West St. Paul starts year off with split note


Matt Fulton

Council divided on resignation of city manager Matt Fulton

It was a divided first council meeting of the year for the West St. Paul City Council. At their Jan. 9 meeting, the members had to decide whether or not to accept a separation agreement with city manager Matt Fulton.

Fulton announced his resignation two weeks ago, shortly after the new council members and mayor were sworn in. He had been employed with the city since Aug. 5, 2013. 

“I had an understanding there were four votes on the council,” Fulton said, explaining that his contract outlined the council’s authority to terminate his contract with a majority vote.

Pursuant to his employment contract, Fulton is entitled to six months of severance pay, with continued benefits. Fulton will exhaust his personal leave first and then begin his severance period. Joan Carlson, city finance director, said he will be using roughly 70 days worth of personal time off, with an estimated value around $40,400. His severance period will be from April 20 to Oct. 20. His severance pay will be around $75,200.

The city’s new mayor, Jenny Halverson, said Fulton’s decision to resign was made after pressure from a majority of the council members to terminate his employment with the city.

On Wednesday, Fulton said, “I’m really concerned about the city council being able to work together in the future, so instead of going through a public hearing where it would probably fracture the council more, I just elected to work out an agreement.”

Halverson said it was critical for residents to know where council members stood on the issue.

The motion to accept the separation agreement was approved 4-3, with Dick Vitelli, Dave Napier and Halverson casting the dissenting votes. 

 

A split council

Halverson, who was a council member before she was elected mayor in November, said she had a strong working relationship with Fulton, and continued to support the positive work he did for the community.

“I understand this is my view of his work, and I question anyone terminating someone with whom they’ve never worked with as mayor or council,” Halverson said.

Halverson said to base a decision like this on hearsay gives her concern.

She contended that the last time the council was able to collectively provide the city manager direction was over two years ago. Halverson said Fulton abided by that directive.

Halverson said she had hoped the council, which has two new members -- Bob Pace and Anthony Fernandez, would have been able to work together to create and outline goals and objectives that align with those of the city. Those objectives would then have been given to the city manager.

“If our directives were not followed, then termination or request for resignation would be easily justified. We have not yet had that opportunity,” Halverson said. “In fact, the notices for a special meeting to vote on the termination were delivered on the evening we were sworn in, less than a week ago.”

Council member Vitelli said in a later interview that the special meeting was called for by council members Ed Iago, John Bellows and Fernandez.

Halverson said the council members favoring dismissal had their reasons for pursuing their course of action. It was because of this that Halverson said she felt it was important for council members to publicly give their opinions.

Council member John Bellows said he worked with Fulton for three years.

“It’s never easy to be in a situation where you’re asking someone to leave a position,” Bellows said. 

A clause in the separation agreement does not allow council members or Fulton to say anything negative or disparaging about each other, something Bellows said he had no wish to do.

He said he was making his judgment based on his experience, interaction and observation of and with Fulton. 

Bellows said Fulton had a lot of good qualities and had a good skillset. “But in my judgment, if the city is to move forward with the new council and a new mayor and a new, hopefully unified, vision of where we’re to go in a manner that’s cohesive ... if we’re going to move ahead with some sort of common vision, I think it’s absolutely necessary that we have a fresh start.”

Long-time council member Vitelli said he struggled with the decision. He said the council had notable divisions the past couple years and apologized to the residents for not being able to do more to resolve the differences.

“I believe that our council the last two years failed you as residents in doing our job, and we certainly failed Matt Fulton,” Vitelli said.

He asserted that under the leadership of former mayor Dave Meisinger, the council members had difficulties bringing their goals and ideas for the city to the table. 

Vitelli said the council hires the manager, who is responsible for carrying out the vision of the council. “How can you expect the manager to be successful when you don’t give him any direction?”

Lacking a unified vision from the council, Fulton was caught between “a rock and a hard place,” Vitelli said.

He added that West St. Paul has a reputation of cycling through managers. During his tenure on the council, he said there have been at least eight different city managers. 

“Matt Fulton was the best manager I have worked with,” Vitelli noted, adding in an interview that at age 59, Fulton may have reached an age where it’s challenging to find a another job.

When he heard that the new council members, Pace and Fernandez, were on board with terminating Fulton’s employment, Vitelli said he “begged them” to wait six months to form an opinion of working with him.

 

Contrary perspectives

Fellow long-time council member Iago said he viewed the city manager differently from Vitelli. 

Iago said he evaluates everything very carefully before making a decision, and recently had a lengthy discussion with Fulton.

“He was very well informed as to [the majority of the council’s] feelings and why,” Iago said. 

Iago said he envisions the city starting the year with the new council and trying to move forward with a clean slate with trust and confidence in the personnel hired.

Newly elected Pace, a long-time Robert Street merchant, said he learned over the last few months that the city has a talented staff.

“With the leadership of our first female mayor ... along with our council together will move West St. Paul forward and make a great city even greater,” said Pace, who owns Pace’s Tire & Service Center. 

He said that in the coming months and years, the citizens would come to realize the fresh start was “in the best interest of all in West St. Paul.”

Fernandez did not comment, citing the clause in the separation agreement.

Council member Napier, a Fulton supporter, explained that several years ago the city had a strategic planning meeting and started off with clear objectives. Five strategic plans were prioritized for the city, and the council gave them to the city manager and staff to begin implementing. 

This was initially very successful, Napier said, crediting Fulton for “his diligence in getting that done and the team he was working with.” He said the city was on a path, but then the progress was stalled by the council.

“To Matt’s credit, the only things the [city staff] could go off of were those five priorities, and they kept working on them,” Napier said. 

He said he is disappointed a “very qualified person” had to be let go. 

“We’ll be out searching for a qualified person, and we had one right here,” Napier said. 

 

Residents speak out 

In a phone interview former mayor Dave Meisinger said he wasn’t surprised when he heard Fulton had submitted his resignation.

“It’s not uncommon knowledge that he and I didn’t get along that well,” he said.

Meisinger said he did agree with the decisions by both the council and Fulton. He said Fulton made the choice to resign, so “obviously he wanted to move on as well.”

In his last job review, Meisinger reported at the Dec. 12 meeting that Fulton performed his duties well, but noted there were also things he needed to work on.

He added, “Not a city manager does a city make.”

“We’re perfectly capable of running the city without a city manager, so that whole line of reasoning that was trying to be conveyed last night I take exception,” Meisinger said.

Resident Jay DeLaRosby said he has been an observer of the council since he moved to the city in June. He said professional ethics for city managers requires them to be on their job for a minimum of three years before they can consider leaving the job. 

“No matter the environment he was dealing with, he was here to move West St. Paul forward and to do his job,” DeLaRosby said. 

He asked the new council members to attempt to work with Fulton for at least six months before taking action to terminate him.

Kevin Hendricks said he was frustrated because he didn’t hear any specifics as to why some council members were so unhappy with Fulton. 

“It seems like it should be pretty straightforward. A person is doing their job, and they’re meeting the requirements or they’re not. I would think legally you could say that,” Hendricks said. 

He said if the council really wanted a fresh start for West St. Paul, they ought to learn to work together, not “kick someone out and start all over.”

Matthew Schempp said he attended the council meeting on Dec. 12 when Meisinger said the council had reviewed Fulton’s job performance, and that he looked forward to seeing Fulton’s work in the days to come.

“I didn’t realize how literally I would have to take that statement. Twenty-three days is not a long enough time from a last review to call for a new review for a city employee,” Schempp asserted.

Joe Lipari said he has lived in the community for 33 years. He said for eight to 10 years under previous mayors and councils -- two administrations ago -- the city saw the most advancement of creating a plan and executing change that would be beneficial.

Lipari said this was torn down in the last two years, “culminated by the firing of [Fulton], who was looking to allow the city to progress.”

 

Final vote

After all comments were made, Bellows made a motion to accept the separation agreement. 

Mayor Halverson then told the audience, “We’ll vote on this item and then we will move on. We will move on with tonight’s meeting, and we will move on with the important work that lies ahead of us in the next two years.” 

Iago, Pace and Fernandez joined Bellows in approving the motion.

Both Fulton and the city have 15 days to rescind the agreement after it is executed. 

Fulton said he’s going to take some time to think about what the next step is in his career. He said he’s still very interested in building communities, but is trying to figure out the best way to do that.

 

Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

 

 

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