BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji Alliance appears to be moving on from the saga revolving around a complaint it filed against City Manager Nate Mathews.
On Friday, the group comprised of four local organizations sent "An Open Letter to the Bemidji Community" to the Pioneer. In the letter, written by Bemidji Alliance Leadership Council Chair Gary Johnson, the group responded to four votes taken by the Bemidji City Council last month. The group also says it now wants to move on from the complaint and work toward its "Envision Bemidji 2030" process.
Initially, on Aug. 1, the Bemidji Alliance sent a 22-page complaint signed by 23 community members on the Alliance's Leadership Council to the city in regard to Mathews. That resulted in action taken at two subsequent City Council meetings.
At the first meeting, on Aug. 8, the council unanimously voted to continue its support of Mathews. Nearly a month later, on Sept. 9, the council met again and took action on three motions related to the complaint.
In one motion, the council disposed of the complaint in its entirety and ordered no action be taken against Mathews. The motion passed 5-2 with Mayor Rita Albrecht and council members Nancy Erickson, Michael Meehlhause, Emelie Rivera and Jim Thompson voting in favor, while Mike Beard and Ron Johnson were against.
Another motion passed in the September meeting for the council to officially re-affirm its support of Mathews with 5 yes votes and 2 abstentions. Albrecht, Erickson, Meehlhause, Rivera and Thompson all voted in favor while Beard and Johnson abstained.
The third motion brought forward was for the city to work with a third party to investigate the allegations in the complaint and that the council did not conclude whether discipline may be warranted as a result. The motion failed 4-3, with Beard, Johnson and Thompson in favor, while Albrecht, Erickson, Meehlhause and Rivera were against.
In its Friday letter, the Bemidji Alliance, which is made up of the economic development organization Greater Bemidji, the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, Visit Bemidji and the Bemidji Downtown Alliance, said "we tried to help the City Council, but the City Council appears not to embrace their oversight responsibilities and accept the issues they face."
The Bemidji Alliance also said the City Council "demonstrated willingness to ignore the concerns of dozens of community organizations and leaders" but that "continuing to press on with this effort will be futile."
"As mayor of the city of Bemidji, I find it unfortunate that the alliance did not want to participate in a collaboration process with the City Council to discuss and resolve issues. The council requested they do that twice," Albrecht told the Pioneer on Friday afternoon. "On the other hand, I'm happy to see the alliance is ready to move on. As far as the envisioning process, the city staff and council will certainly be engaged and active partners in that process."
Friction between the city and the Bemidji Alliance occurred earlier this year with concerns over Visit Bemidji's inclusion to the organization. Because the convention and visitors bureau receives funding through public tax dollars, bringing it into the Alliance was made more difficult. Visit Bemidji eventually did enter into the alliance through a looser agreement.
Finding common ground on Visit Bemidji isn't the first time City Hall has been at odds with some of the groups, either. For example, a wellness center proposed by Sanford Health and Greater Bemidji was shelved indefinitely in 2018 because of what proponents called a lack of cooperation from the city.
Some in the community were also upset when Mathews sent an email including negative remarks regarding some residents to individuals working on the Best Minnesota Town contest. In response, the Bemidji Innkeepers Association submitted a formal letter to the council condemning the email, to which Mathews later apologized for.
In its statement Friday, the Bemidji Alliance said the complaint was submitted "out of a collective concern that the current city manager is not prepared to lead the city through the opportunities and challenges we face in the coming years, due to his inability to build trusting relationships with other public,m non-profit and private sector partners."
With the Bemidji Alliance now moving on, in the letter and also to the Pioneer, Johnson said the focus will now turn to an envisioning process for the next decade, called "Envision Bemidji 2030."
In the letter, the alliance said the goal is "to listen to the entire community and identify the collective desired future."
According to Johnson, while there has been difficulty, the alliance is still welcoming the city to be involved.
"We really think the process will be the best way to have our community come together and move forward," Johnson told the Pioneer. "The suggestion of mediating the complaint was odd, and certainly not the mechanism to use in this place.
"We think the city is still a key partner in the effort. They'll be a co-creator and one of the many entities at the table to drive the process."