Johnson relaxed after his Wabasha County position is terminated

After the Wabasha County Board decided on a split vote Thursday to abolish his position effective Jan. 1, Dave Johnson returned to work answering emails. The board had been saying for months that it might abolish the position, and Johnson had already taken down the wildlife art from his wall, which is now nearly blank.

WABASHA — Less than hour after learning Thursday that his position will be terminated and he will be out of a job Jan. 1, a relaxed Wabasha County Administrator Dave Johnson was back at his desk answering emails.

"I have to be happy — there is no more anxiety about it," he said. He joked with finance director Deb Koenig about winter hats. The walls of his office were nearly bare because he had taken down his art weeks before.

His position and job had been in limbo for weeks. The county board first said it was looking at downgrading his job from administrator to coordinator, a position with less power and pay. Then the board said it was looking at terminating his contract to save money.

What followed was several chaotic, loud and argumentative board meetings, many with Johnson sitting to the side. At times, members of the audience chided and questioned commissioners Merl Norman, Deb Roschen and Dave Harms, who indicated they wanted Johnson terminated. Many of them were upset with the three and let them know it, often to the applause of many in the audience.

Commissioners Mike Wobbe or Rich Hall also spoke against eliminating the administrator position without studying the issue.

However, some members of the audience, including during Thursday's board meeting, applauded Norman, Roschen and Harms. They said they favor lower taxes.

On Thursday, the board was set to vote on termination when Erick Kardall, an attorney hired by the board to advise it on the Johnson/restructuring issue, and Lisa Bayley, Johnson's attorney, said they had reached an agreement. The agreement says that if the board abolishes the position, Johnson would lose his job but get severance pay and other benefits. In return, Johnson would waive his right to a hearing and not sue or publicly criticize the board, and the board wouldn't publicly criticize him.

The motion to accept that, like all motions Thursday, passed 3-2 with Norman, Harms and Roschen voting in favor.

Soon after, Norman introduced a resolution abolishing the office. Initially the resolution said immediately, but that was amended to effective Jan. 1. It stated the board more than 20 years ago established the position and it can abolish it. (At first, Johnson said the matter would have to go to a countywide vote.) The resolution stated the board was looking at "the efficient and effective use of county resources."

County department heads will do the jobs the administrator does now and report to the board.

That surprised Bayley and others. She said her understanding was that Johnson would help a study commission examine the proper structure for county government. If it found it best to abolish his job, then he was out. That probably would take a few months.

Also, she said the matter did not get a proper legal notice in the official agenda. The agenda posted on the county Web site said the meeting was a "Continuation of November 29, 2011 statutory hearing for David Johnson, Wabasha County Administrator." The second matter was  "Resolutions – Consideration and determination." The final agenda item was to adjourn.

"How can this one be legal?" Hall asked. Assistant County Attorney Michael Plante said he didn't even have a copy of the resolution.

Norman said that "it was one of the resolutions on today's agenda." The board voted 3-2 to go back and approve the agenda with the termination resolution on it.

Wobbe, who voted no, said doing that sets a bad precedent. He said he thought Johnson should have been retained until the government structure committee did its work. "I'm against the way this is being handled here," he said. "It's just not right."

"I'm speechless," Hall said. "It's ridiculous."

"Thank you for your opinion," Norman replied.

Hall shot back that the matter is personal, something the three have disagreed with. He said Harms asked him in January if Johnson "is scared yet? He should be." Harms denied it.

Then the board voted to abolish Johnson's position.

Afterward, Norman said the move to abolish wasn't sudden. "They said it came up quick," he said. "It didn't come up quick."

Bayley said she hopes county residents watch how the lack of an administrator affects the county. "There is a way to do those things, and this is not the way to do it," she said.

Wobbe said he doesn't know what to do because he's not an attorney. "All I want is for this to end and move on, but let's get us in the right direction," he said. He had hoped Johnson would remain until the restructuring study was done. "He was willing to do that," he said. "He was willing to walk away in February or March."

Former commissioner Don Springer said the board is hiding something. He said he might challenge the vote because of no proper notification.

Johnson, 60, was rather calm in the hallway outside the board room after the meeting. He joked with Bayley and accepted thanks from others who said they appreciated his work. "I'm going to seek other employment in the field," he said.

Until Jan. 1, "I will work as I have every day since the whole thing started," he said.

 

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