Megan Thorstad thought she had found her dream job four years ago when she left journalism and became the communications and events coordinator for the City of Ramsey.

That all changed when new City Council members were seated following the November 2020 election. Since then, Thorstad said the council has created a culture characterized by fear, harassment, verbal abuse, micromanagement and torture. She left the city Friday for a job in the private sector.

"The way you treat people matters," Thorstad said. "My voice was lost and silenced. It's a shame because it is not a healthy working environment. Staff deserves to be respected when they come to work. That is not an unrealistic expectation."

Others have apparently felt the same way. In recent months, between eight and 10 high-ranking city staff members with a combined 75 years of experience have left the city in northwestern Anoka County. They include the deputy city administrator, Public Works superintendent, a senior planner and an IT administrator.

Going back to the beginning of 2021, Thorstad estimated that 19 employees — accounting for about a fifth of the city's workforce — have jumped ship.

"I'm very sad to have lost such great staff members recently, but I am not surprised, nor do I blame them," said Council Member Matt Woestehoff during a May 24 City Council meeting.

Woestehoff acknowledged that a series of resolutions passed over the winter, including one stating staff would take direction from the City Council, has created a wedge between the staff and council. City Council members have also sparred with each other during meetings and blamed one another.

Former employees said they were called names by council members and expected to continue phone calls even as members became verbally aggressive.

"The staff does not feel the council had their backs," Mayor Mark Kuzma said in an interview. "It's toxic."

Tensions and frustrations boiled over last month after the city's Administrative Services Director Colleen Lasher sent a text message at 1:46 a.m. to a candidate who had applied for the vacant city administrator position. The message informed the candidate he was not selected for the job. But Lasher had sent a text message to the other semifinalist five hours earlier with news only that the council had not made any decision about who would replace Kurt Ulrich, who recently retired.

The disparate messages and the gap in time between them prompted council member Chelsee Howell to propose that Lasher be demoted or dismissed, and that the council conduct a performance review. Howell also asked for the city to look at how it communicates with job applicants to ensure all are treated fairly and equally.

Performance reviews are normally conducted in a closed session, but Lasher, who has worked for the city for 18 years, opted to have her review open to the public. At the May 24 council meeting, she agreed sending the text message so late at night was a "bad decision, but that doesn't warrant dismissal," she said.

To propose dismissal "is very hurtful," she continued.

Lasher got support from Kuzma. Chris Riley, another City Council member, called Howell's attack on Lasher a "witch hunt."

Woestehoff asked Howell: "is this just one more case to replace somebody to align with your personal or political beliefs? When will it stop? How hostile of an environment are you willing to create?"

Howell, when asked about the relationship between the council and staff in an interview in Ramsey, said "accountability is not micromanaging. We need more accountability and I'm going to be the one to do it."

Howell abruptly ended the interview after one question and left behind a comic depicting an exchange between an editor and reporter, suggesting the media distracts people from the truth and cannot be trusted.

Even employees who have stayed with the city said the mass turnover of key positions speaks volumes. One staff member, who used another person's e-mail to conceal their identity out of fear of retribution, sent a letter to councilmember Ryan Heineman in March stating morale is at an all-time low and hopes the bullying will stop.

Ramsey's Strategic Plan calls for high organizational morale and employee retention, and "we are failing at it badly," Woestehoff said. He added, "We know we can do better."

Ulrich, the former city administrator who retired last month, said the council has bigger issues than deciding on the acceptable method and hour to communicate with job applicants.

"The one process you need to focus on is how you deal with employees," he told the council. "Be tolerant, be patient when you have the opportunity to do that. You need to work together to support each other. You can get a high-functioning organization, but it will take some work on your behalf."

Kuzma said he wants to foster a positive culture. The council is slated to begin team-building exercises soon, he said. And a bigger factor will be the outcome of the November elections, with three council seats on the ballot.

"Councils come and go, and now we are on a down cycle," Kuzma said. "We we are going to fix it. We will fix this."