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PUC, council cool to idea of eliminating superintendent post

Most Brainerd City Council and Brainerd Public Utilities Commission members who met Monday at a rare joint session voiced concerns about an idea floated by Brainerd Council President Mary Koep.

Koep, who called the special meeting, said the recent resignation of PUC Superintendent Tom Phelps represented a “golden opportunity” to restructure the position and place administrative responsibilities with the existing city administrator.

The council president said it shouldn’t be a case where city officials adopt the attitude that “we’ve always done it that way.”

“It seemed to me that it might be workable,” she said.

She said the two governmental bodies could theoretically reach mutual agreement on the restructuring. She hoped the restructuring could “narrow the amount of chiefs we have.”

On a second point she asked PUC and council members to consider more cross training between PUC and non-PUC city employees.

After the meeting Koep said that if such a restructuring was done the PUC may choose to hire a person with technical expertise who would not have to assume administrative responsibilities. She also said that her idea was not a criticism of the current operation of Brainerd Public Utilities.

Bill Wroolie, a PUC member, said the superintendent’s job requires technical expertise.

Bonnie Cumberland, a council member who spent five years on the PUC, agreed there is a great deal of specialized experience needed in the superintendent’s job. She said she thought such a change would require a change in the charter and attempts to change the charter in the past have often been defeated. She also said she would be reluctant to add to the already “full plate” of the city administrator.

Don Samuelson of the PUC said the people who have applied for Phelps’ position have tremendous qualifications. He said that many of the public utilities jobs involve working with high voltage electricity.

“To try to hire somebody (a superintendent replacement) at half the price, to my mind, just wouldn’t work,” he said.

Don Stang of the PUC agreed.

“It takes a very talented individual to do that,” he said. “It would be difficult for me to imagine that happening.”

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” was the advice offered by Brainerd Mayor James Wallin.

Koep said she hoped that the officials’ minds could stay open on the topic.

“Let’s not be the graveyard (where) ideas go to die,” Koep said.

Mark O’Day, chair of the PUC and a former council member, said the commission would look what Koep had suggested. However, he said the commission had to go forward with hiring a superintendent.

About 30 resumes had already been received for the advertised superintendent position, PUC officials said.

Monday’s meeting was conducted at the public utilities office in Baxter.

MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at 855-5860 or

Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860