BEMIDJI -- After talking behind closed doors for nearly five hours, the Bemidji City Council affirmed its support for City Manager Nate Mathews in the face of a complaint made against the public employee.
The complaint was filed Thursday, Aug. 1, by the Bemidji Alliance Leadership Council. The alliance is a relatively new organization comprised of four entities, including Greater Bemidji Economic Development, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, Visit Bemidji and the Bemidji Downtown Alliance.
Gary Johnson, Bemidji Alliance Leadership Council chair, said the 22-page complaint was signed by the 23 individuals who sit on the organization's governing body. Johnson said the document was a formal complaint regarding both the city manager and city management culture.
In response to the complaint, the City Council convened for a special meeting Thursday evening. With Brandon Fitzsimmons, an attorney from Flaherty and Hood of St. Paul retained by the city, present, the council unanimously passed a motion to continue backing Mathews in his role.
Additionally, the council stated it will consult with legal counsel on two subjects. The first is to have the city retain a third party to facilitate a collaborative process in an attempt to resolve issues related to the underlying allegations against Mathews.
The second subject listed was for the city to submit requests of formal communication to Mathews and each member of the Bemidji Alliance Leadership Council, asking them to participate in the aforementioned collaborative process.
The Bemidji Alliance was officially formed the past several months with the intention of setting goals and strategies for the community to accomplish by 2030. Earlier this year, though, there was friction in forming the alliance, stemming from adding Visit Bemidji to the equation.
While the convention and visitors bureau is a separate entity, it has a contract with the city and is funded through a 3 percent lodging tax. Because of its ties to public funding, bringing it in line with the alliance was made more difficult.
According to Johnson, though, issues with Mathews went beyond disagreements over bureaucratic processes.
"There were many examples that show a conflict with the core values of the city," Johnson said. "The nature of those I'd like to wait to discuss. We think the issues are significant, or we wouldn't have filed this."
In a press release issued late Thursday, the city acknowledged a complaint was made against Mathews and also noted it had no further comment. Fitzsimmons told the Pioneer after the meeting that "the motion speaks for itself."
Attempts to reach Mathews on Friday were unsuccessful. According to Johnson, the Bemidji Alliance Leadership Council will reconvene next week for further discussion.
"I'd rather not get into the specifics of our complaint without the full guidance of the council," Johnson said. "As far as goals of submitting this, I'd rather not get into it until we find what the Leadership Council says, because those goals could well define what our next steps are."
A community divide
Mathews was hired by the city in spring 2015 after eight years as city manager in Staples. On a yearly basis in April, the council has met for annual reviews of Mathews' performance and has consistently expressed full support for his work.
Over the course of his tenure, though, there have been groups and individuals upset with Mathews and his handling of certain issues. One instance was in the summer of 2017, when Mathews sent an email to individuals working on the Best Minnesota Town contest that included negative remarks regarding some residents.
In response, the Bemidji Innkeepers Association submitted a formal letter to the City Council condemning the remarks. Mathews later apologized for the email and asserted "I have met and worked with some of the most amazing and positive people I have ever known while working in Bemidji."
In addition to his apology, Mayor Rita Albrecht wrote a letter to the Bemidji Innkeepers Association, stating "Nate continues to have the complete support of the city council and staff. We expect Nate, Visit Bemidji, Chamber of Commerce and Innkeepers will move forward from this and continue to work together for the betterment of all."
Tension in Bemidji related to Mathews, the city government and other members of the community continued in late 2017 during discourse on a proposed $27 million wellness and sports complex. Proponents of the concept, including officials from Sanford Health and Greater Bemidji, found a lack of collaboration and cooperation with the city as a roadblock in getting the project underway. The project was eventually shelved in spring 2018.
City officials, though, noted a lack of adequate communication and also pointed to state statute, which prevented the city from establishing a hospitality tax to be used in relation to the complex.
Mathews has a salary of just more than $130,000, based on the city's public employee pay scale.