City Hall was packed wall-to-wall with residents when Mayor Heddinger convened the April 28 meeting of Emmetsburg City Council.
Over 50 people were on hand to listen to, and offer public comment, on the Council's consideration of approving the Community Center Board's recommendation to hire Michelle Kauten as Community Center Director. The decision had been delayed from the previous Council meeting to allow time for public input.
Thirteen residents offered comments during the Public Comment portion of the meeting, prior to Council discussion on the question.
Opening statement was presented by Dave Nixon, media relations person representing the Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG). Addressing the possible hiring of Councilman Kauten's wife, "a conflict of interest, in our opinion as a group." Nixon read a letter written on behalf of the Citizens for Responsible Government.
"The CRG membership has discussed the perceived conflict of interest, nepotism, cronyism and pay back that will exist in the minds of citizens of Emmetsburg if Mrs. Kauten is hired and Mr. Kauten refuses to resign from the Council. Such was the case when a past member of the Council set the right standard, in our opinion, when she resigned after taking a position with the same accounting firm that audited the city books. By her resignation, she avoided the appearance of impropriety.
"In the view of the CRG, Mr. Kauten could continue a high standard of integrity by stepping down. Secondly, Mr. Kauten would be eligible to run in the 2015 city election. And third, Mrs. Kauten would assume a new, challenging job without any cloud over her head. The other option would be to reopen the process and broaden the search in order to attract qualified candidates and establish a June 1 hiring date," Nixon stated.
Michelle Theesfeld offered her thoughts. "I am a therapist. Something that everybody has to consider, when you're looking at these things, it's not always about who we are. We live in a small town. We're going to be related. I have clients come in my office every day that I have a connection with them. Ethically I'm supposed to say no, but because we live in a small, rural town we don't get that option. I think we need to look at what our community needs. We need to be grateful that we have somebody that has the skills that she does."
Brian Palmer added, "I believe that Michelle is highly qualified for the position. She would not be directly reporting to the City Council, so therefore, in my estimation, there is no nepotism involved whatsoever. We are very privileged to have someone with such qualifications in our community that will be able to serve our community very well in this capacity."
Mary Clasing questioned where Mrs. Kauten has worked in the past five or six years. Mayor Heddinger noted that since the family moved to Emmetsburg Michelle has been a stay-at-home mom.
"Michelle is by far the most qualified of our applicants," added Kelly Bay, chair of the Community Center Board. "The is the only one having direct experience in this field, let alone a four-year degree in this field. She's committed to our community. She's committed to this project. We would be thrilled to have her on board with this project."
Michelle Theesfeld noted, "I think there has been so much controversy about the Community Center, in and of itself, that finding somebody that is completely on board that is going to do everything they can to make it work is huge."
Linda Koppie responded, "Since there has been such a conflict of interest with the Community Center, I wonder why we want to continue down that road. Since there is a perceived sense of nepotism, since there is a perceived sense of conflict of interest, the answer would be very simple. Tony, if you would step down and allow your wife to go to work. That would be the right thing to do, in my estimation. I just don't know why we want to further complicate it because, you're right, there has been controversy."
"I really think before you pass a rule that says you can't hire a husband/wife, you need to be a little careful you don't cause people to leave town because they can't get jobs here. Husbands and wives come here all the time. They both work. They both need jobs. So you want to be careful you don't paint yourself into a corner," offered Lois Enger.
"I think that's probably true, particularly in the private sector. But the public sector is completely different," said Pete Hamilton. "Again, it's more of a perception issue than anything else. That's the difficulty here. As we said the last time we met, Tony's brother-in-law was hired for a full time position it's part time now, but it will be full time in two years. And then Michelle, who I don't know, she's very well qualified. This isn't about Michelle. It's not about her qualifications because I have no idea what her qualifications are. Again, it's just that perception. So you get half the community or more saying this looks bad. It just prolongs the issue of controversy."
Rick Bird stated, "It's unfortunate to me that we're worried about perception. I'm very much more interested in hiring the right person. It frustrates me that we're worried about perception and possible issues. The chain of command, the person reporting to the right people, handles all that. Nepotism is just a perception and it's being way overblown, as far as I'm concerned. I'm more interested in hearing that we're hiring the right person."
Marit Veltri offered, "When we first moved to town, if you were a member of the school board you could not have a spouse in the school system. Then the state decided that was not appropriate and so there have been teachers that have taught with their spouse on the school board. Also, look at our community hospital. I've worked there 23 years and my husband has worked there 33 years. We give 100-percent to the patients' care and we look at what's best for you. There's a lot of relatives out there who care about the patients. This person cares about the Community Center and Tony cares about the City of Emmetsburg. I've been a council member. You don't run for this job just because it's easy."
Kyle Cavin added, "I feel like the board was put together to hire this lady. Let's let them do their job, not back seat drive."
"Nepotism and conflict of interest it is a perception and it's real," said Steve Mathis. "This is not about the lady's qualifications. This is easily resolved by Mr. Kauten simply resigning. If she's the most qualified person, hire her, give her the job, but get rid of the conflict of interest. It just seems everybody would be satisfied."
At this point, Councilman Tony Kauten asked to address the group.
"Let's be honest. You say I have the opportunity to go ahead and step down and it will eliminate all controversy. I can sit here and say there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that me stepping down would not eliminate that controversy with everyone. I step down, my wife gets the job. I go from a $50 meeting, public service job, to saying okay my wife can have a $40,000 a year job. Boy, that sounds like an easy choice to me, if the only reason that I was on this board was so I could get my wife a job.
"What's going to happen, people are going to say and I guarantee this is going to happen it may not be your group but there's going to be a faction of people out there that will go 'mission accomplished he was on long enough, he got his wife hired, he quit, he bailed out. That obviously shows that was the only reason he was on the council'."
Kauten continued, "I did not run for city council to build a community center, to get my wife a job. I ran because there are people that need to step forward in this community and make things happen in a positive way. I'm sick and tired of people sitting around and complaining about things and not being willing to stick their neck out to make things better for the entire community. I plan on living here for a long, long time.
"If I can make this community better by serving on this council - I think I've done that and I will continue to try to do that. In my opinion, stepping down is not going to make that difference. It's not going to eliminate that perception of nepotism I'll agree it's out there.
"What this truly turns out, to me, is the question of my ethics and whether or not I'm ethical enough to remove myself from any type of decision that would involve her having the job or advancing in the job. I would gladly put myself, my ethics and my standing against anyone in the room. That's the way I feel. I'm in this for the long haul. I can be beaten next November 2015. I'm certainly willing to go ahead and do that. I think if I take a look at and back out now, because of this, it's a disappointment to everybody who did vote for me and who supports me at this point in time as well," he said.
Dan Cooper ended the public comment portion of the meeting saying, "I appreciate your positive attitude, Tony. I appreciate everything you've done for the Community Center. I put my faith in that committee... I see no problem in the future at all with your wife running that situation and you staying on the council."
The issue came to a vote when Councilman Corey Gramowski made the motion to hire Michelle Kauten for Community Center Director, second by Councilman Brian Malm.
Before council discussion, City Attorney Brian Thul stated, "Tony, you've chosen to abstain from any discussion, any vote. You've consulted with legal counsel prior to the meeting and asked if it would be necessary to step out of the room and I said no, it's not necessary. However, he is abstaining form voting at this time."
Councilman Mike Hermansen opened the comments, stating, "I owe one apology for delaying this vote. I feel responsible for it. It's not to Tony, it's to Michelle. I've put her through two weeks of anxiety I'm sure. She applied for a job and was expecting a decision a couple of weeks ago. Please give my apologies to Michelle."
Hermansen stated one of the reasons he delayed the vote was to get a sense of the community and why there were strong feelings both directions.
"Also, there were some comments prior to the last meeting questioning Tony's ethics and integrity," said Hermansen. "I don't know how many over 100 people I talked to, both individually and in small groups. None of them had a question about Tony's integrity or ethics."
The councilman offered respect for all of the opinions he heard, on both sides of the issue. He highlighted some challenges that had been made toward the board that made the decision to hire Michelle Kauten.
"One of those was, the committee has never visited community centers or interviewed managers there to find out what these managers did. That's not true. Spencer, Everly, Orange City and Sioux Center were all visited. Starting salaries were also obtained and we heard different numbers we ought to pay the community center manager. The average salaries of those others Spencer was one of them that was dismissed because it's a completely new animal, the manager has four staff the others averaged $36 to $40,000. Where the Emmetsburg salary is starting out at $37,500 with the possibility of going to $40,000 after review."
He continued, "There was also a question of the experience of those on the board that was hiring the manager. I would take exception to that. There's four business owners, there's one manager of an assisted living facility, there's one school system employee, one of the business owners in town one of her primary responsibilities in a former position was hiring executive staff for a company. So I think that the board was very qualified and I think the board was very informed in doing their job.
"I think through this and I think, shame on us if we don't give a young person that opportunity. Then I get back to the cronyism, nepotism outlook in the community, a relative of city council member that goes to Emmetsburg to get a job. I don't think that's true.
"I don't know how the vote's going to go. Some will be disappointed, some will be elated, and when it's over I hope we can work together to make it the best possible community center in Northwest Iowa,"
Councilman Brian Campbell ended the discussion, stating, "I also would like to thank the people who contacted me in the last two weeks. It's not been an easy two weeks."
On the vote to follow the Community Center Board's recommendation to hire Michelle Kauten as Community Center Director, Councilmen Corey Gram-owski, Brian Malm, Mike Hermansen and Brian Campbell voted yes; Councilman Bill Burdick voted no; Councilman Tony Kauten abstained.
The City Council also approved a bridge loan of up to $850,000 from Emmetsburg Municipal Utilities. Conversation on that issue will be in The Reporter next week.