The off-again, on-again relationship between Lake Elmo City Administrator Dean Zuleger and the new majority on the City Council seems to be off again, and this time, for good.
After months of turmoil, Zuleger, under an agreement approved last week by the City Council, will leave his job next month. After that, he’ll consult with the city on certain issues for several months while looking for a new place to land.
The agreement felt like part-termination, part-resignation without being described as either: It was a “separation agreement,” surrounded by a new round of legal warnings to council members to watch what they say about sensitive personnel matters.
Still, it was obvious to those attending last Tuesday night’s council meeting that it might come to this, after the election in November of a new council majority opposed to the development spurt that Zuleger had overseen in a city that has long kept strict lids on new building permits.
“Clearly, I have a philosophy of government that might not be in tune with the philosophy of the current council,” Zuleger told the members. He suggested “moving to a different day in Lake Elmo.”
The agreement was unanimously approved after it seemed to be falling apart.
“I’m not in favor of the terms of this document,” which included six months’ severance pay, said council member Julie Fliflet, who was elected last November. “I’m not OK with these terms.”
Soon afterward, the chamber was cleared for a private conversation between council members and their attorney, and then came a quick, silent, unanimous vote of approval.
The agreement seemed crafted to avoid being cast as either an outright resignation or a firing, for reasons related to the terms of the administrator’s contract.
Lots of history
The suggestion last winter of a split from the city administrator ignited a furious community reaction, which prompted the new council majority to back off for a time.
But every step has been shrouded in legal warnings about what can be publicly said about personnel matters. Again Tuesday night, little was said about the reasons for the separation.
There was a quick flash of the tensions that have built behind the scenes when Fliflet said publicly that she’s “at a bit of a loss here, considering that we all know the city administrator has been actively pursuing other jobs since last year, long before last fall’s election. He was already of a mind-set that he wanted to leave.”
Zuleger publicly responded that he’s not actively job hunting. But he said in a brief interview during a break in the meeting that he was approached last year by people in two cities, including neighboring Oakdale, where he lives, and was willing to listen. But, he added, it was not a matter of his seeking to bail on Lake Elmo.
One source of stress for Zuleger has been the sniping between the three-woman majority that now controls the council and the two-man minority that lost authority after the fall election.
“Don’t shush me!” veteran council member Anne Smith exclaimed at one point during the meeting when Mayor Mike Pearson interrupted her.
Just before the council acted on the separation agreement, the majority sought to change a system whereby meetings lead off with personal statements from council members. Those statements, particularly those by Council Member Justin Bloyer, have turned into “grandstanding” occasions, the majority suggested, and poison the atmosphere before the meetings get going in earnest.
“What other option do I have?” asked Bloyer. “This is just in line with everything this council has done from the beginning. If it doesn’t like something, it tries to control every message that comes out of it.”
That mood extended into the discussion of the separation agreement itself.
City Attorney Dave Snyder described the deal as the result of “an ongoing discussion between council members Bloyer and Fliflet, which is not necessarily agreeable to them on any front. It’s an effort to present to the council a separation agreement that balances the [city’s need for consultations during the transition] and Mr. Zuleger’s desire to explore resignation.”
Zuleger’s exit is the latest of several recent departures in a town suffering from intense divisions — and one of several involving city administrators within recent memory. As the mayor put it dryly last winter, “We’re well versed in hiring new administrators.”