Fifty Lakes: Bartender written up over theft allegation - Council members, mayor disagree over evidence
Nearly 40 people crowded Fifty Lakes City Hall bright and early at 7 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, for a special council meeting regarding alleged misconduct at the 50 Lakes Bar and Bottle Shop.
The meeting was called after bartender Mike Potter accused another bartender, Sunni Johnson, of taking chicken wings home from the bar without paying for them.
Though the meeting was originally supposed to be a closed hearing where the council discussed taking disciplinary action against Johnson, she asked that it be open to the public.
The alleged incident took place Saturday, Jan. 13, when Johnson left the bar with two carry-out boxes that Potter claimed were full of stolen chicken wings. Video camera footage shows Johnson with the boxes, but it does not confirm the contents of them.
Potter reported the alleged incident to Mayor Tim Anick the next day, but Liquor Manager Steve Maeger wasn't notified until four days later on Wednesday, Jan. 17.
"I was going to let it go, but she (Johnson) accused me of theft (of tips); it was false," Potter said at the meeting. "So she walked out of the building with a couple boxes of wings and didn't pay for them, and I thought I'd do the right thing and report it."
By Jan. 22, Maeger had suspended Johnson with pay until a full investigation happened.
When asked what was in the boxes several days later, Johnson said she couldn't remember.
"I come and go with bags all the time. If you say to me what I left here with three days ago ... I'd have to look back and see what I was working that day and what I was doing. I come with food all the time for here. I bring products from home all the time to help cook wings. I leave with bags all the time of either items that are mine or food that I bought from previous shifts," Johnson said, adding that on most Tuesdays she brings food from home to share with another co-worker, and she believes there may have been leftovers from the previous couple Tuesdays in the containers she left with.
"I'm telling you I did not steal anything. I did not have wings in those containers," she said.
Johnson also said the containers could have been filled with rotted lettuce or carrots and celery that had gone bad and couldn't be served to customers, as she sometimes takes those home to feed deer.
Council member Jay Weinmann, liaison to the bar and liquor store, said that in itself was theft.
"Taking food, whether it's expired or not, shouldn't happen," Weinmann said. "It shouldn't leave the building without the manager's approval. I don't care if it's rotted or not."
Johnson said she understood and would no longer take expired vegetables home.
When given the chance to tell her side of the story at the meeting, Johnson first asked why the issue wasn't handled in a more professional manner.
"I want to know - and I feel like I deserve to know - why the parties involved in this disciplinary action did not follow the policies that are clearly stated in the employee handbook," she said.
Johnson said that retaliation - which she believes was Potter's motive for reporting her - is in clear violation of employee policies. She said she was not presented with a written notice of job duties she failed to perform, which is a requirement for employee suspension, though she did receive a written suspension notice.
When Johnson asked Maeger if she could see the video footage of her leaving on the day of the alleged theft, she said he refused, which is also a violation of League of Minnesota Cities statute. She said she was not able to view the footage until Anick gave the city clerk permission to show Johnson the video when Maeger was out of the building.
"I would like someone to show me where it says in the city handbook or where there's a policy that states that a situation (that) has been handled this way is OK with anybody," Johnson said.
Anick, however, said the situation was handled correctly, as Maeger notified the council of the suspension and presented Johnson with a written notice.
On the other hand, Anick admitted he should have told Maeger about the allegations as soon as he heard them. Johnson agreed.
"If it would've been reported the day he thought I took it, I could've remembered," Johnson said of what might have been in the boxes.
Council member Mark Bradley said there didn't seem to be enough evidence to prove Johnson stole anything.
"Nobody can prove to me that there was anything other than last week's lunch (in the boxes),"
Bradley said. "Unless you can prove to me that there was something in the (boxes) that was on camera, to me this has been a retaliation issue."
Anick and Weinmann didn't agree that the accusations were in retaliation, but council member Jodie Schrupp said Potter even admitted to only reporting the incident after Johnson accused him of theft. She agreed with Bradley about lack of evidence.
Johnson said she thought a big meeting about this alleged incident was weird when other happenings - such as a bartender eating a potsticker without paying for it - that she and others reported to Maeger were not investigated.
"This is an insult to my integrity," Johnson said.
Maeger said he couldn't recall any such conversations.
When asked directly if he truly thought Johnson stole the wings, Maeger said he did. Anick said he did too, as he had no reason not to believe Potter. Johnson questioned why the mayor had reason not to believe her, but he didn't give a direct answer.
Despite Schrupp and Bradley's uncertainty, the council unanimously voted to give Johnson a written warning and make a rule that leaving city property with stolen goods will be grounds for termination. The council will discuss adding the new rule to the employee handbook at the February council meeting.
Residents in attendance let out audible sighs and did not seem to agree with the council's decision.