BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji City Council reaffirmed its support for City Manager Nate Mathews on Monday in light of a 22-page complaint. However, unlike an initial show of support last month, Monday's decision was not unanimous.
After deliberating on the topic for nearly three hours in a closed-door meeting, the council then passed a motion in a 5-2 vote stating the allegations against Mathews "underlying this meeting are not sustained and disposed of in their entirety." Additionally, no action would be taken against Mathews related to the allegations, the motion stated.
Voting in favor of the motion was Mayor Rita Albrecht, and council members Nancy Erickson of Ward 5, Michael Meehlhause of Ward 1, Emelie Rivera of Ward 4 and the At Large representative Jim Thompson. Against the motion were councilors Mike Beard of Ward 2 and Ron Johnson of Ward 3.
The allegations discussed Monday stem from a complaint filed with the city on Aug. 1 by members of the Bemidji Alliance. The relatively new group consists of Greater Bemidji Economic Development, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, the Bemidji Downtown Alliance and Visit Bemidji.
Organizers of Visit Bemidji have said the goal is to align the entities and steer the community toward prosperity over the next decade. However, the process had some road blocks because of Visit Bemidji, as the convention and visitors bureau is funded by the city with a 3 percent lodging tax through a contract. Because of the ties to public dollars, bringing Visit Bemidji in to the alliance was more difficult.
In a commentary piece sent to the Pioneer written by Bemidji Alliance Leadership Council Chair Gary Johnson, on behalf of the four-entity group, Mathews was accused of a "pattern of inappropriate behavior. . . that repeatedly violates the city's own stated core values."
Some of the rancor between the city and several civic organizations stems from the failed development of a wellness center facility, as well as remarks Mathews made via email about some local leaders during the lead up to Minnesota Monthly naming Bemidji as the best town in the state.
The commentary by Johnson followed a five-hour, closed-door meeting on Aug. 8 after which the City Council voted unanimously to support Mathews in his position.
In the motion passed Monday, the city also stated Albrecht would work with the city's legal counsel to submit formal communication to each member of the Bemidji Alliance Leadership Council. The communication would note how Bemidji Alliance officials did not directly respond to a request to participate in a collaborative process previously.
The communication also requests the Bemidji Alliance participate in a collaborative meeting by Sept. 23. If the Bemidji Alliance were to agree, the city, per the motion, would retain a third party to facilitate the meeting with the goal of resolving the issues brought up in the allegations.
A second motion was then made Monday with the intention that Albrecht and legal counsel would retain and authorize a third party investigator to research the allegations against Mathews. The motion, made by Beard, went on to state "that the City Council finds it did not conclude whether discipline may be warranted as a result of the allegations."
That motion failed 4-3. In favor were Beard, Johnson and Thompson. Voting against the motion were Albrecht, Erickson, Meelhause and Rivera.
The third and final motion made during the work session was for the council to re-affirm "its support of Nate Mathews as city manager." The motion, made by Meehlhause, passed on a 5-0 vote, with five yes votes and two abstentions.
Voting in favor of the motion were Albrecht, Erickson, Meehlhause, Rivera and Thompson, while Beard and Johnson abstained.
Following the meeting, Mathews declined to comment. A press release from the city noted how no disciplinary action has been taken against Mathews since he started in his position in 2015. The press release also cited data privacy laws in stating "the city has no further comment related to the complaint."
Mathews started in spring 2015 and has a salary of just over $130,000, based on the city's public employee pay scale. Mathews was previously the city manager in Staples for eight years.