DL engineer leaves Ulteig; city in limbo
For many, many years, the city of Detroit Lakes has appointed its city engineer from what is now Ulteig Engineers.
Currently, the city engineer is Jon Pratt, but Pratt has joined Apex Engineering Group, and the city is caught in a debate whether to keep Pratt as the city engineer or to keep Ulteig as the company and find a new city engineer within that firm.
But, it doesn't end there either.
When Pratt announced that he would be leaving Ulteig, the city put out a request for proposals for other engineering firms to provide services to the city. Three came back: From Apex, Ulteig and Bolten & Menk, whose corporate office is in Mankato according to the website.
The city had also discussed developing its own engineering department rather than contracting out the services but decided against that at this point.
"If we hire our own," City administrator Bob Louiseau said, "we would be premature at this point."
He said the workload varies from year to year, so while some years the engineer would be busy with projects, there would be other times that wouldn't warrant a full-time engineering department.
He said he looked at other cities with similar populations as Detroit Lakes, and those under 10,000 like Detroit Lakes contract for engineering services. Those over 10,000 in population usually have their own engineering department.
Once the city received the three proposals from Ulteig, Apex and Bolten & Menk, Louiseau said a committee of city staff and a council member independently reviewed the proposals and made a recommendation. They unanimously recommended keeping Pratt as the city engineer even though he's moving to Apex.
Members of the city council didn't agree with that, though.
Engineer vs. company
Alderman Ron Zeman said he's not in favor of keeping Pratt on if he isn't working for Ulteig simply because the city has worked with Ulteig for so many years. Ulteig has all of the records for the city from the past decades of what they've done for the city. Ulteig has served as the city engineer since 1935.
He said he's also concerned that some of Ulteig's 19 employees may lose jobs if the firm loses the city's business. The company built a new office in the North Industrial Park several years ago, he noted, and that should count for something.
Though Apex doesn't have an office in Detroit Lakes yet, the city's RFP requires that whichever firm the city chooses for the contract must have an office in Detroit Lakes within a couple months of being awarded the contract.
Pratt said Apex is a growing business and an office is being set up in Detroit Lakes with four engineers, two technicians and office support.
Tuesday evening, Ulteig President and CEO Eric Michel said Ulteig's commitment to Detroit Lakes is strong -- both financially, through taxes, utilities and rent -- and through community service from its employees.
"While we are proud of our presence in the city, we are more proud of the 19 talented employees who work in our Detroit Lakes office," he said.
Since Ulteig has been doing work for the city for so many years, Zeman also questioned who holds the legal right to those documents, and if a new company would have the background information that Ulteig already has.
City Attorney Charlie Ramstad said that the city has rights to those documents because the city paid Ulteig to provide the services. The gray area is that Ulteig maybe used some means to get the information for those reports that the city wouldn't have rights to because that may not have been a part of the paid contract.
"Of course, with tradition, we'd like to continue that," Chris Thorson of Ulteig said. Thorson has been handling the city projects that Ulteig has already started.
Louiseau said the city would continue those projects with Ulteig until the completion of the projects regardless of who is named city engineer.
And technically, since Pratt was appointed city engineer, he will stay city engineer, regardless of where he works, until the council appoints someone else if it so chooses.
Lawsuit thrown in
Zeman brought up the fact that Ulteig and Apex are in the midst of a legal battle, and that as a city, he doesn't want to get involved in that.
Ulteig Engineering is suing nearly two dozen former employees who quit Ulteig in 2010 to start Apex, which now has offices in Bismarck and Fargo, as does Ulteig.
Michel said Tuesday night that Apex employees have admitted to taking 200,000 electronic files before leaving Ulteig.
Ulteig has also filed complaints with professional boards in North Dakota and Minnesota regarding the ethics behind Apex and certain employees.
Zeman isn't the only one concerned about the lawsuit.
"We don't want anything to do with it," Ramstad said. "It shouldn't have any bearing on this (decision)."
He added that the wise choice would be for city council members to make a decision based on engineering needs only and nothing to do with the lawsuit.
Alderman Dave Aune questioned why there were two different procedures used when the city appointed a new city attorney and now city engineer.
Attorney Bill Briggs had been the city attorney for many years, and last year when he decided to retire as city attorney, the city named Ramstad city attorney. Ramstad and Briggs have worked in the same law firm for many years.
When former city engineer Gary Nansen retired from Ulteig Engineers, the city named Pratt to the position. They both worked for Ulteig at the time as well.
So, Aune questioned why the procedures were done differently now, where an RFP was sent out for the engineering position, but not for the attorney position.
Louiseau said it was because it was a different situation with Briggs preparing Ramstad for the position, and now Pratt leaving Ulteig.
No other explanation was given, and no more questions were asked about the difference in procedures.
Zeman added that it isn't a given that Pratt can change firms and expect to take the city's business with him.
The city talked with Becker County in the past about combining engineering services. The county employs a full-time highway engineer, and the city uses the equivalent of a part-time engineer. At the time, County Engineer Brad Wentz didn't believe that one engineer could handle the workload, so it wasn't pursued much more.
But now Wentz has resigned that position, and the city said they have received communication from the county that they would at least like to have a discussion about a shared service.
Alderman Bruce Imholte said that he's "not comfortable voting on this yet" until the city has that meeting with the county. "We should at least have that conversation."
Louiseau said he could facilitate a more formal conversation with the county if that's what the council wishes.
"If we were ever going to do it, this would be the time," Zeman said of combining services, since both city and county engineers are leaving.
The city plans to defer the issue for another month, talk to the county and make a decision at the January meeting.
Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.