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HRDC head announces intention to quit events center contract

The Headwaters Regional Development Commission plans to terminate its contract with the city of Bemidji regarding its work as the events center project coordinator.

HRDC Executive Director Cliff Tweedale sent an e-mail stating his intentions to Mayor Richard Lehmann and City Manager John Chattin on Thursday.

"Right now, my sentiment is that this project is best housed with the city," Tweedale said in a Friday interview.

The City Council voted 6-1 on July 16 to hire the HRDC as the events center project coordinator. Councilor Roger Hellquist cast the dissenting vote.

"The reason I've suggested terminating the contract isn't because of controversy," Tweedale said. "It's really because we've found we can't find a position where we can be effective."

Lehmann said he was surprised to hear of Tweedale's decision Thursday, but met with Tweedale Friday to discuss the situation.

"I'm more comfortable (now) with their decision," Lehmann said.

He stressed that the city and the HRDC do have a good working relationship. But, when it came to this one project, Lehmann said HRDC staff members didn't "have the tools available" to them that they needed.

"We've got a project here that is really hard to get our arms around," Lehmann said.

Tweedale made his decision following Wednesday's City Council work session with Bemidji State University President Jon Quistgaard. Following a 45-minute conversation between Quistgaard and councilors, the HRDC's Dave Hengel suggested that the city retain attorney Brian Schoenborn as a consultant on the events center.

But as councilors began discussing the idea, Hellquist said the meeting agenda was limited to the conversation with Quistgaard. He then made a motion to adjourn, Councilor Barb Meuers seconded the motion and the council voted unanimously to adjourn.

Meuers said she was not surprised to learn of Tweedale's intention to terminate the contract.

"I think it is time we part ways on this," she said, emphasizing that it is on "just this one issue" that the two entities are incompatible. The HRDC is "too close" to the events center project, Meuers said.

In the e-mail stating his intentions, Tweedale referred to a lack of trust between the City Council and HRDC.

"We have not been able to establish an atmosphere of trust with the City," he wrote. "As a result, we've been largely ineffective. We do not want to waste your time and resources by continuing to go down this path."

Councilor Ron Johnson, who serves on the HRDC's commission as the city's representative, said the council voted to hire the HRDC so the city should trust the HRDC to do its job.

"You don't hire people you don't trust," he said.

Additionally, the HRDC has accomplished "dozens, if not hundreds" of projects that have benefited the city, he said.

"It's too good of an organization to be questioned," he said.

He plans to bring up the topic at Monday's City Council work session and ask the City Council to apologize, Johnson said.

He said Meuers, Hellquist and City Manager John Chattin have made it difficult for the HRDC to make progress on the project.

"It's a trust issue more with the city manager, not the HRDC," Johnson said.

Lehmann, however, disagreed. He said Chattin's ultimate job is to protect the city of Bemidji's interests.

"John has done, as a whole, exactly what a city manager is supposed to do, which is to look out for the city's interests," Lehmann said. "I don't think he's created any road blocks."

Tweedale himself said he did not blame Chattin or the City Council.

"I don't think anybody is intentionally making this a difficult project," he said. "I just think this is a difficult project."

The HRDC must give 14 days' notice in order to terminate its contract with the city. To do so, Tweedale must first get the permission of the HRDC's 25-member commission, which is expected to discuss the request on Oct. 18.

The HRDC was hired to broker the events center process, facilitate negotiations, be the public information and engagement lead, manage the project staff team and champion the process, according to the contact proposal.

Its services were not to exceed $48,500, according to the contract.