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Kelliher Council holds two special meetings to discuss city clerk position

The Kelliher City Council met for two special meetings June 22 and 23 to address one issue -- the possible need for a new city clerk/treasurer.

On June 16, City Clerk/Treasurer Dianna Thurlow submitted a letter of resignation to the council giving them a 30 notice of her intentions to leave her position and take a job opening as the deputy city clerk in Blackduck. Thurlow was not present at the meeting.

"My opinion is that before we move to accept this resignation, we find out if there is something we can do to keep her," said Mayor Darin Latterell.

At the time of the meeting, the council was divided over whether or not Thurlow had officially accepted the position approved by Blackduck City Council during the June 21 meeting.

"I received an email saying she accepted the position," councilmember Victoria Rabe said.

"I talked to her the other day and asked her if she was going to Northome because I had heard rumors of that," said councilmember Don Erickson. "She said she wasn't going to Northome, but she was probably going to Blackduck as the assistant."

According to Erickson, he asked Thurlow if they money was that much better in Blackduck and she told him it was about the same, but the position in Blackduck offered benefits. The one she currently has in Kelliher doesn't.

"What can we do to keep her?" Erickson asked.

"When I spoke to her, the main issues she has are the lack of council support, the pay factors into it when you look at what Blackduck is paying and the responsibilities she has here compared to what she would have there," Latterell said.

Erickson added, "She told me the same thing. She said she felt that some of the council members were doing what they could to make her feel uncomfortable. I can't understand it. It does not make sense. She's done a much better job than anyone we've ever had. I don't know who we could get to handle it."

Erickson went on to say that he, however, wouldn't be in favor of giving her benefits. Instead, he'd rather give her enough money to buy her own.

Councilmember Laura Nelson touched on the fact that previously, the council briefly discussed looking how their city employees were paid compared to other surrounding cities. The matter didn't make it on the agenda and was therefore never officially discussed.

"Personally, I think that if someone is looking to want a raise, they should be the ones to institute the request and the reasons therefore," Nelson said. "I don't want to sit here and get into a bidding war with Blackduck."

"I certainly don't want a bidding war, but I do think Dianna is underpaid," Erickson retorted.

"This took me by surprise as well," said councilmember Ramona Gehlert. "Has Dianna said how much of a raise to be competitive it would be?"

No one could answer.

"Is there anything we could do to resolve the hard feelings that are going on?" Gehlert questioned.

"I would like to know what the matter is because I thought we'd been having some pretty good council meetings," said Nelson.

Richard Skoe, who was sitting in the audience, suggested a solution to giving Thurlow more money as well as still finding ways to save.

"The position of the assistant city clerk got cut. You could take half of what that position paid and put it in savings and take the other half and hire additional help or give Dianna a raise or overtime. It would give you some perimeter where you're still saving money and giving her more," Skoe said. "I'm surprised you don't have a clue what the other pay is in the area. I think you have somebody that is worth going out and trying to keep."

Gene Erickson, who attended the meeting, asked the council, "Do you feel that Dianna was doing a good job of being the city clerk?"

"Definitely," D. Erickson replied.

"Has anyone ever told her that?" G. Erickson asked.

"Yes," the council answered in unison.

"So, if we're prepared to offer her a raise, how much are we looking at?" Gehlert asked.

Talk then began on the responsibilities Thurlow carried. Not only was she doing her job and the work that the assistant city clerk had before the position was terminated this spring, she has also been carrying out several duties as liquor store manager.

"One of the biggest concerns I have is that if Dianna does leave, I don't think whoever we get to come in will be prepared handle everything," Latterell said.

The council discussed the fact that Thurlow's workload did increase after terminating the assistant city clerk position earlier this spring.

Erickson proposed increasing Thurlow's salary from $15 an hour to a little more than the $16.86 an hour that Public Works Superintendent Chuck Schultz makes.

"You're saying you want to boost her over what Chuck is making?" Nelson asked. "No."

"There is no comparison because Chuck has a lot more years in here," Latterell said. "I feel like this is an area we failed significantly. We voted to terminate a position without ever conferring with Dianna as to whether or not she could take on the workload. After the fact, we never went back to her and asked how it was going. She feels she needs probably 5-10 hours of help each month."

After a suggestion from an audience member to recess the meeting until a later date, the council decided to look into what other area clerks in towns comparable in size to Kelliher make and then make a decision as to whether or not to offer Thurlow a raise.

When the council met the following day, they were presented with a letter from Greg Vollhaber, the fire chief for the city.

In the letter, Vollhaber wrote of how poorly his wife, Peggy, the former assistant clerk, was treated by Thurlow.

After reading the letter, Latterell said, "I don't think this letter is pertinent to what we're discussing."

Latterell moved on to presenting the council with research he did on what clerks in surrounding areas make.

"I was shocked at the results," he said. "We're either on the very bottom or in the lower half of the middle. Half offer insurance and half don't."

According to the sheets he presented, the average pay for the seven communities he researched was $41,450.

Several ideas were thrown out as to how much of a raise to present Thurlow. They also discussed hiring someone to help with the load of duties.

"When I talked to her this morning, she said she didn't necessarily need a clerk or anything like that. For what help she'd need, she could probably get by with a part-time helper at the liquor store or something like that," Erickson said. "To me, that would make a lot of sense."

"I don't know how we can do that in all fairness, Don," Nelson said. "We terminated a person who was doing any number of those jobs. As a city, we need to be careful."

"We were just thinking about the termination in budget aspects, we didn't consider the workload," Latterell said.

The council discussed having high school students come in under the work experience program to receive credit for their work.

"With additional help and an increase in pay, do you think Dianna would consider staying?" asked Gehlert.

"No," said Latterell. "I think her heart is already gone. Because the meeting is taking two nights, she knows we're not in total agreement and that is weighing on her, too. She's worked in Blackduck, she knows what the environment is there versus here."

"When I talked to her before the meeting, she said she'd rather go than stay," Rabe said. "She was putting more of her feelings into it."

"That says some horrible things about us then," Gehlert said.

The council talked about offering an annual salary over an hourly wage to Thurlow and if that would factor into persuading her to stay. It was decided that would hopefully work.

Carly Wang, who was in the audience, questioned how the council could offer Thurlow a raise if they claimed they were having budget issues only a short while ago.

The council explained Thurlow had saved the city money and they did have room to work with within their budget.

"I think we've learned the hard way that we also need an office assistant," Gehlert said. "We don't need two clerks, just an office assistant."

After more than hour of deliberation and various views from those present, Gehlert motioned to offer Thurlow an annual salary of $40,000 plus hiring an office worker. All were in favor except Rabe and Nelson.

Latterell called Thurlow at home to place the offer. She thanked him and the rest of the council for the offer, however, respectfully declined.

The council is now moving forward on putting together a list of duties and deciding on necessary qualifications to hire a clerk for the city of Kelliher.