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Fairmont council eyes firefighter elections

FAIRMONT — How the Fairmont Fire Department selects its leadership and who ultimately has control over the department came under scrutiny at the Fairmont City Council meeting Monday.

Citing a memo from League of Minnesota Cities, which provides liability coverage for the city, Councilman Tom Hawkins requested a change in City Code to comply with the League’s recommendation to avoid potential lawsuits. Two points were at issue: change control of the fire department to the city administrator, instead of the City Council as stated in current code, and change the selection of fire department officers from the long-standing practice of being elected by members to being hired according to the city’s employee hiring process.

Hawkins explained he was made aware of the League’s memo in 2018 and brought it to the attention of then-City Administrator Mike Humpal and Mayor Debbie Foster. He thought the plan was for staff to hire the fire chief and assistant chief and then have the chief hire the remaining three fire department officers.

“That is what he (Humpal) intended to do. I’m just finding out that that didn’t get done by the time he left,” Hawkins said. “I thought I’d make those couple changes.”

He acknowledged that he sparked a backlash from the department by the feedback he received over the weekend and by the number of firefighters that filled council chambers for the meeting.

“I know all of you are mad at me, but I just need you guys to know that I am perfectly happy with the way you’re doing it,” Hawkins addressed the firefighters. “I could care less if you guys elect your own. If there’s a way that we can do it legally and the League of Minnesota Cities is fine with it, I have no problem with it.

“All I’m doing is looking out for the city. That’s what we’re called, as council people, to do, protect the city from being sued,” he said. “The memo made it very clear that the fire department should not do this (elect officers).”

“It is not a state statute. It is not law that we do this. It is a recommendation by the League of Minnesota Cities on liability insurance,” Foster said. “With that being said, we have the deepest respect for the League of Minnesota Cities because they are watching out for cities. They are watching out for our fire department. They have the best interest of everyone in mind.”

Foster said she had talked to Humpal about the issue numerous times. He learned from other city administrators to “tread very lightly” with changing the fire department practices and brought in a human resources professional to work with city staff and firefighters for resolution.

“He (Humpal) had been told it could take up to two years because he needed to bring the fire department along with him, not go in and ramrod it down their throat,” Foster said.

Brandon Scott, Fairmont fire chief, weighed in on the department’s practice of electing officers versus the proposed method of hiring them as city employees.

“We’re different than other city departments,” Scott said. “We have other jobs. We’re not full-time employees. We leave our jobs. We leave our families when we are called upon. It’s not like the street department or the police department when they are on duty.”

He said the process Humpal and the human resources professional had proposed was being surveyed and discussed by the department.

“We continue to be working on that,” he said.

“It’s a very sensitive item, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to move forward,” Foster said. “We do need to take the advice of the League of Minnesota Cities, but it’s not the law. We don’t have to do anything, but the League is highly recommending that we do this for liability purposes. We need to listen very carefully to that, but it’s a slow process and we need to respect both sides.”

Erik Ordahl, attorney with Flaherty & Hood, the city’s interim civil counsel, said the mayor summed it up perfectly. The League’s recommendation is not a law, but from a liability standpoint, the city could be sued if a firefighter believed they were wronged during the process to elect officers.

Ordahl suggested the city work with an expert in labor laws to see if there was a way to limit liability and find a compromise acceptable to all parties.

Mark Sievert, interim city administrator, said he had consulted with the League of Minnesota Cities on Monday.

“What they wanted to emphasize was that any of these memos that they put out are their recommendations,” he said. “They are what they call ‘best practices.’ In no way, shape or form are they saying what we do is illegal.”

The council instructed the interim administrator and fire chief to work with legal counsel on language to amend the City Code to change control of the fire department from the City Council to the city administrator, which already has been the practice for years.

“It’s a good place to start,” Foster said.

Sievert said he will meet with the fire chief and legal counsel on what the fire department can or should do to limit the liability exposure that might occur because of the officer election process and report any progress to the council.

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