Lake Elmo fires Cathy Bendel

Finance director had just received pay raise & national award

The Lake Elmo City Council held a special mid-afternoon meeting Tuesday, Jan. 31, to discuss the employment of finance director Cathy Bendel. 

The council ultimately voted 3-2 to terminate Bendel and approved a severance agreement and release of claims. 

The few community members who were able to attend the 2 p.m. meeting appeared stunned by the decision, especially since it came on the heels of Bendel receiving a national award recognizing Lake Elmo for its financial reporting.

The Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting was awarded by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada for Lake Elmo’s comprehensive annual financial report. This is the highest form of recognition in the area of governmental accounting and financial reporting, and was announced in November 2016.

The termination was “without cause,” which is a right of the city as stated in Bendel’s employment contract. However, council member Julie Fliflet spoke out during the meeting alleging that the new council majority was trying to send a message with “classic retaliation.” 

Fliflet is the outgoing finance committee chair and said she worked closely with Bendel. She cited the recent national award and the large pay raise that Bendel was granted only a few months ago as proof of her value as an employee.

Fliflet also described Bendel as “an employee who’s had the courage to speak out about the treatment she’s received from council members and the [city] administrator” and contended that there were other city staff members who were afraid to speak out.

Mayor Mike Pearson cut Fliflet off twice for making comments off topic from the motion at hand.

“There’s no animus here. It’s a business decision,” Pearson said.

Fliflet and Council Member Jill Lundgren cast dissenting votes, but with the council majority in favor of dismissal, Bendel’s employment with the city was terminated and her severance package and the release of claims were approved.

Bendel’s termination will be effective March 2, but she was put on paid leave Feb. 1. Until her termination, Bendel will be in contact with City Hall to assist with the transition of her position. She will be paid for all time worked until her termination, paid for the remaining balance in her paid time off account and paid six months salary.

City Attorney Sarah Sonsalla explained that by accepting the severance package, Bendel was releasing any hypothetical legal claims against the city and the city was releasing any hypothetical legal claims against her.

Fliflet alleged that the severance package was ultimately “paying for [Bendel’s] lawsuit upfront,” although Sonsalla told residents that “there are not claims pending” and this was “simply a legal way of having a binding agreement for consideration so that both sides are giving something.” 

 

Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or akinney@lillienews.com.

 

 

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