Ironton mayor resigns, cites disagreement over clerk firing

Before even taking the oath of office for a new term as mayor of Ironton, Clark Hamdorf decided to call it quits. Hamdorf, who won the November election handily in a contested race, resigned Jan. 7 and told the city council and Ironton's resident...

Clark Hamdorf
Clark Hamdorf

Before even taking the oath of office for a new term as mayor of Ironton, Clark Hamdorf decided to call it quits.

Hamdorf, who won the November election handily in a contested race, resigned Jan. 7 and told the city council and Ironton's residents in a letter they would be "better served with a harmonious council."

Five days before the mayor's resignation, the council met in closed session and voted unanimously to fire Darla Johnson, the city's clerk/treasurer. Johnson was still in her six-month probationary period, so council members were able to terminate her employment without cause.

Although Johnson's firing was not addressed in his resignation letter, Hamdorf told the Brainerd Dispatch during a phone interview he disagreed with the council's decision and its handling of the situation.

"I thought she was doing quite a good job and the council apparently did not think that and took steps frankly around me to make sure she was not able to work there," Hamdorf said. "That bothered me. I wasn't even able to have conversation with the council or anything like that to discuss what I thought she'd been doing right and what I thought she was doing well. I thought they left the city in a hell of a mess. There was no amount of talking with them or trying to reason with them that made any difference."


Hamdorf said he felt the council had more important things to deal with than internal conflict-including a new pumphouse and water system for the city-and his decision to resign reflected a desire to help the city move forward with those projects more smoothly.

"I thought it was the best thing to do for the city was to remove myself from the equation. ... I didn't want to do this. It broke my heart to be honest with you. It really did, it broke my heart to leave this (job)," Hamdorf said. "I love this community. I loved being on there for the time we were productive with me at the helm. I don't want to blame the council or anything like that. ... I know I wasn't perfect either, but I just thought it was probably the best thing to do was to move along."

Johnson, meanwhile, told the Dispatch she received a number of compliments from residents and council members for her work, and felt as though she did what was asked of her and did it well. She was in the hospital suffering complications for a surgery, she said, when she got the news of her firing.

"I feel like I was terminated wrongfully," Johnson said during a phone interview. "I didn't do anything wrong with regards to my job."

Two weeks before Johnson's termination, several Ironton residents showed up at the city's public hearing to discuss its tax levy and annual budget, the Crosby-Ironton Courier reported. The residents were apparently incensed by the property tax estimates they'd received, which took into account a proposed 37 percent increase in the city's property tax levy.

Johnson explained to those in attendance she was new to the position when the preliminary levy was set, and she erred on the side of caution due to her lack of familiarity with the budget. Ultimately, the council approved a much smaller 2.16 percent increase.

It's not clear if that approach to budgeting was the reason for Johnson's firing.

Hamdorf said it could be, but he steered clear of specifics. Johnson said she didn't believe so and instead offered an alternative explanation: council member Rose Stromberg didn't like her. Johnson said Stromberg became upset when Johnson advocated for updates to a city ordinance governing disorderly properties, a move that put enforcement on hold for several nuisance complaints Stromberg submitted herself. The decision to postpone enforcement came amid a fiery council meeting when residents on both sides of the issue raised concerns.


"My second day of work, Rose Stromberg came into the office and said to me, 'I can either be your best friend or your worst enemy,'" Johnson said. "She warned me to be careful because of my six-month probation."

Johnson said although she got along with Stromberg at first, the relationship eventually took a turn and became contentious, including instances when Stromberg screamed at Johnson and made her feel harrassed.

When reached by phone, Stromberg flatly denied she had a problem with Johnson. She said she could not discuss the reasons for Johnson's firing since it's a personnel issue, but said a personality conflict was not one of them.

"That's so not true. I really can tell you that isn't true," Stromberg said. "Anybody that knows me knows better than that. ... No. No. That was not it at all."

Stromberg said the complaints she submitted were at the behest of a resident, who took her on a drive through the city to point out ordinance violations at a number of properties, including unlicensed vehicles parked for years.

"Everybody has always had the opportunity to, as a citizen, to file a complaint, or whatever issue they've had, and the council looks at that to see how it affects everybody," Stromberg said. "I did fill out the complaint forms, but it took me awhile. ... It ended up being a really big issue in town. There was some people that thought we were just going around picking on them, namely me. I only filled out those few for that citizen. I guess I didn't even think it would even be an issue."

As for Hamdorf's resignation, Stromberg attributed it to him losing control of the council.

"He liked to rule, and things just didn't work the way he wanted," Stromberg said. "He wanted her to stay as clerk, and she just wasn't right for us. ... We just all had difference of opinion. And he was on one side and the council was on the other. I guess that's the easiest way to say it, and probably as truthful as it gets."


Council member Jess Dwyer said she knew the clerk firing played a role in Hamdorf's resignation, but said she thought his reasons were very personal. She also declined to discuss the specifics of Johnson's firing.

"I always thought he (Hamdorf) was very nice," Dwyer said. "He's the one who asked me to be on the council and he's my neighbor, and I don't have anything bad to say about him."

Council members Jeremy French and Steve Herzenach and former council member Eric Heglund-who ran the meeting at which the council fired Johnson, in absence of Hamdorf-did not return calls for comment. French was not yet a member of the council when the clerk decision was made.

Hamdorf said he plans to focus on the possible expansion of his sound production company in lieu of city leadership. Johnson plans to look for a similar position in a new city.

So who will be Ironton's next leader? That remains an unanswered question. The council elected to wait until its Feb. 6 meeting to decide whether to appoint a council member to the mayoral post or to seek applications. In the meantime, Herzenach is acting mayor.

The clerk/treasurer position was posted and the city will accept applications through Feb. 8.

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