Lake Park mayor is no-show at meeting
Four Lake Park City Council members were there. City staff members showed up, as did about three dozen members of the public.
The only person who wasn’t in attendance at Monday night’s special council meeting in the Lake Park City Center was the person at the heart of the controversy that spurred the council to call the meeting in the first place: Mayor Aaron Wittnebel.
Wittnebel was a no-show for the first of two special meetings called by the council, specifically to give city staff and the public an opportunity to air any concerns and grievances they may have, about and against their elected officials.
But that didn’t stop staff members from airing said grievances, or from presenting a signed “Statement of No Confidence by the City of Lake Park City Clerk’s Office and Police Department Staff.”
In the “statement of no confidence,” signed by City Clerk Lonnie Neuner, Police Chief Jay Nelson, Deputy Clerk Carla Nelson and City Office Assistant Stephanie Poegel, staff members spelled out the nature of the issues that have led to what Neuner referred to as “anxiety and hostility in the workplace,” reading the single-page document aloud to the audience.
He outlined several reasons for that anxiety and hostility, stating that the city staff “feels the mayor doesn’t respect anyone else’s opinion, including residents, staff, council members or legal counsel.”
During his remarks to the council, Neuner made specific reference to one incident in which the mayor had come to his office a couple weeks ago and asked him to secretively look into outsourcing the city’s utility billing — something which Neuner said would have led to the cutting of a city staff position.
The “statement of no confidence” also made reference to “the mayor’s recent legal situation,” stating that it “has put the city in a negative light and has caused embarrassment to the residents, staff, council members and the surrounding community.”
The embattled Lake Park mayor has been the center of controversy since he was charged last year with one felony count of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult, for mishandling finances for his sister, who has Down’s syndrome and for whom he had been serving as guardian and conservator.
He was not actually convicted of the crime, after entering an Alford plea — which means that while he asserts innocence, he admitted the state had sufficient evidence for a jury to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt — and receiving a stay of adjudication pending completion of his sentence.
A stay of adjudication means that if Wittnebel follows through with all the conditions of his sentence, including serving a 30-day jail sentence and up to five years of supervised probation, the felony charge will be dismissed without a conviction on his record.
In his remarks to the council, Police Chief Nelson stated he felt “it’s almost impossible for me to respect and trust him in light of what he did.”
Nelson also said he had been asked by Wittnebel to investigate both current and former council members, and that Wittnebel had “filed complaints to stage agencies of staff and council members who disagree with him.”
“I would just like to get back to running the city police department the way it should be,” he concluded.
“Can we resolve this?” he asked.
Council member Kim Holloway responded by stating it wasn’t a question of whether they could resolve these issues.
“We have to,” she said. “We have no choice.”
With that in mind, the council also unanimously passed its own “vote of no confidence” in regard to Wittnebel, and approved four resolutions related to his duties as mayor.
The first stated that no staff shall be directed by individual council members, including the mayor, to take any action without the full consent of the council; second, all city communications, electronic or written, are to be directed through the city clerk’s office; third, that the mayor not have any liaison duties for dealings with city staff; and fourth, the mayor can make no official proclamations without the full approval of the council.
A second public meeting has been set for 7 p.m. next Monday, June 30, at the Lake Park City Center. The purpose of that meeting is to address the concerns of the community as a whole about the recent problems in the city’s government.
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.