Nearly a month has passed since the Dakota County commissioners fired the county’s longtime community development director. The public still doesn’t know why.
No one wants to comment on why Mark Ulfers lost his job after 29 years as head of the Dakota County Community Development Agency. Not the agency staff, not the commissioners, not Ulfers.
Given 60 days notice, Ulfers remains on the payroll, collecting his $13,437 monthly salary. It’s not clear what that’s paying for, because the county has already chosen an acting executive director.
In these situations, public records should be the people’s recourse. But Dakota County has refused to turn over records explaining why Ulfers was terminated. That’s despite a state law that requires local governments to release data associated with the firing or resignation of public officials under investigation for a complaint.
Lawmakers have broadened that law in recent years in response to the official silence over a $250,000 severance agreement to a Burnsville school administrator in 2012.
The Legislature did so because of “an outcry from the public,” said Pam Myhra, a former lawmaker who sponsored the bill expanding the “public officials” definition in 2012. A Republican who represented Burnsville, Myhra said she got more feedback on this bill than any other one she authored during her time in the Legislature. “The whole purpose of it is to keep public officials accountable and transparent to the public.”
Ulfers clearly appears to meet the law’s definition of “public official,” which includes “heads or directors of departments, divisions, bureaus, or boards; and any equivalent position” in counties with populations of 5,000 of greater. With $60 million in revenues last year, the agency provides 2,500 housing units, operates the Section 8 program, and makes mortgage and home improvement loans, among other programs and services.
Here’s what is known about Ulfers’ termination, based on minutes of Dakota County CDA meetings and his contract, which was provided by the county. On March 3, the CDA’s seven-member board — made up entirely of county commissioners — went into closed session “to meet with the County Attorney regarding workplace complaints raised against the Executive Director.”
Then the board voted unanimously to terminate Ulfers “for cause,” effective in 60 days, invoking a provision of Ulfers’ 1992 contract. The contract gives four definitions for “cause”: conviction of a felony or an offense “involving moral turpitude”; conduct considered “fraud or misrepresentation”; conduct considered “gross negligence”; or being “adjudicated to be bankrupt or insolvent.”
Ulfers hasn’t filed for bankruptcy, according to federal court records. No criminal convictions of any kind show up, either.
Yet the executive director’s update in the agency’s March activity report featured a different name, Kari Gill, acting executive director. Gill, who was the deputy director, mentioned the upcoming employee appreciation event April 15, but there’s not a word in the update about the sudden departure of Ulfers, the face of the agency for most of its existence.
I cited what I think are the relevant parts of the state data practices law to Sara Swenson, the agency’s director of administration and communications. She responded with an e-mail citing the same law, and added: “I am not an attorney and I am not in a position to engage in discussion with you about how to interpret the law in this specific situation. I will restate, however, that at this time, Mr. Ulfers remains on the CDA payroll.”
Ulfers’ name does appear in the agency’s March report. It’s in the documents removing him as an authorized signer on the agency’s account at U.S. Bank.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.