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Bemidji City Council discusses City Manager Nate Mathews' employment in surprise addition to agenda

In a surprise addition to the agenda for Tuesday night’s Bemidji City Council meeting, a motion was made to schedule a discussion on City Manager Nate Mathews’ continued employment.

Bemidji City Hall
Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer file photo
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BEMIDJI — In a surprise addition to the agenda for Tuesday night’s Bemidji City Council meeting, At-large Councilor Audrey Thayer made a motion to schedule a discussion on City Manager Nate Mathews’ continued employment.

This move seemed to have caught at least some of the council members by surprise, and its addition was opposed by Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera and initially by Ward 5 Councilor Lynn Eaton before the amended agenda was eventually passed with only Rivera in opposition.

After the meeting’s usual business was completed, namely a public hearing on the proposed reconstruction of Norton Avenue, the topic's continued discussion took place toward the end of the evening.

Before the discussion began, Mayor Jorge Prince asked City Attorney Katie Nolting for legal advice, considering that the employment of Mathews falls under personnel matters.

Nate Mathews 2017.PNG
Nate Mathews
Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews

Nolting, who had not been informed of Thayer’s intention to raise the topic, shared that she did not have time to prepare the appropriate legal advice for the session, and recommended that the council table the topic for a future meeting.

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“First, I need to caution the council that this is a personnel issue, which means it should be done in a closed session,” Nolting said. “Second, I can’t give you the legal advice tonight on what to do, because I wasn’t given a heads up. … My suggestion would be that you continue to table this motion and allow me to get you the full, correct legal advice on what you can and cannot do.”

After Nolting shared this opinion, Prince asked whether the fact that she reports to Mathews as a part of her position would create a conflict of interest.

While Nolting clarified that her ultimate responsibility is to the city and not to Mathews, she did share that if the council felt more comfortable receiving legal advice on the topic from another attorney, the office of Flaherty and Hood could be brought in.

Thayer, who initially brought the discussion forward, shared that she would be more comfortable with outside legal advice.

“I would be concerned right now at the conflict with our attorney and working with the city manager,” Thayer shared. “I think we need an outside individual in respect to that. Nothing personal to our attorney, I think she does an outstanding job.”

Both Eaton and Rivera, who had initially opposed the addition of the topic to the agenda, shared their thoughts.

“I think this needs time to be thoroughly researched and thought through. (I’m) not going to rush the judgment here until I hear some really decent arguments,” Eaton said. “I’m all for tabling it, and letting the appropriate work be done.”

For Rivera, the issues extended beyond only tabling the topic, as she shared concerns over even the manner the issue came forward.

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“I was totally taken aback by this, and I’m not quite sure how to digest even what’s happened,” Rivera said. “The reaction of my fellow council members was not congruent with mine. In fact, it seems like there was knowledge or understanding of this ahead of time. I hope I’m wrong.”

Rivera asked her fellow council members, particularly those who voted to allow the discussion onto the agenda, to consider the ramifications of the conversation and to follow Nolting’s advice.

“There are many pieces at play here,” Rivera explained. “I would have to say that I would really consider our legal advice on this one.”

Ultimately, Prince agreed that the city should seek legal advice prior to moving forward with the discussion, and made a motion to table the topic until the council’s next session while seeking outside legal counsel.

“I think that that’s good advice. I would be prepared to offer a motion here that would say we table this discussion for two weeks till our next scheduled council meeting, and to seek legal council from Flaherty and Hood,” Prince said.

This motion passed 5-1, with Rivera maintaining her opposition to the broader topic.

As for why Thayer initiated the discussion, she alluded to issues going on behind the scenes but did not provide further explanation during the meeting.

“It’s a personnel issue, and out of respect to my feelings and to the city manager, I want to reserve those (for a future meeting),” Thayer said.

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The next scheduled council meeting will take place on Monday, Feb. 6, where the topic of scheduling a meeting to discuss Mathew’s continued employment will once again come before the council.

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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