Another candidate withdrew his name from consideration for Brainerd police chief, becoming the second to do so in recent weeks.
Becker Police Chief Brent Baloun, a Brainerd native, sent the city notice of his withdrawal Friday, Jan. 8, citing concerns over council member comments at the last meeting he felt were dismissive of his experience.
City council member Gabe Johnson broke the news by posting a portion of the letter on Twitter Friday, along with the caption: “What a baby. Glad I was able to smoke him out. He would have been a disaster.” By phone Friday, Johnson explained he was perturbed by portions of Baloun’s interview during which he appeared to be bragging about conflict with the mayor and council members in his current role.
What a baby. Glad I was able to smoke him out. He would have been a disaster. pic.twitter.com/EdL8PiAaS7— Gabe Johnson (@THEGabeJohnson) January 8, 2021
The city council voted to extend an offer to Baloun Monday, Jan. 4, after the first candidate — Fargo Lt. George Vinson — withdrew his name in late December.
Wages seem to have been a point of contention in both cases.
Twenty-five candidates applied for the chance to replace Chief Corky McQuiston, who is set to retire Jan. 16.
Gary Weiers, of David Drown Associates — the firm contracted to help with the hiring process, spoke to Baloun before the Jan. 4 meeting to discern if he was still interested in the position, which Weiers said he was. Baloun, however, told Weiers he could not consider taking the job for anything less than step 6 on the wage grid — $116,910.
City policy states new employees must be hired in at steps 1-4, with steps 5-9 being merit-based. Step 4 is $107,573 a year.
Step 6 is the same wage McQuiston currently earns, which drew concern from council members Tiffany Stenglein and Johnson. But Council President Kelly Bevans reminded them McQuiston was originally hired on as chief at the same salary as the outgoing chief at the time, so there is a city precedent for the practice.
“Putting him on the same step as Corky (McQuiston) is just confusing, even though we may have done it with Corky,” Johnson said Jan. 4. “I would expect an employee coming on on the same step as a long-term employee to not make one mistake, to hit the ground running day one, no learning curve because you are worth exactly what the outgoing chief is worth.”
With that said, Johnson also said he would reluctantly support the motion to hire Baloun at wage 6.
Council member Dave Pritschet said offering Baloun step 6 should be worth considering, given his master’s degree and 14 years of experience as a police chief.
When Johnson asked why the candidates seemed to expect more money than the city was willing to pay, Weiers said the advertisement for the position include a salary range, not specifying where the new chief would start within the range but outlining how much money they could make in the future with the merit-based scale. Weiers also said negotiations are not uncommon for positions such as this one and pointed out the need for flexibility on the council’s part to attract high-quality candidates.
Mayor Dave Badeaux expressed frustration with the way the position was advertised, but said he fully supported Baloun as a chief and even had him as his top choice after the interviews.
Council member Kevin Stunek made a motion Jan. 4 to hire Baloun at step 6, and council member Tad Erickson seconded it. The motion passed 6-1, with Stenglein opposed.
Baloun, however, sent a letter to the council Friday, Jan. 8, outlining concerns with the council’s conversation, especially Johnson’s statement about the expectation not to make any mistakes if hired at the same level as McQuiston.
Baloun laid out his experience and education in the letter, noting 29 years in law enforcement, FBI training and courses at the National Fire Academy, along with other training throughout the country.
“In my opinion, I felt that based on my training, education, and experience, as mentioned above, (stage 4) would be reasonable. Its worth noting that it would be less compensation from where I am currently at, but I was willing to make that adjustment,” Baloun wrote. “I understand that the posting contained the regular pay scale for the position rather than the identified hiring rate, which were quite different. Knowing this information earlier, I likely would not have applied for the position. Instead, what I observed is that this request created a fair amount of tension and conversation about my suitability to ask for this salary grade. Several members questioned my experience.”
He then quoted Johnson’s statement, adding: “Unfortunately, this to me and others who observed this conversation, brought into question my integrity and reputation as a current seated Chief of Police.”
When asked about his Twitter criticism by phone Friday, Johnson said there were specific moments in Baloun’s interview that stood out to him as red flags.
In response to the question about experience responding to a difficult and sensitive community member inquiry or complaint, Baloun detailed instances when he was at odds with city council members and the mayor of Becker. He described himself as an outsider in Becker, which is a community with a level of entitlement, he said.
“So that’s been a challenge to deal with in some cases,” Baloun said in his interview. “I’ve been called a liar in a council meeting by a former mayor. That ultimately resulted in a censure to the mayor.”
Baloun said there were a number of situations he was in when he didn’t know which side of the fence he would be on when walking into a council meeting.
“It was difficult, but, you know, for us it was a matter of, ‘How’s this being dealt with and communicated to the public?’ And we stood our ground, if you will,” he said, noting police ultimately made sure they got out necessary information to the public.
Johnson said he felt like that instance was Baloun bragging about picking a fight with the mayor and winning.
“Now I made a comment that apparently hurt his feelings, so he will not accept the job that we offered at the highest possible wage,” Johnson said.
In his letter to the council, Baloun said it is necessary for a police chief to maintain a good working relationship with the city council.
“In consideration of the comments made, I wouldn’t want to start the first day on the job with tension or a strained relationship with the City Council,” Baloun wrote. “This would not be fair to you or the people I represent. It also appears that we would be at an impasse for any additional negotiations for the position.”
He concluded by wishing the city “nothing but continued success” in their search for a police chief and thanking the council for the opportunity.
The council will decide how to proceed at its next meeting set for Jan. 18. Deputy Chief Mike Bestul will be acting police chief after McQuiston’s retirement until the council hires a replacement.
With the help of David Drown Associates, a city hiring committee whittled the list of 25 applicants down to the top seven candidates. They interviewed with the city council and with a community panel Dec. 10. Candidates were awarded points based on their resumes and community panel interviews. The city’s police and fire civil service commission then certified the top three candidates with the highest score, sending those names to the council for consideration. Vinson scored the highest, followed by Baloun in second and Capt. Victor Siebeneck, of Salt Lake City, Utah, in third.