson said he supports Steele County having two deputy directors instead of one.

“When you have a disaster, you can rotate and give people a break if you’re running 24 hours a day. It’s really important to have that extra help,” he said.

Each city in Steele County also has its own emergency management director.

A full-time position

The Steele County Board approved advertising an “emergency management and risk director” position as a full-time job, although some commissioners wanted it advertised as both a full-time and part-time job to see who would apply for each.

Human Resources Director Julie Johnson responded that she expects the applicant pool for the job to be small and it’s hard to know what they’ll get for candidates because it’s a “niche” profession. Golberg told the commissioners that emergency management is an area where the county needs to have adequate resources because disaster response and recovery is when the county needs all hands on deck.

The budget impact from moving the position from a half-time position to a full-time position will be $51,000 annually, Golberg said. He told the People’s Press that that’s an average estimate and the final budget amount will be determined once the person is hired. The additional cost will be covered through several mechanisms, including savings elsewhere in the budget and the reduction of a consultant contract the county has for some safety work. The county also receives a $25,000 matching emergency management program grant to assist in covering the costs.

Commissioner Jim Abbe was the sole opposition in the board’s 4-1 vote to move ahead with a full-time position. He said the decision felt “rushed” and he wasn’t comfortable moving forward yet until the position gets more “flushed out.”

As part of bumping the position up to full time, the safety program for county employees and overseeing the county’s insurance will be moved to the emergency management director’s responsibilities. That work is currently done by human resources staff and Golberg pointed out that that will free up human resources staff to focus on other projects that have been lagging. But Abbe said the county hired human resources staff to handle that work and now it’s going to hire an emergency management director to handle it.

“We’re just moving stuff around and we’re hiring more staff,” Abbe said. “We’re trying to do everything we can in our power to keep (full-time equivalent positions) under control because every time we hire someone, that’s a long-term commitment to the taxpayers. The city is hiring someone and now we’re going to be hiring someone and the taxpayers are going to get a double whammy.”

Commissioner John Glynn noted that other counties have a full-time emergency management director and he’s supporting the full-time position because the work is important.

In terms of the hiring timeframe, Julie Johnson said the deputy directors are staying put in their positions and that will cover the county if the director position isn’t filled by the time Mike Johnson retires. But she cautioned commissioners that if they wait too long to make a decision, it’ll be summer and the county could find itself not fully staffed during tornado and flood season.