Members of the Burnsville City Council say that sexism and “abusive behavior” by the mayor and another council member played into their city manager’s recent resignation — and that they’re speaking up now so the pattern doesn’t continue when the city hires a new top administrator.
Heather Johnston, Burnsville’s city manager of five years, stepped down May 23. Though her resignation letter didn’t go into specifics, Johnston told the local newspaper that she was leaving to spend more time with her children.
But after a special council work session that was called Tuesday to accept Johnston’s resignation and discuss plans to move forward, Council Members Cara Schulz and Dan Gustafson said they believe Johnston quit partly because of her treatment by Mayor Elizabeth Kautz and Council Member Dan Kealey.
“Our city manager has … been frankly under attack, and I don’t use those words lightly,” Schulz said during the meeting.
In separate interviews, both Kealey and Kautz denied the allegations, with Kealey calling them “pure hearsay.”
Gustafson said he couldn’t pinpoint why Kautz and Kealey began treating Johnston poorly, but that it was an ongoing problem. “If we don’t speak up, we’re complicit,” he said after the meeting. “We should have been stronger on this all along.”
The City Council named Dana Hardie, the city’s administrative services director, interim city manager and agreed to hire Springsted-Waters, an executive search firm, to manage recruitment of the next city manager.
Johnston didn’t comment on her resignation or the accusations, but she thanked city officials “for taking a chance on me.” She later said she will figure out her next career moves after spending the summer with her teenagers.
Schulz detailed what she described as “abusive behavior” toward Johnston. She said that council members and the mayor tried to browbeat Johnston, went behind her back “to do whatever the heck they want[ed] to do” and criticized her constantly in ways they wouldn’t have if she were a man.
Schulz said Johnston was told many times that she needed to improve her “soft skills,” something that Schulz said no male city official would be told.
“I think [sexism] is an underlying thing, whether it’s conscious or not,” she said.
Gustafson said he doesn’t want the next city manager to have to worry about being ordered around.
Kautz asserted that she and Johnston have a good relationship, and said she wanted to know specifics about what council members were referring to, since “they seem to have information I don’t have.”
Kealey said the sexism claims were “completely absurd and have no place or basis in the discussion. Heather was very warm. She was a good leader.”
He said he supported giving Johnston a raise and offering her a new contract several months ago, and he gave her high marks on evaluations.
“I don’t really think [Schulz and Gustafson] understand the damage they’re doing by bringing these things up in a situation where Heather is departing,” Kealey said. “Stop with the National Enquirer games for headlines.”
After some debate, the council agreed that all five members would participate in the search process for a new city manager. Schulz and Gustafson initially said they were uncomfortable with the entire council being involved because of how some members had treated Johnston.
Council Member Bill Coughlin said he was wary of the mayor’s involvement because, he said, she often makes decisions on her own that are supposed to be collaborative, approaching people privately to get her way.
In an interview, Kautz said that she was always “open and transparent.” Kautz, who has been Burnsville’s mayor for more than 20 years, pledged to work with the council to pick a new city manager.
Johnston, a graduate of Augsburg College and George Washington University, served as budget director for Minneapolis before going to Burnsville.
“I hope losing our city manager is a wake-up call,” Schulz said. “People always have the capacity to learn and do better.”