ROCHESTER – The city is hiring an outside investigator to look into claims by a censured city council member that she faced discrimination from fellow city officials over an attention disorder.

The Rochester City Council censured member Molly Dennis on March 6 for allegedly intimidating council and staff, using city staff time excessively, threatening and manipulative behavior, and for making inflammatory allegations on an ongoing basis.

Tensions have risen between Dennis and other city officials since, and on Monday the city released new information concerning her behavior over the past two years. Later that day, the council adjourned its regular meeting as Dennis railed against her censure, accused city administration of discrimination over her attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), and demanded an investigation.

"We need to be able to have everyone, regardless of their ability levels, to be able to run and sit on council, not be disciplined and punished because they process differently or they speak not in the manner you want to speak," Dennis said.

A censure is a formal reprimand of a council member. Under the censure's terms, Dennis can only meet with city staff virtually outside of council meetings through the remainder of 2023, and can only meet with department heads and city administration. She must also refrain from negative interactions.

Dennis, first elected in 2020, is serving her first term on the council. She denies ever trying to harass or intimidate colleagues or city staff.

'Gaslighting' vs. 'out of control'

At the time of the censure, Dennis criticized the city for not providing examples of problematic behavior.

In response, city officials on Monday released a three-page document outlining almost two dozen incidents where, they say, Dennis overstepped boundaries as an elected official.

At a League of Minnesota Cities conference last June, Dennis is alleged to have confronted and threatened City Administrator Alison Zelms. She also allegedly made a scene and yelled at Mayor Kim Norton at a National League of Cities conference in 2022.

Dennis later requested to spend an extra night at the conference, which Zelms declined "because there was not a City business reason for the added day," according to the report. Dennis then allegedly sent "lengthy and agitated texts and emails, disputing the conclusion and advice" from Zelms and City Attorney Michael Spindler-Krage.

The city also accuses Dennis of seeking advice from city attorneys on private matters, including her divorce in 2021. She allegedly told staff to keep secrets from administration on several occasions, the report said.

City officials said Dennis has made several serious and unfounded allegations: about the city misusing airplane frequent flier miles, violating state open meeting laws by not livestreaming certain council meetings, and engaging in "gaslighting" behavior toward her.

City officials say they have reviewed their air miles policies and found they are in compliance with state law. Government bodies in Minnesota aren't required to record on video or livestream open meetings. And city officials have denied trying to "gaslight" Dennis.

The city also detailed a contentious July 2022 meeting between Zelms, Spindler-Krage and Dennis.

Dennis said earlier this month she brought along a witness to help her process information city staff gave her. She said she asked to end the meeting early as she had trouble focusing and got up to shut a door, which caused Zelms and Spindler-Krage to become alarmed.

Dennis said Zelms and Spindler-Krage wouldn't allow her to leave at first, so she sat with her witness. She later said she heard Zelms warning staff in nearby offices to keep their doors closed "for their safety."

"If I didn't have my friend with me … it was their word against mine," Dennis said earlier this month.

Rochester officials say Dennis became agitated at the meeting, and Zelms and Spindler-Krage tried to deescalate the conversation for 10 minutes before ending the meeting, at which point "Dennis abruptly got out of her chair and moved toward" Zelms, who was only a few feet away, city officials wrote. Spindler-Krage stepped in front of Dennis, "out of concern that she was out of control and that she may have hit or pushed City Administrator Zelms."

Further claims

Dennis said Monday she hadn't had a chance to review the city's examples, but was concerned city administration has taken several events out of context and distorted information. She said she had previously consulted city attorneys about how her divorce could affect her role on the council.

"I was trying to keep it out of the news, so I settled it out of court to keep this from happening and to make sure my kids weren't brought up," she said.

At least one council member, Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick, suggested the council might have acted too quickly and gone too far with restrictions placed on Dennis. She suggested potentially adjusting the censure at a later date.