Problems between city attorney, interim manager

A complaint filed last month by Minot’s fired city attorney alleges controlling behavior and unreasonable demands by the city’s interim manager, who denies those claims.

In response to an open records request, the city released documents related to allegations of former city attorney Colleen Auer as well as numerous emails, including many that came to and from Auer during the month that she served as Minot’s city attorney. She was fired May 2 and has filed a grievance with the North Dakota Labor Department and federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Auer’s complaint claimed unlawful harassment based on sex.

“The Interim Manager has engaged in a pattern of controlling, abusive and unauthorized behavior towards me because I am a female attorney who does not behave like my male predecessor,” Auer wrote in her complaint to City Council president Jim Hatlelid on April 19, only a few weeks after starting her job on March 31. She stepped into a vacancy that opened when John Van Grinsven retired in January.

Auer wrote that the harassment precluded her from performing her duties and badgered, bullied and coerced her into working exhaustive hours to complete months’ worth of pending legal matters in less than three weeks. She said she was directed to close the interim manager’s pet projects the downtown parking structure and airport ground lease within a tight timetable on threat of termination. She alleged she was “subjected to endless scrutiny” and was “undermined by the Interim Manager’s incessant questioning of my judgment.”

In a written response, interim manager Cindy Hemphill denied any animosity toward Auer as a female attorney. Hemphill noted she works well with assistant city attorney Kelly Hendershot, also a female.

Hemphill said she did mention the importance of the downtown parking structures and airport ground leases to help Auer prioritize her schedule and had talked about a timeline to complete contracts that was several weeks away. Auer said she felt pressured to have deals in place by the time a new mayor takes office in June, while Hemphill indicated that she sought to work with Auer in setting a timeline and felt a June deadline was realistic for an experienced attorney.

Auer claimed she was involved in numerous projects, which she stated had her working every weekday until at least 10 p.m. and sometimes as late as 1:30 a.m., with little to no break, as well as a 10-hour day each weekend.

Hemphill said that she was not aware of the city attorney’s schedule to know her workload, but as a department head, the city attorney set her own hours. Hemphill said she had not ordered many of the projects that Auer took on.

Auer also stated that Hemphill was pushing to complete projects without council approval. Hemphill noted that approval on the projects in question had been obtained either prior to Auer’s joining the city or would be sought once documents were completed.

Specific areas where conflicts occurred involved an eminent domain lawsuit on the 55th Street overpass project and a proposed MAGIC Fund contract with KALIX.

Information in documents provided by the city showed that Auer sought to change a tentative settlement on the 55th Street project to protect the city from potential future litigation on drainage issues with the property. The defendant’s attorney was open to the changes, according to Auer, but changed his mind and refused to have his client sign. Hemphill stated in the documents that it was important to reach agreement and avoid trial costs, and she questioned Auer numerous times to determine if there was a way to settle with the defendant.

Hemphill also had asked Auer to review a proposed MAGIC Fund grant contract with KALIX. Auer determined the city didn’t have authority under state law to provide a grant and rewrote the contract, which created strain with the Minot Area Development Corp.

Auer’s complaint uses verbiage such as “incensed,” “argue,” “left in a huff,” “hounded” and “demanded” when referring to Hemphill’s actions. Hemphill described herself as trying to work with Auer. Human resources manager Lisa Jundt didn’t specifically cite any tension between the manager and attorney in her account of a meeting that she had with both on April 17 to discuss Auer’s job performance.

Hemphill stated that she had been sensing a communication gap with Auer.

“I do feel Mrs. Auer is not receptive to engaging in dialogue to listen to what I had to say versus the way Mrs. Auer wanted to move forward with any issues we had discussed in her three-week employment,” Hemphill wrote in her response to the allegations. “After personal interaction with Mrs. Auer, I have walked away frustrated because I do not get the sense she is listening to the input from me on the different issues.”

Mayor Curt Zimbelman appointed a committee of three council members to review Auer’s harassment complaint. Hatlelid, Scott Knudsvig and Dean Frantsvog interviewed Auer, Hemphill and Jundt. Their conclusion was that there was no wrongdoing by Hemphill.

“It is clear that there has been a disconnect between you and Colleen with regard to workload and prioritization of the work she is completing,” Hatlelid wrote in an email to Hemphill. “I would ask that you have Colleen prepare a list of the things she is working on and have her send it to you. At that point, I think you should prioritize her workload so she is aware of the most important issues that need attention.”

The committee also stated in its report that Auer’s main goal appeared to be changing employment policies to address harassment situations. The committee’s report was filed with the mayor April 29. On May 2, Hemphill fired Auer for insubordination.

Auer, who seeks to get her job back, said the labor department plans to investigate once staff and resources are available. The federal agency will rely on the state investigation for its initial review.

Having previously practiced in California and Arizona, Auer had been operating under a temporary North Dakota license while her application for a reciprocal license was reviewed. The temporary license was contingent upon having an associate who is a licensed attorney. Minot’s assistant attorney served in that role. With the loss of an associate, her temporary license has been suspended. Auer said she plans to remain in Minot to await the results of the latest investigation.