Oct. 28—ROCHESTER — The greatest positive impact of
the censure of Rochester City Council
member Molly Dennis is likely being seen by city staff.
At least that's what several of her fellow council members said when asked about the effects more than seven months after the formal statement of disapproval was issued.
"I think the fact that the council took action was beneficial to the staff," council member Patrick Keane said. "Staff trying to deal with elected officials can be really ugly, and I think it was important that the council, as the council, stepped in."
Unlike past censured council members,
Dennis has continued to raise the reprimand as a topic
during council meetings and in emails sent to her fellow elected officials. One of the reasons stated is the inclusion of restrictions not found in past censures of council members.
One of the requirements of
the March 6 censure
sought to ensure the city administrator or department heads are the first line of contact for Dennis, who reportedly used excessive staff time and resources prior to the censure.
Dennis continues to reject that allegation, along with others.
"I do not know what 'activity' led up to this punishment, as I have not done anything wrong other than communicate differently than my peers and call out injustices," she said, referring to symptoms of her ADHD diagnosis.
Concerns about staff-related expenses were referenced in an investigation that began about a month after the censure.
Ann Goering of the Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, P.A., law firm was hired by the city as an outside investigator and her report made several references to Dennis monopolizing staff time without making their supervisors aware of the requests.
(City Administrator Alison) Zelms
was concerned because staff members were being called and being asked questions by Dennis," Goering wrote. "They did not know what to do and were concerned about the power dynamic."
Similar to the censure restrictions, the council's code of conduct states "generally, all interactions with staff members should flow through the city administrator."
Additionally, Goering said Zelms and City Attorney Michael Spindler-Krage alleged Dennis had spent excessive amounts of time discussing her personal life with city staff and council colleagues, which put some people in a difficult position.
While Dennis refutes such claims, council member Mark Bransford said he believes the censure helped address the concerns, since it put staff at an arm's length and protected them from her acting as an intermediary for individual residents' complaints and bypassing official channels.
"She took way too many liberties, really overburdened city staff with all of the things that were mentioned in the censure — too much time, not very professional interactions," he said. "I think that was successful, and probably one of the only reasons I supported it was to give staff some relief from the way she behaved."
Other council members have said their interactions with staff are typically initiated through the city administrator or department heads, but Dennis has questioned that.
In a recent email to Keane and council member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick, Dennis said she believes comments made about interactions with staff are intended as a slight.
"Residents state it is disgusting to listen to you both boast your 'power' at City Council meetings by publicly flaunting 'I have talked to the City Engineer Dillion' or 'I have connected with city staff Mr Yetzer' after using control tactics to silence your peer," she wrote in an Oct. 16 email responding to Keane's inquiry about scheduling a planned work trip. "These petty comments show the public you ran for office because of your personal ego, need for control, and desire for power trips not good government."
Keane denied any malicious intent behind referencing city staff, and Dennis has been told repeatedly that she can speak with staff, as long as discussions are coordinated through department heads and limited to city business.
Other council members have said their interactions with staff are typically initiated through the same channels, and within days of the censure, Deputy City Administrator Cindy Steinhauser wanted to help connect Dennis with staff members to discuss a zoning concern.
Emails show the council member
complicated the effort
by refusing to consider a phone call to be a virtual meeting in compliance with the censure, despite being told phone calls would not violate the requirements.
Dennis continues to point to an inability to coordinate phone calls with staff under her interpretation of the censure restrictions.
"Once this censure ends there will be over 10 months of past phone calls and explanations needed for me to make," she said. "I will be on the phone for weeks to try to have past information explained. However, it will never make up for the time, and sadly the votes for many important policy decisions have already been cast."
With censure restrictions expiring at the end of the year, Bransford said it will be up to Zelms and department heads to consider how to limit any burdens on staff.
"I think it will return, and I think it will return worse than it was in the past because of this sort of misguided sense of being punished or that somehow everyone else in the world is to blame but herself," he said.
Zelms said the censure has raised awareness of how council members and staff should interact under established council rules, and the heightened understanding could help address future concerns.
"I do remain hopeful that there is more alignment and adherence to the Common Council's rules so that we can increase productivity and refocus on city-related business rather than the individual demands and unfortunate misinformation created by one individual," she said.
When it comes to
interactions on the council level
, several members said little has changed despite the censure's attempt to limit inflammatory and unfounded allegations against elected officials and city staff.
"I believe the censure has been violated on numerous occasions, but I believe City Council members are caring and compassionate and really just wanted things to improve, not to be more punitive," Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said.
Dennis said her continued allegations and criticisms are an effort to raise attention to what she considers inappropriate policies and actions, but other council members have said the negative interactions have increased.
"The unexpected consequences have far outweighed any good that may have come with the initial intentions of the censure," Kirkpatrick said.
Dennis said she considers herself to be the target of attacks on her character and
discrimination due to her ADHD
, citing restrictions on her preference to make phone calls or text, rather than use email.
As a result, she said, another censure is possible in the new year.
"I will always be diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental processing disability," she said. "So yes, if the city continues to discriminate against people with disabilities, the way I am able to communicate, then I imagine the City Council will continue to censure me."
The majority of her fellow council members disagree about the likelihood of a second reprimand under similar circumstances.
"Since the censure has been a focus of negative interaction at the council level, I would not support further action," council member Norman Wahl said.
Bransford said it will be up to Dennis' Ward 6 constituents to decide whether her actions are appropriate.
"The ultimate correction is going to be the ballot box," he said. "It's really up to constituents to decide whether the censure was justified and whether or not they want someone sitting in that seat who claims to be representing them but is really only ever talking about herself."
Dennis said she does plan to run for a second term in the 2024 election.
"(A)fter what has happened the last 12 months, it would be unethical for me not to run for re-election," she said.