Fired city attorney Colleen Auer fights for job

Minot’s dismissed city attorney is fighting to get her job back.

Colleen Auer was fired Friday for insubordination, according to information released the next day by Minot City Council president Jim Hatlelid. Due to potential litigation, the City of Minot is declining any further official comment on the firing.

Auer traveled to Bismarck Monday to file complaints with the North Dakota Labor Department and federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She expects that the agencies will investigate and attempt to mediate. If mediation isn’t successful, Auer said she would initiate a lawsuit once the agencies release their findings.

“I am not in this to sue the city,” she said. “I have one mission in life to get back to my chair. … That’s where I plan to go right back to where I was and right back to doing my job. It’s just a matter of when.”

She has sought information through the state’s open meetings law about the council’s involvement in her firing, which was carried out by interim city manager Cindy Hemphill. City ordinance states that the city manager “shall neither appoint nor remove the head of any department without first consulting with the city council.”

Auer said a consultation requires a quorum of the council, but there is no record of any publicly-noticed meeting. If there was no meeting, Hemphill fired her without authorization, but if there was a meeting, it violated the state’s open meetings law, she said.

Hatlelid could not recall a previous firing of a department head during his nearly 30 years on the council that might shed light on a precedent. However, he said a consultation with the council typically consists of the city manager seeking the opinion of council leadership.

Hatlelid said he discussed the personnel issue with Mayor Curt Zimbelman and with council members Scott Knudsvig and Dean Frantsvog, both attorneys, who were involved in a review. Most council members said they were surprised to learn of the firing. Some reported receiving an email from Hemphill about 5 p.m. Friday to inform them of the dismissal. Others who didn’t see an email found out from other avenues, including the television news.

Auer said problems began shortly after she took office March 31. Within two days, Hemphill began changing the job responsibilities that had been advertised for the city attorney position, she said.

“Basically, I wasn’t able to do my job as advertised,” she said.

Auer said Hemphill and human resources manager Lisa Jundt came to her office on April 18 and closed the door behind them. She said Hemphill seemed exasperated.

“The first words out of her mouth were ‘I have been really trying to get this to work out,'” Auer said. She said Hemphill also made general statements about problems with the way she was performing her duties. Auer said she was unable to obtain specifics but felt the message was clear: “You report to me. You are not doing what I want.”

Believing the situation created a hostile work environment, Auer said she found no city appeal rights or workplace harassment policy to address the situation.

“To me, a logical step was to go to the city council so I sent my complaint to the president of the council,” she said. The letter to Hatlelid asked to have Hemphill placed on administrative paid leave while having an independent third party investigate her complaint.

The response was a mayor-appointed review board consisting of Hatlelid, Knudsvig and Frantsvog. Auer said they interviewed Hemphill, Jundt and herself but did not ask for any documents or include information from other staff.

“When they spoke to me, I really tried my level best to use it as a tool to correct these issues and to right the ship,” Auer said, adding that her message was, “I am the victim of this. Let’s talk about why that is and how that happened and how we can remedy this to make sure it doesn’t happen again to anyone.”

She felt she had not been listened to when she later received a memo from the mayor indicating that no action would be taken. Her response was to request to present her case to the full council.

On May 2, Auer said she was working late in her office after others had gone when Hemphill entered with Police Chief Jason Olson and another officer to tell her that she was fired and had 15 minutes to clear her office. Auer said she believes the method of firing was intended to be intimidating and to humiliate her because she “wouldn’t play ball.”

Auer noted she has had an unblemished record as an attorney to this point.

Before being hired by the City of Minot, she had a private law practice in Scottsdale, Ariz. Auer is an Iowa native and graduate of the University of Iowa. She received her law degree from the University of Southern California in 1990 and was admitted to practice law in California and Arizona. She had served as corporate counsel for BASIS Educational Group Inc., a charter school management company, for a year. She served from 2005 to 2011 as deputy town attorney for Prescott Valley, Ariz. She served for 18 months in 2004-2005 as an assistant Arizona attorney general, defending the state against constitutional claims filed by prisoners. She also worked for 11 years as an associate attorney for a Phoenix, Ariz., law firm and two firms in Los Angeles.

Auer said it is important for Minot residents to demand transparency in their government and to scrutinize the actions of their elected representatives.

“People need to press it and make these people accountable. I intend to press it,” Auer said. “They are not going to get rid of me that easily.

“I am serving the public interest at this moment in fighting this. Somebody’s got to do it. I hoped it would have been handled internally by people in charge of the public interest. Fighting it externally against the city, that’s really the tragedy, in my opinion.”