Brooklyn Park leaders are working to mend troubled relations among council members after the fire chief's hotly debated resignation and have now opted to bring in outside help.
Former Fire Chief Ken Prillaman's recent departure revealed a stormy division among city officials, sparked calls for the censure or resignation of one council member and prompted a new task force to rethink the city's code of conduct for elected officials.
The city has also requested help from the League of Minnesota Cities to navigate tension and improve council relationships.
"It's strained," Council Member Rich Gates said. "There's really no way else to describe it."
In July, allegations began to swirl that Prillaman was pushed out by a "culture of hostility" involving Council Member Mark Mata, who has worked as a paid, on-call firefighter for nearly 20 years. Some city officials say Mata was also behind the departure of a previous fire chief.
Mayor Jeff Lunde has compared the two resignations to "déjà vu" and "Groundhog Day," saying both circumstances involved Mata micromanaging the chiefs' work.
"I'm not going to have staff leaving because we treat people like crap," Lunde said at a meeting shortly after Prillaman's resignation. "I've been here before, and I'm not going to stand idly by."
Prillaman's separation agreement will cost the city about $174,000.
"What it felt like to me was that this individual may have been using his influence, his power and his authority as a council member, as a result of my efforts to hold him accountable as his supervisor," Prillaman said in an interview.
Mata's personnel file shows a series of reprimands that he says are largely a result of "selective discipline." He refutes claims that he pushed out the fire chief and said he has no plans to resign.
"I feel as though I was used as a scapegoat," Mata said. "I am one vote and one council member."
Some have questioned whether Mata's role in the fire department presents a conflict of interest. City Attorney Jim Thomson has pointed out that state law allows council members to be part-time city employees, but not full-time.
"I've sacrificed over 19 years of my life for this fire department," Mata said. "I do consider myself an expert in fire department knowledge."
Council members voted Aug. 14 to bring in the League of Minnesota Cities to mediate. The League has been interviewing city leaders and certain staff and is drafting a plan on how to move forward. Its work is part of a pilot program under the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, the cooperative nonprofit insurer of many member cities.
The program aims to help individual cities with decisionmaking and conflict resolution to help cities avoid costly lawsuits before they begin, said Dan Greensweig, the insurance trust's administrator.
"We've really begun to dedicate more resources to it," Greensweig said. "We have a financial interest in making sure cities are operating in a way that doesn't create litigation."
City officials say there will be a joint training session in coming weeks. The community work group expects to report back about potential code of conduct revisions later this month.
"As we move forward together, it's important that we understand what we can and cannot do," said Council Member Lisa Jacobson, a member of the work group. "We owe our residents better than this."