Kindred mayor, auditor gone after turbulent City Council meeting
KINDRED, N.D. - This Cass County town of about 700 people is without a mayor and auditor after both officials resigned during an explosive City Council meeting.A conflict between City Auditor Twila Morrison and City Councilor Julie Johnson boiled...
KINDRED, N.D. - This Cass County town of about 700 people is without a mayor and auditor after both officials resigned during an explosive City Council meeting.
A conflict between City Auditor Twila Morrison and City Councilor Julie Johnson boiled over at the March 1 meeting, with Morrison giving Johnson the ultimatum: "You go, or I go."
Johnson stayed, so Morrison went. Soon afterward, Mayor Jeff Wanner, who happens to be Johnson's father, announced that he'd had enough and that it would be his last meeting, too.
"I honestly don't know how to handle it," Wanner said, according to the Cass County Reporter, which covered the meeting. "I'm tired of it. I don't think I can go through it anymore."
City Councilor Adam Spelhaug is now the acting mayor. He told The Forum the departures of Wanner and Morrison weren't driven by a major controversy; rather, the personalities of Johnson and Morrison fueled the conflict. "I do think there was a level of unprofessionalism probably both ways," he said.
Spelhaug said it seems Wanner's dual roles as mayor and as Johnson's father contributed to his resignation. He said the council will consider how to fill Wanner's post at next month's meeting.
Spelhaug said the council will likely appoint a current councilor to the mayor's position and then appoint someone to fill the open council seat, unless a special election is requested. Phone messages left for Wanner and the two other councilors, David Amerman and Shad Stoddard, were not returned Thursday, March 9.
Spelhaug said a special council meeting held Wednesday, March 8, drew dozens of residents upset about the resignations of Morrison and Wanner, who became mayor in 2013.
Morrison, along with Kindred's public works superintendent, was one of the city's two employees. Spelhaug said the city will seek applicants to replace Morrison, who was not an elected official.
Johnson said the city will continue operating as it has been despite the absence of Wanner and Morrison. "The city will come out, I think, way stronger at the end," she said.
Morrison, who was auditor for nine years, said only in recent months did she and Johnson start feuding.
Johnson "has been on the council for five years, and all of a sudden she wants total control over everything that I do," Morrison said. "And it wasn't for the betterment of the community. It was to get rid of me."
At the March 1 meeting, Johnson alleged that Morrison had violated open records laws, changed her own job description without permission and occasionally acted unprofessionally.
"I feel that you go above and beyond on some things, but if there are things that if you feel that you don't want to do, or you don't like somebody, you'll do whatever you can to make things difficult for them," Johnson told Morrison. "Your attitude and respect for the council needs to improve."
In response, Morrison played a recording she made of an intense argument between her and Johnson. Morrison told the council that Johnson created a hostile work environment for her. "Never have I seen an elected official so obsessed about making sure the city comes to a screeching halt, and that's exactly what's going to happen if you don't resign right now," Morrison told Johnson. "I'm not taking this crap anymore."
Morrison told The Forum her conflict with Johnson arose in January after Johnson requested a list of residents with past-due water bills. Morrison told Johnson she first needed to make sure the residents' names were a public record.
"She made a huge issue out of that. It ended up being an open record. I had to give it to her," Morrison said. "That triggered whatever it is that she, you know, can't stand about me."
Morrison denied acting unprofessionally or breaking open records laws, but she acknowledged changing her own job description. Morrison said she did not know she needed the council's permission to do so. She said she apologized to the council for this.
Spelhaug, the acting mayor, said he had no problems with Morrison's performance as auditor. He said she wasn't perfect, but always did her best and put Kindred first.
"I think better treatment of our city employees is something we have to do going forward," he said, adding that the clash between Morrison and Johnson could have been handled better. "The level of things that Julie had brought up I didn't think were big enough for it to blow up into this kind of situation."
Johnson denied creating a hostile work environment for Morrison. Though, Johnson said she could have handled the situation more professionally. "But when someone is accusing you of things that are of that significance, it's hard to say how anybody would react to that," she said.
Morrison said she loved her job and would return, but only if Johnson resigns. "I'd go back in a New York minute," she said.
Morrison said her last act as auditor was to change the phone message at City Hall. It now says, "City Hall is closed until further notice. Please contact Councilwoman Julie Johnson," and gives Johnson's phone number.
"There's a lot of phone calls that go in and out that office every day," Morrison said. "Somebody needs to be responsible for answering those phones."
Johnson confirmed that, indeed, the calls are coming to her phone. "I've handled every call that I've received," she said.