Insurance carrier urges lawsuit avoidance for Lake Elmo

Offers to help manage council meetings

The Lake Elmo City Council has received a bombardment of unwanted media attention in recent months over its inability to work as a cohesive group. 

Now, the city's insurance carrier, the League of Minnesota Cites Insurance Trust, has stepped in to advise the council, citing the example of Maplewood politics in the last decade as a cautionary tale.

The unrest on the council seemed to start in January, when longtime council member Anne Smith and newcomers Julie Fliflet and Jill Lundgren formed a new majority dedicated to slowing the previous years' pace of development. Now in the minority are Mayor Mike Pearson and council member Justin Bloyer.

Since that time council members have frequently butted heads over development issues and other matters.

In July, council members sought the help of a conflict resolution specialist, but quarrelling between the elected officials continues to interrupt council business and prolongs city meetings from 7 p.m. until residents in the audience go home to bed and sometimes until bar close.  

Even with the extended meetings, the council struggles to get through its agendas, often tabling items to further vet them, which results in delays in development projects. This has garnered Lake Elmo a reputation as being a difficult city to work with, and has frustrated more than one major developer.

Seven city staffers

The conflict has spilled outside the council chambers, as evidenced by the departures of city staffers and split opinions in the community. Earlier this year, a council move to oust city manager Dean Zuleger sparked a community revolt, with blog posts, signs and vocal support for Zuleger. He was voted out, made a brief return as a consultant and is now gone.

Including Zuleger, seven city staffers have left since the beginning of the year, many of whom cited a hostile work environment created by the council as reasons for their exits.

Warning from League

The city council has made a new commitment to civility after meeting with a representative of the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust at a workshop Oct. 13.
Dan Greensweig, assistant administrator for the League’s Insurance Trust, presented an outline of organizational management best practices to the council.
Greensweig said the LMC could provide resources to help the council create a list of best practices that could better council decorum, as well as help them run meetings more efficiently.

Based on his recommendation, council members decided to form a committee to help with meeting management.

Interim city administrator Clark Schroeder told the Review the committee would likely include two council members, himself, city attorney Dave Snyder and a member of the state Bureau of Mediation Services.

Following Greensweig’s presentation, Mayor Pearson said he was in favor of the LMCIT recommendations, and the other council members agreed to work with the League further.

“I like the ideas and I think it’s smart,” Pearson said. “I think we all realize the gravity of the situation.”

Avoiding lawsuits

One of the key points Greensweig made during his presentation was the importance of avoiding unnecessary litigation.

He used the city of Maplewood as a recent example to provide some context as to when “things really go off the rails.”

That city, led by a new council majority, was slammed by a slate of ex-employee lawsuits in 2006, which eventually led the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust to raise Maplewood’s insurance deductible by 400 percent in  2008. The LMCIT had threatened to pull its employee-related coverage entirely at the point the city was facing $1 million in lawsuit filings.

Good relations have since been restored between the city of Maplewood and the League. In 2011, the LMCIT lowered the city’s insurance deductible back to $50,000 for employee liability claims from its high of $200,000.

LMCIT insures most municipalities in the state including Lake Elmo. Member cities pay premiums into a jointly-owned fund then used for members’ claims, losses and other expenses. Getting insurance through the shared trust is less expensive for cities than purchasing private insurance, but, as Greensweig pointed out, other cities' insurance costs can be affected by one city's actions.

Lake Elmo has not yet experienced the expensive lawsuits seen in nearby Maplewood, but Greensweig said it’s important to take steps to reduce the likelihood of financial losses.

“The League tries to get ahead of the curve on these issues,” Greensweig told the council.

He said the reason for restricting insurance coverage from the trust is to protect other member cities.

“As a non-profit we have to do that... We like to see our member cities succeed,” he said in a later interview.

Learn to compromise

Greensweig -- who is a lawyer and former Circle Pines City Council member -- said learning to compromise is a critical skill for council members. And, basically, once a council member explains the reasoning behind a vote and a motion has passed, he said, it’s time to move on. Repeating the same point over and over -- which Greensweig likened to beating a dead horse -- does no good and typically will not influence another council member’s vote. He said if council cannot get through a routine agenda in under two hours “you’re having trouble.”

“Ultimately only so much good discussion can be had on a subject,” he said.

He also stressed the importance of working through the city administrator, who is tasked with directing city staff on the whole council's behalf. Problems arise when individual council members ask staff members to act without consulting with the rest of the council.

Greensweig said the LMCIT is pleased Lake Elmo officials are serious about making a continuous effort for improvement, and is looking forward to working more with them in the near future.

Joshua Nielsen can be reached at jnielsen@lillienews.com

 

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