DULUTH – City Attorney Gunnar Johnson resigned Thursday, almost two months after officials placed him on administrative leave to investigate complaints filed against him.
A highly redacted version of a report from the Wiley Law Office, the Twin Cities-based firm hired to conduct the investigation, said that it found evidence backing allegations that Johnson “made inappropriate statements” in the workplace and “had lax management practices and failed to address many interpersonal conflicts within the city attorney’s office.”
The report also said it did not find evidence to substantiate complaints that Johnson had harassed employees for the use of protected leave or exhibited retaliatory behavior.
“I don’t want to contribute to any distraction for the city or the hardworking city staff,” Johnson said in an interview Thursday, explaining his decision to resign. “While I strongly disagree with the way things have been handled in the past couple months, it is time to move on. And we have found an amicable way to do so.”
Johnson said he was “blindsided by unstated allegations” when he was notified in mid-February that city officials were placing him on paid administrative leave. The report says the investigation was launched following “a number of complaints” that were provided to the city’s human resources office or the mayor over several months.
Among the complaints investigators found substantiated was the claim that Johnson made statements like “I can’t fire people, but I can make their lives miserable” and “I will work you like sled dogs until someone can’t make it any further and then we will move on.”
“If you looked at 12 years and you cherry picked discussions within an office like that, certainly someone could say I’m too blunt or too forthright in the way I talk to people,” responded Johnson, who is a musher in his spare time.
Investigators also wrote that he encouraged employees to keep complaints in-house to avoid political repercussions. “When you go directly to the Mayor, that can cause problems, including this investigation,” the report quotes Johnson saying.
Later, investigators wrote that this statement was “especially troubling” as a specific complaint to the mayor regarded an incident that could have fallen under local, state and federal discrimination policies.
Johnson was hired in 2008 by former Mayor Don Ness to the second-highest-paid position in the city’s government, earning an annual salary of $131,028. Duluth’s city attorney provides counsel to the city administration and the City Council.
The decision to appoint or dismiss the city attorney in Duluth falls on the mayor but requires the council’s vote of confirmation. City Council members said they have been kept in the dark about the details of the decision to place Johnson on leave and the subsequent investigation.
On Thursday, Council President Gary Anderson said he planned to seek more information about the investigation’s origins and findings.
“Primarily, the council’s role is to see that city government continues to function in an efficient manner,” Anderson said. “Throughout this time, I have expressed my concern that I want to see a fair process for the attorney, but also a process that gets us through this time as quickly and clearly as possible.”
Mayor Emily Larson said she felt the investigation process was fair, and she declined to talk more about Johnson’s resignation. “We recognize how important the role is,” Larson said, “and want to really be sincere in thanking Mr. Johnson for his years of service to the community.”
Johnson said he felt the investigative report vindicated him and called the original complaints “largely unsubstantiated.”
“But the city wanted to move in a different direction,” he added.
The investigation also said Johnson openly discussed the performance of employees in the office with others in earshot and did little to address conflicts among those under his supervision.
“I have no qualms about the way I handled and worked with my staff,” Johnson said. “If you did a report like this on any organization of 17 or more people, you’d find the same kind of thing.”
Deputy City Attorney Steven Hanke will continue to serve as acting city attorney, as he has since Johnson was placed on leave. A hiring process will begin in the coming weeks, though the city will not fill the position until it has resumed normal operations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Johnson said he doesn’t know what is next for him but he hopes to “continue to serve.” In his 11 years as city attorney, he said he’s proudest of “the little matters that we have been able to quietly address for the benefit of residents and taxpayers.”
“This has not been an easy decision,” Johnson said. “It has been an honor to serve the city, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”