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Brainerd City Council: No decision on administrator

Experience or energy - these are the characteristics members of the Brainerd City Council felt they were choosing between in their decision to select a city administrator.

Mark Sievert
Mark Sievert

Experience or energy - these are the characteristics members of the Brainerd City Council felt they were choosing between in their decision to select a city administrator.

The council consensus was that Mark Sievert, Fergus Falls city administrator since 2000, represented experience, while Patrick Christopherson, county coordinator in Kanabec County, would bring energy to the city. After conducting the second round of interviews Friday with the two finalists, the council chose not to make a final decision and asked the hiring consultant to get at least one more question answered.

The question related to Sievert's involvement with election violations complaints alleging improper documentation of campaign spending. Sievert, who currently works as the city administrator in Fergus Falls, and the city clerk, who also served as an election official, filed the complaints against an individual and a shopper newspaper shortly after last year's city council election.

The complaints questioned whether Laurie Mullen, representing Friends for a Progressive Fergus Falls, received reduced-price or free rates from This Week's Shopping News to place an ad in support of four city council candidates. The complaints were dismissed before the hearing after Mullen submitted corrected paperwork showing she paid for the advertising in full with her own money. The council members she supported said they had no involvement with the placement of the ads.

Richard Anderson, publisher of the Shopping News, sent an email to Brainerd City Council members outlining his side of the story. Anderson claimed Sievert made no effort to ask him directly whether the ads were paid for and suggested Sievert was untruthful in his portrayal of the conflict during the first round of interviews.

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Council member Mary Koep broached the subject, what she called "the elephant in the room," with Sievert toward the end of his interview.

"An administrator has no business of any kind being involved in a city election or any other election, either by promoting a candidate, a challenger or an incumbent," Koep said. "Anything that would be done along that line is inappropriate."

Sievert, who said he had "explained that at the interview last time," recounted the story in more detail. This time, he noted it was the parties' attorneys who resolved the dispute, rather than using the more general "we." One of Anderson's qualms with Sievert's interview answers May 1 was he took unearned credit for reaching a resolution.

Last week, the Brainerd Dispatch learned Sievert issued an apology to the Fergus Falls City Council on April 20, two weeks after the council met in closed session for "initial consideration of public allegations of wrongdoing" against him. Because Sievert's apology was not compelled by the council and no official disciplinary action was taken, the council's reasons for convening the closed session remain private. Minutes indicate it is related to the elections violation complaint, however, noting "the council determined the need for guidelines to brief staff during a council election year including, but not limited to, statements made to the press."

When contacted, Sievert declined to comment on the apology.

Before it was clear who was behind the ads, Sievert told the Fergus Falls Daily Journal two days before the election, "What really chaps my hide is what are these guys (the candidates) talking about? Openness, transparency, honesty." Sievert's comments implied the candidates were not following their own creed due to the questions surrounding the advertisement supporting them.

Council member Sue Hilgart said she left the interviews lacking confidence in both candidates, but particularly in Sievert due to a feeling she was not getting the full story.

"After that many years in the job, to make that judgment to file that appeal when it so directly affected his livelihood, his job, and not pass it on to the county," Hilgart said, "I think that's a bad decision."

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Hilgart asked the Springsted representative to find out why Sievert and his assistant chose to handle the situation on their own instead of informing the county auditor, by statute the chief election judge.

Council President Gary Scheeler said he went through a similar situation with allegations of "buying votes" against him. The complaint was dismissed and Scheeler said he's "really hoping down the road that, because I was cleared, that this isn't brought up."

In a vote to gauge which candidate council members preferred, Christopherson received five votes to Sievert's three. Questions were again raised about Christopherson's commitment to the position in light of frequent job changes in his past. During the interview, council member Kelly Bevans asked Christopherson to convince him he intended to stay for longer than a year.

"Please restate your commitment to us," Bevans said. "And when I say 'us,' I don't mean just those of us at the table. I mean all 15,000 of us. Because we need somebody right now."

Christopherson said his priorities have changed and his family is most important to him. He and his wife want their children to have a stable school experience and he said he plans to be here for at least 18 years.

In making his final statement, Christopherson again came back to the commitment issue.

"I would consider Brainerd to be one of the top 10 city administrator positions in the state, and I feel completely lucky and blessed that I am at this point in this process," Christopherson said. "I would ask you to take me at my word that this is where we want to be."

He added he would consider signing a long-term contract to ease the council member's minds.

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Scheeler continued to express concerns about Christopherson in discussion afterward. He shared correspondence he'd received supporting the idea the council should be wary of his longevity. After Bevans suggested Christopherson would be the riskier - but perhaps gutsier - pick, Scheeler said banking on Christopherson being there for the long haul "doesn't work well with his job history."

The council will wait to receive information from Springsted and might make their selection as early as Monday's council meeting.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

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Related Topics: BRAINERD
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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