“It’s gonna be lively around here for a while,” Dean Zuleger said in January as a new growth-leery City Council took over in Lake Elmo.
But the city administrator could hardly have pictured what ultimately played out in Lake Elmo over the past few weeks:
Hundreds of residents rallying to his defense by posting signs along highways, signing a petition and packing an events center, all in protest of what they called a political push to remove him from the job.
By last week, tensions had subsided as the new council majority, which initially was not resisting his offer to move into a consulting role, agreed to offer him a reprieve. He, in turn, agreed to examine the details.
Just as significant, there were moves from both council factions — those who supported Zuleger and those who’d been willing to see him take a smaller role — to sit down and work things out, both individually and collectively.
At its meeting Tuesday, the City Council agreed to offer Zuleger a firm extension until January in place of the normal type of arrangement that either side can abandon at will.
“We listened to the residents,” newly elected Council Member Julie Fliflet said at the meeting. “What we did tonight was different from going in the direction of a separation agreement. Completely.”
Fliflet and fellow newcomer Jill Lundberg nodded vigorously when asked whether they feel confident the administrator would take up the offer.
Zuleger himself was restrained when reached the morning after the meeting.
“I’m still waiting to have my attorney talk with the city attorney about what exactly was put forth last night,” he said. “I don’t understand the details, so I can’t comment.”
The question of who in City Hall was pushing or getting pushed has always been a bit murky. Council members were advised that they could not legally discuss personnel issues with the public.
The new council majority, though, heatedly opposed growth jumps that Zuleger had overseen.
Zuleger, in an earlier council meeting, offered to detach himself a bit from his city duties without resigning, but seemed to do so with a heavy heart.
The transition period had been a “very stressful” time, he told the council. “It could be I hit my threshold here. Maybe it’s the best time to transition to a new administrator. It’s up to the council to deliberate on where it wants to go. … I could envision remaining active in a consulting role.”
Zuleger took a two-week vacation and last week, a day after the council meeting, was reporting that “I’m at work, I’m still gainfully employed, my employees are as hard charging as always, and it’s business as usual, but I just need a clearer understanding of the action last night.”
In parallel with those issues, council members said Tuesday they were resolved to try and work together.
Council member Justin Bloyer offered to sit down with council member Anne Smith to talk over grievances he has with her, while Lundberg was pushing for an informal workshop designed to promote teamwork over bickering.
Before the council meeting, Zuleger supporters had circulated fliers from the last election, highlighting in bright yellow the criticisms the two newly-elected council members, Lundberg and Fliflet, had made concerning the previous council when it came to listening to public opinion.
Fliflet had said in her campaign literature:
“Our City Council continually ignores citizen input … Petitions are ignored … I will genuinely listen and be responsive to resident concerns.”
On the night of the reprieve she said:
“We were accused of not listening, and hopefully this shows that isn’t so.”