Discord on Fairmont City Council continues

FAIRMONT — The Fairmont City Council spent 2 hours and 21 minutes in a closed session Monday to evaluate the job performance of City Administrator Mike Humpal.

Although Councilman Randy Lubenow had pushed to adjust the agenda to include a summary of the evaluation and a resolution immediately after the closed session, he backtracked when it came time to present the matters.

“When you sign up to be on the City Council, it’s a difficult job,” Lubenow said when the council came out of closed session. “The pay’s not great, 200 bucks a month. You have lots of people giving you their opinions, and you have to move forward with what you think is best for the city of Fairmont.

“I think we had some good discussions during our evaluation, but I also think we have some issues that we need to work out. That is why I’m asking to table the summary and resolution until next meeting.”

At the start of the council meeting, Lubenow had asked that the results of Humpal’s evaluation be made public immediately, instead of following the council’s longtime practice of waiting until the next regular meeting. He also wanted to offer a resolution “related to the city attorney” at that time. The council handled the recent evaluation and separation of employment with former City Attorney Elizabeth Bloomquist in a similar manner.

Mayor Debbie Foster asked for an opinion on the matter from Chris Hood of Flaherty & Hood, the new interim city attorney for civil matters.

“Typically the process for summarizing conclusions is usually done at the next regular meeting,” Hood said. “If there’s a resolution related to the administrator’s evaluation, you would need to consider any charter requirements or the city administrator’s employment agreement, neither of which I’ve been called upon to look at at this point, so I guess it’s difficult to comment on those things. My recommendation would be to do it at the next regular meeting.”

After Lubenow reiterated his desired amendments for the agenda, Councilman Tom Hawkins immediately moved to approve the new agenda, and Ruth Cyphers seconded the motion. The motion passed by a 3-2 vote, with Bruce Peters and Wayne Hasek opposing the changes.

The divide on the council continued later in the meeting when a public hearing was set for July 8 to gather input from residents about removing from City Code the requirement for the city attorney to attend council meetings.

“With where we’re at, I think it’s just the wrong time to not have an attorney present,” Peters said.

“This is just going to take it out of the code,” said Hawkins, who initially proposed the change. “In our contract, where we hire for permanent services, is that they be here every meeting, if we want.”

Peters made a statement at the end of the regular session, referring to comments he had made to Lubenow at the council’s June 10 meeting.

“I was asked by a few people, what was the deal, and they said you should explain that to everybody, and here it is,” Peters said. “I interrupted with a comment that stated this is why we needed an attorney at our meetings. An attorney would have cut you (Lubenow) off instantly, or something to that effect.

“This transpired when the County Attorney was making his pitch why we should hire him for prosecutorial stuff. Councilor Lubenow had been questioning him about how many open files had been sent to the office. When Councilor Lubenow started to disparage our past city attorney, (County Attorney Terry) Viesselman stopped him properly and quickly because that was just an inappropriate line of questioning.

“Then during the open discussion at the end of our meeting, the same path implying that [Bloomquist] had been delinquent in her duties. That’s when I stepped in and said stop.”

Peters then read the a portion of the separation agreement between Bloomquist and the city that states that the city “will not make any disparaging or defamatory statements concerning any aspects of its employment relationship with Elizabeth Bloomquist.” The agreement also states if the agreement is violated, the aggrieved party can take legal action for damages.

Peters then went on to put Hawkins in the spotlight by revealing that last week Hawkins had taken it upon himself to contact an attorney to put together a proposal to put on a training session for the Charter Commission.

“Aside from the fact he has absolutely no authority to bypass the City Council making such a request, the email (to the attorney) states, ‘Our Charter Commission is kind of a mess right now. They were not properly trained as to what their purpose is and to what things they can and cannot do in their role. Our past city attorney made no attempt to train them or prepare them for this role.'”

Peters expressed his concern that the actions of Lubenow and Hawkins are setting the city up for a potentially damaging expensive lawsuit.

He added that five local attorneys contacted him after Bloomquist’s departure, telling him they would not consider being the city’s legal counsel as long as Hawkins is in office. Peters backed up his statement by noting that of the 18 proposals for services sent to attorneys, only three responded, and those were all at least 50 miles away.

“I’m hearing concerns from both city staff and constituents that there’s a strong fear that these three (Lubenow, Hawkins and Cyphers) are going to pull the same move on our city administrator,” Peters said. “All you can do is talk to them. We are powerless, Wayne and myself. We’re only two votes.”

He predicted that if the council makes the same move on the city administrator that was made on the city attorney, the city would be “blackballed.” Peters also accused the three council members of predetermining the outcome of the evaluation process.

Hawkins defended Lubenow’s conduct at the June 10 meeting, saying, “All he did was ask questions.” He told Peters he should go watch the recording of the meeting.

Peters said he was concerned that the city would lose its quality employees because of the council’s conduct.

“I just have a sneaking suspicion that after the vote to open the council meeting back up, that you three all decided what you’re going to do,” he said. “I’m very fearful for the direction of the city.”