DULUTH — Martha Bremer, who until recently was in a high-profile position with the Duluth Chamber of Commerce, went to the board of directors in August driven by concerns about the quiet hiring of an employee to head a new foundation within the organization.
At the time, Bremer said, details were sparse. She didn't know who had been hired, the job description or even the foundation's mission. Chamber President Matt Baumgartner would only say that he had hired someone with foundation experience and "a certain skill set," Bremer said.
What she learned over the next few weeks only caused her more concern. Baumgartner's pick for the new role at the 150-year-old organization that works to boost local businesses was Daniel Fanning — who at the time he was hired was the chair of the chamber's board of directors; he stepped down from that post in September.
Fanning had also led the executive search committee that the previous summer had hired Baumgartner, then chair of the board and the longtime general manager and director of government affairs at Grandma's Restaurant Co.
"It feels like, 'I hire you, you hire me,' " said Bremer, who was in charge of both Leadership Duluth and Fuse Duluth, its networking program for young professionals, for nearly her entire eight-plus years with the organization. There had been a lot of prioritizing about diversity, equity and inclusion within the chamber, Bremer said, and this hiring — conducted without a thorough search and updates to staff — seemed contradictory to that.
Then on Nov. 10, Bremer was fired.
"I think the reason I was fired was that I questioned leadership," said Bremer, who has in the past month retained legal counsel from Minneapolis. "I questioned the process — for the good of the chamber."
Baumgartner said he could not comment on the specifics of Bremer's firing but wished her well.
"These personnel matters are kept very confidential," Baumgartner said.
Baumgartner also declined to discuss the hiring of Fanning because it was unrelated to Bremer's status with the chamber.
"Sometimes when difficult decisions have to be made, people can look to other unrelated decisions and situations that happened and try to draw them in to make them seem like they were all part of one," he said. "All of the decisions were well thought out."
Baumgartner said he has gone through third-party human resource consultants and legal consultants in making these decisions.
Bremer said she had a favorable performance review in April. Then in August, after she approached the board, Bremer met with Baumgartner and Ken Buck, a human resources consultant used by the chamber, to discuss performance issues. A summary of the meeting describes it as "Martha's apparent dissatisfaction with the recent hiring process and ultimate decision to hire Daniel Fanning."
The document said that Bremer had the right to contact board members about her concerns after first talking to Baumgartner, which she did, but the policy "does not dictate that if an employee is unhappy with the explanation of the president that the employee has the right to continue to contact multiple board members to build support against a decision."
According to the meeting summary: "Should Martha not be able to work with a positive and productive outlook and approach, she may cause her own dismissal." The review also described her as "maybe insubordinate" and of causing "conflict and drama," according to the document.
Bremer refused to sign the document because she didn't think it accurately represented the meeting. Rather, she offered a rebuttal to include alongside the review — but it wasn't accepted.
Aaron Kelly, who is chair of the board of directors, said the board supports Baumgartner's decision to hire Fanning and that the president followed the chamber's bylaws — but those bylaws, which were written in 1998, will be revised in upcoming months and likely will include new hiring policies.
Several past and current board members for the chamber did not return messages or declined to talk on the record. Longtime leader David Ross, who retired in summer 2021, did not return a call seeking comment.
The chamber does not have to post its positions and has regularly recruited its employees. Bremer said this is the first time since she's been there that someone was hired without input from employees and interviews.
Fanning has held several high-profile positions within the Twin Ports. He was the director of communications and policy for the city of Duluth, worked in communications at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and most recently was vice president of institutional advancement and external relations at Lake Superior College.
Baumgartner said the chamber is in the process of filling Bremer's vacancy and that changes will be made that align with its commitment to inclusivity and cultural competency.
Bremer said she intends to file a lawsuit against the chamber, which her lawyer confirmed.
"We are preparing a whistleblower lawsuit for retaliation associated with Martha raising the questions she's described," said David Schlesinger of Nichols Kaster.