Grand Forks City Council shoots down plan to phase out 'classified' department heads

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Joe Bowen, Grand Forks Herald
·4 min read
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May 4—A week's time and a second vote produced no new results at Grand Forks City Hall.

City Council members on Monday voted 4-3 against Mayor Brandon Bochenski's proposal to ultimately make the head of each city department a contracted employee, rather than one whose job is spelled out in city code. Voting against the plan were council members Katie Dachtler, Bret Weber, Jeannie Mock and Ken Vein. Voting in favor were council members Danny Weigel and Kyle Kvamme, plus City Council President Dana Sande.

Council members, acting as the city's Committee of the Whole, also voted against the proposal last week, but Monday's decision was final. No council member changed their vote except, technically, Kvamme, who was absent from last week's council meeting but present to vote in favor of the mayor's proposal on Monday.

"I tend to want to run things very businesslike and have a business mentality when it comes to running the city," Bochenski said, "and that is the tool that I need to do so."

Mock said she didn't want to stand in anyone's way, but worried about the long-term consequences of Bochenski's proposal. Contracted employees do not have as many professional protections as City Hall workers whose jobs are ensconced in city code, and opponents of the plan worried that civic leaders could place greater political pressure on contracted employees, potentially warping their recommendations to decision-makers up the city's chain of command. Council members who oppose the mayor's plan have been quick to claim they didn't believe any current official or administrator might do so.

"I think people do need to keep in mind those are elected leaders and elected officials, so they are who the people are choosing to make those decisions," Bochenski said. "I think we need to keep that in mind when we worry about a future council or future leadership, that that's who the people have chosen to be in those positions and it's not necessarily our job to try to police that."

Grand Forks city staff are either "classified" employees or "nonclassified" employees. Classified workers have more protection from being fired, but are generally paid less than contract workers, according to city staff. Contract employees also can enjoy perks that classified staff can't, such as a signing bonus. Beyond that, city human resources staff worry that fewer people would apply for contract jobs because classified city employees might not want to lose their job protections.

In a nutshell, Bochenski's proposal would amend Grand Forks' city code to make all department heads "nonclassified" contract employees, generalize the definition of a "department" and a department "head" and grandfather in existing classified department heads, whose jobs would change to contract ones after they quit, retire, and so on.

Council member Bret Weber said it's apparent the city needs to revise its code and hiring practices, but that those changes would aim beyond those proposed by the mayor and City Attorney Dan Gaustad.

In related news, council members:

Were briefed on the slowing COVID-19 vaccination rate in Grand Forks County. As of May 2, 35.8% of county residents have been fully vaccinated, according to North Dakota Department of Health and Grand Forks Public Health data presented to council members on Monday. That's more than halfway to the 60% goal that public health officials hope will achieve "herd" immunity from the virus, but the rate at which county residents are getting their shots has gone down since early April. Then, between 400 and 450 people were getting their first of two vaccine doses per day, according to health department data, and that figure has dropped to about 75 people per day. Debbie Swanson, the local health department's director, said the city is "in for a very long effort" as it pushes to reach the herd immunity threshold.

Acting as the Jobs Development Authority, authorized city staff to constitute the Accelerate Loan Program, which aims to dole out high-risk loans to nascent technology companies. The authority would lend up to $250,000 per borrower, with no interest due until the end of the third of up to five years. The program could lend a combined $2 million over the "near term," according to City Administrator Todd Feland. A report by Community Development Director Meredith Richards pegs that time period at four years.

Formally agreed to ask for $479,650 worth of federal coronavirus aid to revamp Mill Road from Gateway Drive North to North Washington Street. The city is set to pay for the remaining $215,350 of the project, which engineers estimate will cost $695,000.

Were briefed on the presumed future needs of the city's wastewater treatment plant, which city staff believe will need $45 million worth of improvements by 2027 to fix aging infrastructure and handle the increasingly "strong" sewage from large-scale industrial concerns such as Red River Biorefinery, as well as an overall increase in industrial and residential sewage as the city works to draw more companies and people to town.