Separation agreement with Dean Zuleger approved by Lake Elmo council

Dean Zuleger
Dean Zuleger

Administrator says, 'It's what's best for me and city'

The tally of Lake Elmo employees heading for the City Hall exits in recent weeks is now up to four.

The departures started a couple months ago with the resignations of receptionist Stacy Bodsberg and taxpayer relations manager-communications coordinator Alyssa MacLeod. Assistant city administrator and city clerk Adam Bell soon followed, when he turned in his resignation letter May 29.

Then Tuesday, June 9, the suburb's top employee, city administrator Dean Zuleger, joined the ranks of departing municipal staffers, following a separation agreement unanimously approved by the council.

City attorney Dave Snyder told the council members that he has had numerous discussions with the city administrator recently, and said it was his understanding that Zuleger wanted to explore options for a separation agreement with the city.

"It is a separation agreement I would ask that council give serious consideration to," Snyder said.

At the meeting, Zuleger said he appreciates the outpouring of support he has received from residents and the business community, but said it was time for the council to find someone else to take the reins as city administrator.

"Cleary, I have a philosophy of government that might not be in tune with [the current council]," he said.

Prior to voting on the city's separation agreement with Zuleger, council member Julie Fliflet stated she was "not OK" with the terms of the agreement presented by Snyder.

Council member Jill Lundgren said she wanted to go into a closed session to go over the terms of the agreement, which was seconded by Fliflet.

Snyder advised against going into an executive session to discuss the terms of the agreement.

"I think council is intimately knowledgeable about the matter ... I would not recommend going into an executive session."

Council member Anne Smith cast the third vote needed to approve going into a closed session. A handful of city staff members, news reporters and several residents, along with Zuleger and his attorney were all told to leave the council chambers, while the council members and Snyder met privately in a closed session.

When the private conversation concluded about 20 minutes or so later, those left in the lobby were allowed back in the chambers for a public vote on the agreement, which passed 5-0.

According to the agreement, Zuleger would stay on as city administrator for one month, would stay on in a consulting role for two months, and receive six months of his regular salary as severance pay following his departure. Zuleger's annual salary is $113,000.

Attorney Snyder stressed the "sensitivity of employment-related matters" to council members several times, so there was little public discussion as to why Zuleger was seeking a separation agreement with the city.

"Hostile work environment"

However, it's no secret that Zuleger identifies a "hostile work environment" created by the city council as his key reason for leaving.

In his resignation letter, Bell also cited a "hostile work environment" caused by some council members for his departure, and it is widely believed both Bodsberg and MacLeod left for similar reasons.

Zuleger filed a confidential complaint last fall, alleging he was repeatedly abused and harassed by council member Smith, whom he said created the hostile work environment for him and three other staff members -- although no other staff member has publicly named Smith, or any other council member as bullying them.

Smith has denied all allegations of abuse and harassment leveled against her.

In September 2014, before Fliflet and Lundgren were elected, the city council voted to censure Smith from one-on-one communications with city staff, but the current council voted to lift those restrictions at a Jan. 20 meeting.

Mayor Mike Pearson and the rest of the council were optimistic that order and civility would be restored at City Hall moving forward.

But it appears tensions between staff and council members only worsened in the new year once Fliflet and Lundgren began their service on the council. The two women are thought to share a similar political ideology as Smith, and agree on many issues, particularly when it comes to slowing the rate of development in Lake Elmo.

The three council members often create a 3-2 majority when agenda items come up for a vote at council meetings, and arguments between the split council on city efforts have become almost commonplace.

Time to move on

Zuleger told the Review Wednesday he has mixed feelings about leaving his job in Lake Elmo.

He said he is proud of the many accomplishments he and city staff have made during his first three years with the city, such as "building bridges" between city staff and Washington County, and with different homeowners associations, which he said have felt disenfranchised, and with the local business community.

"We worked hard to make this a taxpayers' government," he said.

Zuleger said he plans to spend more time with his family in the coming months. He and his wife live in neighboring Oakdale, and are looking into the possibility of opening a small business. He said he does not have another job lined up, but has been approached by a couple of different organizations that have expressed a desire to employ him if he were available.

He said his work in Lake Elmo isn't concluded yet. He wants to see some of the work he and staff started in the city come to fruition. He said it's been a pleasure to work with the mayor, and he wants to make sure to leave things in good shape for Pearson, city staff, the residents and the next city administrator.

"I'm a 'finish-well guy.' It's something my dad taught me," he said.

"I really love the people of Lake Elmo and appreciate their support and don't want to do anything to hurt them," he added.

Pearson told the Review Wednesday that, "given the unfortunate circumstances," Zuleger's separation from the city was best for Lake Elmo and for Zuleger, and said it's important the city moves forward.

"For reasons that are lost on me, the ladies on the council prefer new management," he said. "So, much as I disagree with that, we have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us."

Pearson said that while losing four key city staff members in such quick succession "was disconcerting" to him and despite a workload that would be challenging to a city staff twice the size of Lake Elmo's, the city's work must continue.

Pearson said Zuleger "has done a tremendous job as administrator."

He pointed to a few of the items on Tuesday's agenda as examples of Zuleger and city staff's recent accomplishments, such as lowering the assessments to residents for city sewer and the securing of a $3.5 million grant to help pay for a new water tower along Inwood Avenue that will provide water to new development along the Interstate-94 corridor.

Pearson said he has called for a meeting Tuesday, June 16, for the council to discuss what steps the city will take in finding a new city administrator.

"In one sense it's sad for me," Zuleger said of his pending departure. "But in another sense it's pretty clear that it's time to move on. I think it is what's best for myself, my family and the community."

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

 

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