Top story for 2019: City Council

Don Nordstrom, a welding instructor at Minnesota West, looks over a piece welded by Fairmont High School junior Dakotah Hoefker during a vocational open house on Nov. 25 at Fairmont High School. The school’s expanding vocational programs are the No. 7 local news story for 2019.

FAIRMONT — Fairmont’s City Council dominated the local news in 2019, with a series of controversial decisions over a seven-month period.

The actions were led by a majority of three council members — Tom Hawkins, Randy Lubenow and Ruth Cyphers — who used their power to oust the City Attorney and city administrator; and to question the knowledge, ability and integrity of city staff and previous city leadership.

The year’s events created a toxic atmosphere among council members, at City Hall and in the community.

In the end, while the majority was able to force out the pair of long-serving officials, its forays into investigating city staff and the city’s accounts ended in failure.

Many in town were left wondering what, if anything, had been gained by all the upheaval. They also wondered how much it would all cost, as the city’s legal bills and payouts in separation agreements began adding up.

What follows is the Sentinel’s list of Top 10 local news stories for 2019:

No. 10

In August, the Lutz Cancer Center opened its doors at Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont, culminating two years of planning, construction and preparation for a $1.7 million facility that doubled the size of the existing treatment space.

The cancer center replaced the former Lutz Wing nursing home that had served the community for many years. Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center became the new home for many of the residents.

The cancer center allows Mayo to treat 70 patients per week, up from the previous 40.

No. 9

In October, the Fairmont Economic Development Authority received some strong economic news.

“Since 2016, the average year for commercial development building permits has been about $5.25 million. As of the end of September, the commercial permits this year are already past the $27 million mark,” said Linsey Preuss, the city’s economic development coordinator. “About half of that amount, $14 million, is for the CHS expansion, but that still leaves another $13 million.”

She pointed out that building permits only measure the value of new construction.

“They don’t measure the investment businesses are making in machinery and equipment or in their people,” she said. “There’s a lot of confidence in our economy. Good things are happening here.”

No. 8

CHS announced in August that it would invest $100 million in its Fairmont soybean-processing plant.

CHS officials said they planned a major renovation and investment to improve plant safety, operating efficiencies and overall capacity. Specifically, five additional buildings were to be constructed, and two existing buildings modified.

CHS said it would increase the bushels of soybeans crushed annually from area farmers, and process those beans into soybean meal sold to area livestock producers.

Three local government entities — the city of Fairmont, Fairmont Area Schools and Martin County — all ended up backing a 10-year property tax abatement for the project.

Project completion is expected in late 2021.

No. 7

In November, Fairmont Area Schools held an open house to showcase its vocational programs, inviting the public to see the new Martin County Automotive Academy.

The school’s other vocational programs — an agriculture academy, welding academy, and family and consumer science program — were spotlighted as well.

The school district also is in the process of raising funds for and creating a construction trades academy.

Fairmont Area has been working with local private sector employers for several years to help tackle the skilled worker shortage, and 2019 saw several businesses donate funds to the vocational push.

No. 6

Bomgaars opened its doors in November at the site of the former Shopko in Fairmont.

About 25 people are employed at the store, including 10 full-time workers.

The Fairmont site marks the 92nd Bomgaars store for the company, which has outlets in Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming. The corporate office and distribution center are located in Sioux City, Iowa, where the company began in 1952.

No. 5

In March, Green Bay-based retailer Shopko announced it would close all of its stores, including the Fairmont location, within three months.

About 5,000 employees lost their jobs companywide.

On Jan. 16, Fairmont was listed among 100 of the company’s 360 stores it planned to close in its effort to regroup after filing for bankruptcy. Two days later, the company reversed its decision on closing the Fairmont store, citing financial support from its local landlord.

Shopko then announced plans in February to close 250 stores, about 70 percent of its locations, to scale back business in hopes of attracting a buyer or investor. The endeavor was not successful.

The Fairmont Shopko was built in 1985.

No. 4

In August, Fairmont City Council member Ruth Cyphers introduced the concept of a forensic audit by the Minnesota Office of the State Auditor, saying she wanted a “deeper look” into the city’s books because “the taxpayers deserve to know.” Her request came despite the fact that the city is independently audited every year.

On Oct. 30, Cyphers; Mayor Debbie Foster; Patty Monsen, city clerk; and Paul Hoye, city finance director, represented Fairmont during a 90-minute conference call with a contingent of auditors and legal representatives from the Office of the State Auditor. The call addressed a number of topics, including items on Cyphers’ list.

On Nov. 8, the city received a letter back from the OSA stating that the only area it would consider further would be the use of liquor store funds. The OSA estimated the cost to be $5,000.

Cyphers made a motion at the council’s Nov. 25 meeting to approve the liquor store audit, but no other council members supported her. Some officials noted that the council itself determines how liquor store proceeds are spent.

No. 3

Fairmont city administrator Mike Humpal spent much of 2019 with a target on his back, as the City Council’s majority trio took aim at his continued employment.

The council undertook an employee evaluation of Humpal on June 24, spending more than two hours in a closed session. On July 8, Mayor Debbie Foster read a statement in public about the evaluation, saying only that the council had failed to reach a consensus on any conclusions regarding Humpal’s performance.

About a week later, Foster held an interview with the Sentinel in which she said she believed Humpal’s job was safe, as two of the three members of the council’s majority — Tom Hawkins and Randy Lubenow — had written emails to fellow council members saying they were no longer interested in Humpal’s suspension or termination. The pair’s statements would later prove false.

The council subsequently held more closed sessions related to Humpal, eventually voting 3-2 on Oct. 14 to put him on paid administrative leave.

Finally, the group voted Nov. 15 to approve a separation agreement with Humpal, again by the familiar 3-2 vote. Because Humpal’s employment and leave were personnel issues, no other information was made public, and none of the council members offered any comment. Humpal declined comment, on the advice of his attorney.

Humpal had begun serving as administrator on May 31, 2012, and had served the city for many years prior as its economic development director.

No. 2

“Toxic” was a word of choice as local residents evaluated the Fairmont City Council and its interactions in 2019. The division began in April when two council members — Tom Hawkins and Randy Lubenow — visited City Attorney Libby Bloomquist in her office to let her know they planned to move the city to a contract attorney rather than keeping one in-house.

Shortly thereafter, the council met in a work session at which Mayor Debbie Foster called the two men’s actions unethical. She and another councilman also questioned whether Hawkins, Lubenow and council member Ruth Cyphers were working to pre-arrange outcomes of council decisions in violation of the open meeting law.

Through a data request, the Sentinel obtained emails circulated among council members. They revealed deep worry among the council’s minority — Wayne Hasek and Bruce Peters, as well as Foster — over the majority’s actions, and particularly the efforts of Hawkins to run over and around the council and city staff.

Local citizens got involved quickly. They formed a committee that in early May proposed a recall election of Hawkins, saying he had abused his power. The group had gathered hundreds of signatures but soon learned that a conflict between City Charter and state law made the recall effort null and void.

The distrust, division and suspicions that had formed in April continued as the council moved through a series of controversies over the year, with the regular 3-2 council vote punctuating the schism.

No. 1

Two Fairmont City Council members — Tom Hawkins and Randy Lubenow — approached Fairmont City Attorney Elizabeth Bloomquist in April to say that they planned to move the city to a contract attorney rather than keeping one in-house. But, joined by Councilwoman Ruth Cyphers, their plan quickly shifted and the trio instead gave Bloomquist a negative employment review, leading to a separation agreement between her and the city.

Bloomquist subsequently turned over her files to the County Attorney’s Office, which the city had hired for prosecution services. This opened a can of worms as it was revealed that as many as three dozen cases had run past their statute of limitations on Bloomquist’s watch, although it was not clear what exactly this meant.

Lubenow revealed the expired cases at a City Council meeting, and a later news report by KSTP television said the County Attorney’s Office had provided the information to the city. But other city leaders noted that Lubenow’s revelation was the first they had heard about it.

It became clear that the expired cases had nothing to do with the council’s original decision to part ways with Bloomquist, so it remained unclear why it had.

It was later revealed that the actual number of cases that ran beyond their statute of limitations was 26, without the former City Attorney closing those cases, filing charges or seeking more investigative work, according to a report from Viesselman’s office and the chief of police.

In the meantime, the city began facing mounting legal bills, as it continued to pay Bloomquist, through May 2020 as it would turn out, and pay for the services of Viesselman’s office and for civil counsel Flaherty & Hood.

Added to the mix was an investigation (carrying more costs) of city staff to see if any of them knew about the expired cases. Hawkins pushed for the probe, saying he could not believe some staff did not know about the cases. But an independent investigation showed just the opposite, exonerating city staff.