There may be a new City Council majority in Lake Elmo, but in the council chambers Tuesday it seemed just like old times.
Elected on promises to restore some sanity to City Hall after years of turbulence, the new council called a special meeting to dismiss the city’s finance director, Cathy Bendel.
“I am embarrassed this council is doing this,” said Council Member Julie Fliflet, who noted that Bendel was recently honored by her profession.
“I am not surprised, but I am appalled. It’s so telling that nothing in her performance was cited as a reason.”
The vote to fire Bendel was 3-2, with Council Member Jill Lundgren dissenting along with Fliflet.
“Everyone needs to wake up and see what’s going on here,” Lundgren said.
“This is not a kinder council.”
Mayor Mike Pearson, however, called it a “business decision.”
Bendel had a dispute last year with Council Member Justin Bloyer, then part of a two-man minority but now with more authority as part of a three-person majority that won a thumping victory last fall.
Fliflet described the council’s decision to award Bendel months of severance pay and health benefits as, in effect, a payout to protect the city from a legitimate threat of litigation.
Bendel could not be reached for comment.
Kristina Handt, the city administrator, said that Bendel’s contract allows for termination with or without cause, and the chosen route was “without cause.” Legally, that means she isn’t being accused of misconduct.
The city offered to frame the separation as voluntary, officials said, but Bendel declined.
She will get six months’ salary, about $41,000, and continued medical and dental coverage. In return, she releases the city from any claims of retaliation.
Fliflet, who lost a run for mayor last fall, said there was “no reason, and no incident that would have precipitated this ‘special meeting’ being called.”
Bendel was notified soon after the new majority took over that it was curtains for her, Fliflet said.
“We all know the real reason is that she spoke up over the way she was treated, and this is sending a message … a pointed message,” Fliflet said.
Bendel, she said, was recently awarded a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting by the Government Finance Officers Association.
Last year’s all-female council majority, now down to two, felt Bendel was treated disrespectfully over a dispute concerning financial projections. It imposed a gag order on Bloyer because of it.
Pearson, who defeated Fliflet in the election, said that there was no retaliation.
“There’s no animus here, it’s a business decision,” he said. “I won’t bother responding to what I consider the silliness of [Fliflet’s] comments.”
The firing is just the latest episode in decades of staff turmoil in Lake Elmo, caught between angry factions of citizens over a variety of issues. The tenure of city administrators for some time has often been measured better in months than in years.