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Bemidji city manager in hot seat

A plan has been developed that aims to improve the relationship between the Bemidji City Council and City Manager John Chattin.

The council and Chattin met Monday at the Holiday Inn Express for a 2½-hour retreat mediated by Jeffrey Thompson, the principal consultant of Innovations in Quality in Hermantown, Minn.

Thompson's recommendations for improvements were based on individual interviews he held with city councilors during the last two weeks.

"It all boils down to communication," said Mayor Richard Lehmann.

"There are eight of us in this room who need to make sure there's a concerted effort to have good communication," Lehmann said.

But while communication was probably the second-most discussed point during the retreat, the first was the decision to eliminate the city's community development director.

The council voted 4-3 in August to eliminate the position now held by Rita Albrecht by the end of 2009.

Voting in favor of the elimination of the position were Councilors Jerry Downs, Roger Hellquist, Barb Meuers and Greg Negard. All four reiterated their reasons for the position's elimination during Monday's retreat.

Downs and Hellquist both said the elimination of the position was due to the city's budget, which now is slated to include a 21.9 percent levy increase in 2010.

Chattin noted that the city's staff has been reduced by 10 percent in the last three years.

"I was hired to manage the city of Bemidji," Chattin said. "I have done that. I have developed a team of people with gifts need to run this city. Rita has gifts that I don't have."

Meuers said she used to go into City Hall and talk to Chattin about city issues, but stopped doing so after that vote was taken.

She felt Chattin was working "behind the scenes" against the council's direction, she said.

Chattin said he did seek a legal opinion from City Attorney Al Felix the following day on whether the council had violated the city's charter.

Felix wrote in an Aug. 12 memo that the council "acted within its authority both to create as well as to eliminate the position."

Following that opinion, Chattin said, he has followed the vote of the council.

"Since that time, I have done nothing to oppose that," he said. "But if you expect me to get in line and support that (job elimination), that's a different issue."

Downs said he did not have issues with Chattin before the position was eliminated, but then Chattin did not follow his "marching orders."

"It hurt me; it hurt my heart," Downs said. "If you can't move forward, then you need to move on."

Hellquist said the council on three separate occasions asked for information regarding the community development director position before it was eliminated.

"(The request) was ignored completely," Hellquist said. "This goes back to credibility."

Thompson wondered why the City Council was involved in discussion of personnel discussions other than those involving the one employee it directly supervises, the city manager.

"If you don't like the way I manage the city of Bemidji ... you need to get rid of me," Chattin said. "You don't make the personnel decisions - I do."

Hellquist agreed with a suggestion from Lehmann that the council should re-prioritize its goals for the future of Bemidji.

The city needs to focus on its core three obligations, Hellquist said, providing public safety, infrastructure and roads.

"The rest is just peripheral," he said.