Lake Elmo council votes to retain Zuleger, for now

Dean Zuleger
Dean Zuleger
Protesters lined the sidewalk leading into Lake Elmo City Hall Tuesday, March 24. A crowd of nearly 200 people opposing a contentious council vote on March 10 to part ways with city administrator Dean Zuleger showed up that evening. At the March 24 meeting, the council voted unanimously to retain Zuleger through at least Jan. 31, 2016. (Joshua Nielsen / Review)
Protesters lined the sidewalk leading into Lake Elmo City Hall Tuesday, March 24. A crowd of nearly 200 people opposing a contentious council vote on March 10 to part ways with city administrator Dean Zuleger showed up that evening. At the March 24 meeting, the council voted unanimously to retain Zuleger through at least Jan. 31, 2016. (Joshua Nielsen / Review)

Around 100 Lake Elmo residents outraged over a recent council decision to release city administrator Dean Zuleger packed the council chambers at City Hall Tuesday, March 24, for a special meeting, where council members voted unanimously to retain Zuleger through at least Jan. 31, 2016.  

Dozens of other residents and business owners -- many waving signs reading “WE PROTEST COUNCIL VOTE” -- lined up along the sidewalk leading into City Hall and into the building’s entryway.

The crowd was so large a fireman could be seen taking a headcount -- presumably to make sure the room was not over capacity -- and urging people to keep exits clear.

Before the residents and merchants had an opportunity to voice their outrage, city attorney Dave Snyder made a suggestion to the council to keep Zuleger on the job for another 10 months. If Zuleger chooses to stay on as administrator, his future employment status with the city would be revisited once again by the council early next year.

“It’s a path that I think distills the views of the council and the city administrator,” Snyder said.

Mayor Mike Pearson said the outpouring of support for Zuleger was “nothing short of amazing.”

“What we’ve affirmed here is the value Zuleger adds to the city,” Pearson said.

Council member Justin Bloyer commented that the council members’ decision to retain Zuleger shows their commitment to listening to constituents and to working together as a team. Others on the council echoed that sentiment.

Many skeptical of council’s intentions

While he admitted more work lies ahead for council members, Ed Gorman, owner of Gorman’s Restaurant in Lake Elmo, said the council’s vote to retain Zuleger and pledge to work towards civility showed “evidence of healing.”

Most of the crowd, however, was not satisfied with the council members’ apparent yielding to the will of the people, viewing the 5-0 vote to keep Zuleger on staff as disingenuous, and wondering what changed their minds.

Several called for council member Anne Smith’s resignation. A few also demanded that new council members Jill Lundgren and Julie Fliflet also resign for supporting a motion to let Zuleger go at the March 10 council meeting.

It was at that meeting that Smith, Lundgren and Fliflet voted in favor of the city parting ways with its popular city administrator.

The whole situation stems from allegations Zuleger made last year that he was being abused and harassed repeatedly by council member Smith, whom he alleged created a “hostile work environment” for him and other staff members.

Zuleger reportedly filed a confidential complaint with the city claiming Smith’s abuse included her “slapping,” “poking,” and “yelling” at him during his tenure.

At the March 24 meeting, the three council members made a 180-degree change in opinion, which some in the audience said seemed contrived.

Fliflet made the motion to retain Zuleger through January 2016, and later stated that the council’s vote shows that council members are “listening” to residents.

Planning commissioner Dale Dorschner, a member of the “Wake Up, Lake Elmo” group that formed after Zuleger’s dismissal, told the council that 850 residents had signed a petition asking the city bring Zuleger back for a minimum of 18 months. He also said he and others in the city demanded that the council return transparency and civility to municipal government.

Former council member Wally Nelson told the council he hadn’t intended to speak at the meeting, but in the end decided he must.

He reiterated Dorschner’s remark about the signatures and said the former council “did what it could” to address the hostility between Smith and Zuleger by censuring Smith. Council members voted 4-0 to bar her from speaking with city employees without another council member present at the city’s Sept. 2, 2014, meeting. Council members voted to lift those restrictions Jan. 20.

“Council member Smith has caused so many problems... It’s time for her to go,” Nelson said.

Smith was unusually quiet through much of the two and half hour meeting, but later told those in attendance that she has personally felt bullied by other council members in the past; “many times” when she would cast the sole dissenting vote on a council motion. Her comment was met with laughter from the crowd.

Smith also denied allegations of abuse and harassment at the meeting.

“There are many rumors and unfounded allegations that are floating around specifically directed at me,” Smith said. “They are simply not true and did not happen. There are no formal complaints against me.”

Smith said the council was committed to making progress and putting the matter to rest.

“I think tonight everyone has sat down and asked what can we do to be a better council,” she said.

Joshua Nielsen can be reached at jnielsen@lillienews.com or 651-748-7822.
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