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Pioneer Editorial: City bungled handling of Preece firing

The rumor mill surrounding the suspension/firing of Bemidji Public Safety Director Bruce Preece remains in full force. But, unfortunately, the facts may never be told. Preece, whose position puts him in charge of both the police and fire departments, was put on paid administrative leave April 25 by then-City Manager David Minke, who was only days away from leaving his post for another job.

Through most of the process, Preece has maintained he doesn't know the reason for the action. Minke is gone, and those in in-terim charge aren't saying anything. Only recently did we learn that the paid adminis-trative leave was turning into "terms of sep-aration" talks between attorneys, and that the reasons now revolve around the nebu-lous "differences in management style." It is our understanding, that since "terms of separation" were never reached, and the paid administrative leave has expired, that Preece has essentially been fired and is no longer employed by the city of Bemidji.

It should first be noted that the city is acting in accordance with state statute which governs Bemidji's form of government, the council-manager form. Under that form, state law provides the city manager with absolute control over all city departments and the authority to appoint and remove "the clerk, all heads of departments, and all subordinate officers and employees." The only exception is the city attorney, whose hiring and firing must be subject to council approval.

Further, state law and the Bemidji City Charter requires the city manager to hire and fire staff "upon the basis of merit and fitness." The City Charter also specifies that neither the mayor nor any council member "shall dictate the appointment or removal of any city administrative officer or employee."

But while the City Council is acting within the law, it is doing a horrible job of answering to its boss -- the voting citizens of Bemidji. The position of public safety director is an important post, and one which demands the public's trust. With outgoing City Manager Minke's action, Preece's status became clouded and, without an explanation or reasoning, his return to the post of public safety director was automatically precluded as the public's trust cannot be ensured. Was Preece treated fairly by the system? We don't know. We do know, however, that whatever he supposedly did has marred his record and his ability to seek employment in the same field.

The council, under the City Charter, is allowed to "express its views and freely discuss with the manager anything pertaining to the appointment and removal of officers and employees," but since the manager who put Preece on leave has left, that option isn't there. But the charter also allows the council to "make investigations into the affairs of the city and the conduct of any city department office or agency and for this purpose may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, take testimony, and require the production of evidence."

But that seems an action the council is unwilling to take. As a result, the case of Mr. Preece will remain ripe for the rumor mill. All around, it speaks ill for city government and a personnel action bungled badly.