Was A.L.’s city manager treated fairly?
Published 2:10 pm Saturday, September 25, 2010
Jim Norman isn’t the first to use city credit card inappropriately
More than a handful of Albert Lea city employees have made charges deemed to be personal in nature with the city credit card since 2006, according to documents the city provided to the Tribune on Friday.
Though none is to the extent of City Manager Norman’s allegations, there are some for alcoholic drinks while at a conference, Internet service while at a hotel for a conference, a cell phone and a nail file, among others.
Many of these purchases had been made at the same time as other city-approved purchases; for example, one employee had used the city credit card for an approved meal while on a city trip. While the meal itself was approved, the alcoholic drink was not.
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The information came as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request by the Tribune, which asked for any and all instances when city employees used their city credit card for expenses deemed to be personal in nature. The request came on the heels of charges against City Manager Jim Norman that allege he misused the city credit card for more than $2,300 in personal charges.
The documents provided by the city show expenses mostly under $30.
It appears the employees wrote checks back to the city for the unapproved charges.
While the paperwork did not identify the employees who made the charges, it did not appear to be one employee making repeated charges because different department heads signed off on the reimbursements.
It is unclear whether any disciplinary action was taken against any of these employees. Though receipts are public, personnel decisions are not — unless, of course, they enter court as is possible in the Norman case. Lawyers want to know if Norman is being treated differently than other city workers.
Action against Norman moves forward this week, as he is expected to make his first appearance on the charges on Wednesday.
At this time, his charges — which include two felonies and one gross misdemeanor — will be read in, and a judge will set Norman’s bail — if any.
Albert Lea Mayor Pro Tem Al “Minnow” Brooks has also called a closed Albert Lea City Council meeting for 5:30 p.m. Monday in the Council Chambers at City Hall.
According to a letter from Brooks to City Clerk Shirley Slater-Schulte, the meeting will be closed for discussion of a pending legal matter involving an employment situation pursuant to the attorney-client privilege.
Thought it has not been confirmed, the meeting is likely being held to discuss the pending litigations against Norman.
The charges and court appearance spur many questions about Norman’s hire and allegations, of which the Tribune has investigated. The hire goes back to December in 2009 when former Albert Lea City Manager Victoria Simonsen announced she had accepted the position as town administrator in Lyons, Colo.
The City Council voted a few days later to invite potential search firms to the city to give an overview of what the search would entail for a new city manager.
On Dec. 29, the council approved a contract with consultant firm The Brimeyer Group to perform the search at a cost of $17,750, plus expenses not to exceed $3,500.
The firm and the council came up with a profile for the new manager that included a description for a visionary leader, a manager the council could look to for ideas to handle challenges and to advance in the future.
The profile asked for candidates with a master’s degree in public administration, community or economic development, business, finance or related field, along with eight to 10 years of public sector administrative and managerial experience, among other qualifications.
The salary range was listed between $83,700 to $108,400. Simonsen’s salary had been expected to be at just over $100,000 in 2010.
About 70 people applied.
The Brimeyer Group narrowed the list down to 18 candidates, conducted interviews with these candidates and then narrowed the list down again to 10 semifinalists to present to the council.
A source close to the city, who did not want to be named for this story, said during the search for a new city manager, the council was presented with red flags by a representative with The Brimeyer Group about things to look out for in each of the 10 semifinalists.
The only major red flag about Norman was a driving while intoxicated charge in 1987, the source said. Nothing was said about whether Norman had any potential personal financial problems. At that point, the semifinalists had gone through an interview with the search firm, with preliminary background checks conducted.
In early March the council narrowed the candidates down to five, and then Brimeyer conducted more in-depth criminal background checks, credit checks and educational checks.
The checks for Norman and the other finalists came back clear.
The candidates visited Albert Lea on March 19 and 20 for more in-depth interviews by a citizens panel, city staff and the council.
Then on March 20, the council agreed to hire Alan Lanning of Pines North, Colo., with Norman as the backup candidate.
However, an agreement couldn’t be reached with Lanning — primarily because of salary — and the council instead began negotiations with Norman, the interim city administrator in Afton.
On March 24, city leaders announced they had reached a verbal agreement with Norman.
He would start part time April 12 and full time May 3.
Norman was hired to handle difficult decisions in upcoming years, especially if the city continues to lose funding from the state, the unnamed source said.
Norman had previously worked 23 years in public administration, including as interim city manager for the city of Afton, city administrator in Ramsey, city manager in Montevideo, city administrator in Renville and county coordinator in Dodge County.
Going into Norman’s hire, the department heads agreed they could basically work with any of the five finalists, the source said. Nobody expressed concerns about any of the finalists.
The employment agreement
According to Norman’s employment agreement, his starting annual base salary was $95,000, with the city agreeing to increase that compensation to about $98,700 on Jan. 1, 2011, depending on the results of his performance evaluation. Future increases would be considered at the beginning of each year after his annual review.
The city agreed to provide comprehensive medical coverage for Norman, and he was credited with 40 hours banked sick leave and 24 hours of banked vacation leave. For purposes of accruing vacation and sick leave, he was credited with having completed five years of employment with the city upon his first day of employment, the agreement states.
The city agreed to pay Norman a $500 monthly vehicle allowance to be used to “purchase, lease, or own, operate and maintain a vehicle.” Norman was responsible for the insurance coverage of the vehicle.
The agreement stated the city would reimburse Norman for up to $5,000 for moving expenses for his family to move their belongings from St. Paul to Albert Lea. Moving expenses included packing, moving, storage costs, unpacking and insurance charges, along with lodging and meal expenses for the family en route from St. Paul to Albert Lea. Mileage costs for moving two personal automobiles would be reimbursed at the current IRS rate.
The city also agreed to pay Norman an interim housing supplement of $500 per month for two months, or until he established a permanent residence, whichever came first.
In a separate section, the agreement stated if Norman is terminated by the city when he is willing and able to perform the duties of city manager, the city would have to pay Norman with his last pay check, give him a lump-sum cash payment equal to six months of his salary, and pay for his benefits for six months.
However, if Norman is terminated because of misconduct or conviction of an illegal act, the city would have no obligation to pay termination benefits.
The credit card agreement
When Norman started full time as city manager, he was given a city-issued credit card and an agreement to sign based on the use of that agreement.
City Finance Director Rhonda Moen, said the agreement was “discussed” with Norman, not just given to him.
The agreement to use the city-issued U.S. Bank One card begins with the following: “The U.S. Bank One card represents the city’s trust in you. You are empowered as a responsible agent to safeguard city assets.”
It states the person understands that the card is for company-approved purchases only and not for personal charges.
“Improper use of this card can be considered misappropriation of city funds,” the agreement continues. “This may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.”
The cardholder agrees to not allow any other person to use the card.
The agreement states all charges will be billed directly to the city. The bank cannot accept money from the cardholder directly, thus personal charges billed to the city could be considered a misappropriation of funds.
Lastly, it states the cardholder understands that all the charges to the card must be supported by detailed receipts.
“Any charges that I cannot provide substantiation for will be my responsibility,” it adds.
If the card is accidentally used to make a personal transaction, the agreement tells the cardholder to immediately contact the finance department and provide full details.
During his first few months as city manager, Norman said he had been receiving positive feedback on his work.
Norman said he started a weekly correspondence with the City Council, put together the 2011 budget, prepared a proposal for Albert Lea Medical Center to move downtown, proposed a Blazing Star Summit in October and set a new course of openness and transparency for the city.
The Tribune’s unnamed source said Norman was more goal-oriented than Simonsen.
“It always seemed like he had the flash view of let’s get stuff done,” the source said.
This person said Norman was used to having more control over department heads, whereas Simonsen would give them a little more rope. Regardless, he appeared to be getting along with them.
Then out of the blue less than six months after starting the job, Norman has stated he was “broadsided” with allegations that he had misused the city’s credit card for personal, unapproved purchases.
He now faces two felony counts and one gross misdemeanor count in Freeborn County District Court related to alleged abuse of the card for about $2,300 in personal purchases.
When asked specifically about Norman’s case, Moen said she could not speak specifically about the case.
However, the unnamed source said it was his understanding that Moen saw overages on Norman’s credit card statement and told Norman he had a certain amount in unapproved spending.
Norman reportedly wrote the city a check, but Moen told him it was a misappropriation of funds.
The source stated after the second statement came out with similar purchases, Moen, as a mandatory reporter, sent the allegations to the state auditor for review.
“As a mandatory reporter she has to send it off,” the sources said. “I just think it was the magnitude of what it was, of why Rhonda had to tell.”
He noted he didn’t think there was any personal reason she had to do so and noted he didn’t think there was a good chance it could have all been a misunderstanding.
“I think he was using it as a short-term loan,” the source stated. “But I don’t think there was an intent of stealing funds.”
Though Norman has been limited on what he can say about the matter because of advise from his lawyers, he has repeatedly stated he never had any intent to misuse the city credit card. He has also pointed out that he thinks the section of the employment agreement regarding moving expenses is broad and uses ambiguous language.
Albert Lea Police Chief Dwaine Winkels said if there’s any hint of a criminal allegation, police proceed as a criminal investigation.
He said he was informed there was an issue involving the credit card use by the city manager so he turned it over to the Waseca Police Department for an investigation.
“I cannot investigate my city manager,” Winkels said.
Waseca Police Chief Keith Hiller said it is not uncommon for an outside police department to conduct an investigation for other cities in cases such as this when it involves a potential conflict.
Hiller said the call from Winkels asking to investigate the matter came July 27.
“That conflict by their very nature, they don’t want the perception of any bias,” Hiller said. “It’s not unusual for us to do conflict cases. It’s in the best interest of that entity that’s requesting the assistance.”
After the Waseca Police Department got the call, they came to Albert Lea, got a brief description of what is alleged to have happened and then began the investigation.
When the investigation was concluded, it was presented to the Waseca County Attorney’s Office to review to see if any criminal statutes had been violated.
It was signed by a judge, indicating there was probable cause for Norman to be criminally charged.
He could not discuss any specifics of the case.
The investigation report, however, stated when Norman was confronted about the allegations, he sent an e-mail to Moen saying he had been in “terrible” financial shape when he began in Albert Lea and that he was attempting to clear up his debt through federal stimulus legislation.
Norman went into private practice following his time as city manager in Ramsey, but when the economy recessed his business went down the tubes. That’s when he took the job in Afton.
How Jim Norman came to be the Albert Lea city manager and was later charged with alleged misuse of the city credit card:
- Dec. 14, 2009: Former Albert Lea City Manager Victoria Simonsen announced she had accepted the position as town administrator in Lyons, Colo. Her last day would be Feb. 12.
- Dec. 18, 2009: The Albert Lea City Council voted to invite potential search firms to the city to give an overview of what the search would entail for a new city manager.
- Dec. 29, 2009: The council approved a contract with consultant firm The Brimeyer Group to perform the search for a new city manager at a cost of $17,750, plus expenses not to exceed $3,500.
- Jan. 11: The council approved City Attorney Lee Bjorndal as acting city manager for after Simonsen left her position.
- Jan. 19: The council reviewed the job profile outlining the duties and expectations of the new Albert Lea city manager with a representative from The Brimeyer Group.
- Feb. 12: City Manager Victoria Simonsen worked her last day at Albert Lea City Hall.
- Feb. 23: Albert Lea Mayor Mike Murtaugh announced at a council meeting that about 70 people from over 20 states applied for the city manager position through the deadline Feb. 20.
- March 4: Richard Fursman of The Brimeyer Group presented 10 semifinalist candidates to the council during a special meeting. The council narrowed the list down to five finalists: Dean Torreson, of Macomb, Ill.; Michael Lombardo, of Iowa City, Iowa; Jim Norman, of Afton; Alan Lanning, of Pines North, Colo.; and David Torgler, of Leavenworth, Wash.
- March 11: Lombaro announced he accepted an offer as the first town manager of Hamilton, Mass.
- March 11: Greg Sund, the former city administrator of Spearfish, S.D., was selected as the new finalist to fill Lombardo’s opening.
- March 19: The city manager candidates arrived in Albert Lea, took a tour of the city, and met with school officials and department heads. They also met individually with council members. That evening, there was a public reception at City Hall to give the public the opportunity to meet the finalists.
- March 20: Three teams consisting of department heads, community members and the council interviewed the candidates.
- March 20: The council reached a consensus that afternoon to offer the position of city manager to Lanning. Norman was the backup candidate.
- March 22: The contract for the new city manager had not yet been accepted.
- March 24: Unable to reach a contract agreement with Lanning, city leaders announced they had reached a verbal agreement with Norman to become the city’s new manager. He would get a starting annual salary of $95,000.
- March 31: The council officially accepted the contract with Norman to become the new city manager.
- April 12: Norman began his first part-time day as city manager.
- May 3: Norman began his first full-time day as city manager.
- Aug. 9: The council met in a special meeting to review allegations against Norman regarding alleged misconduct of the city credit card. The meeting was originally scheduled to be closed, but Norman requested it be open. The council hired Frank Madden with Frank Madden & Associates out of Plymouth to assist the city.
- Aug. 27: The Waseca County Attorney’s Office charged Norman with two felony counts and one gross misdemeanor count tied to the allegations that he abused the city credit card for more than $2,300 in personal purchases. The investigation stated Norman reportedly told the Albert Lea finance director he used the card because he was attempting to clear up his own personal debt through federal stimulus legislation.
- Aug. 27: Murtaugh announced Norman was on paid leave from his duties pending a special meeting Sept. 2.
- Sept. 2: The council voted unanimously to continue Norman on paid administrative leave until further notice. There were about 50 people in the council chambers as the vote was made. Norman also attended with his lawyer Steven T. Rizzi of Austin.
- Sept. 2: Norman submitted a statement to the council stating he was mistaken on his understanding of his agreement regarding the use of the city credit card and that he had no intent to deceive the city.
- Sept. 4: Murtaugh receives a letter from the Minnesota State Auditor’s Office stating the entity will not take further action against Norman. The letter was dated Sept. 1.
- Sept. 9: The council had a closed meeting with Madden regarding potential litigation against Norman. No other information was released.
- Sept. 13: The council appointed Human Resources Director Mike Zelenak to begin reviewing options for finding an interim city manager.
- Sept. 20: Afton City Accountant Tom Niedzwiecki concluded Norman’s expenses during his time as interim city manager in Afton were “legitimate, reasonable and related to city business.”
- Sept. 27: The council is scheduled to have a closed meeting with Madden at 5:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers regarding the matter.
- Sept. 29: Norman is slated to have his first appearance in Freeborn County District Court at 11 a.m.