Swanson settles with Montrose in wrongful termination dispute

By Doug Voerding

Although the final papers are not yet signed, the Montrose City Council on Monday night, March 23 approved a settlement with former City Administrator Barb Swanson. The settlement had been reached at a mediation session on Tuesday, March 3.

Under terms of the settlement, Swanson will be reinstated to her job with back pay on March 31. She will then be placed on administrative leave until May 31, 2016.

Swanson will be paid full salary of $44,613 and full benefits from Nov. 14, 2014, the day she was served with a termination notice, to April 30, 2015. She will also be reimbursed for COBRA insurance payments she made herself after Nov. 14 in the amount of $4,947.

From May 1, 2015 to May 1, 2016, Swanson will be paid $57,939, which is 55 percent of her salary, and receive single medical and dental insurance.

In addition, the city will contribute for Swanson its part to PERA, the state retirement program, until May 1, 2016.

The agreement also releases the city from all claims and includes a provision that Swanson will settle any issues with the filing of unemployment with the state on her own.

The vote on the settlement was 3 to 2. Voting in favor were Mayor Greg Youmans and Council-members Melissa Gudvangen and Jill Menard. Voting against were Council-members Lloyd Johnson and Michelle Otto.

After the meeting, both Johnson and Otto said separately, "I just don't agree."

Youmans said, "This is in the best interests of all parties involved."

In a phone interview, Swanson said, "The circumstance has been difficult, but the outcome is appreciated. I would like to extend my well wishes to Mayor Greg Youmans, Council-member Melissa Gudvangen and Councilmember Jill Menard. I would also like to thank all of those who have offered their support and kind words to me throughout my tenure with the City."

Swanson now has, under state law, 21 calendar days to sign the agreement. Once signed, federal law gives 15 calendar days for the agreement to possibly be rescinded by Swanson. The agreement can be signed in less than 21 days with the 15-day waiting period beginning on the day of signing. That waiting period can also be waived.

Given the time line for final settlement, Youmans said that he expects to make a statement at the next regular council meeting on April 13. Youmans said, "The statement will be about what happened and what determined the city's action."

Events leading up to the settlement began on Nov. 13. At a special emergency meeting called by then-Mayor Roy Henry, the Montrose City Council took disciplinary action against an unnamed city employee.

On Nov. 17, it was verified that City Administrator Barb Swanson had been fired by the council.

At the beginning of that meeting, Henry closed the meeting, saying, "This is an emergency personnel meeting."

When the meeting was reopened, Henry said that the meeting was a "discussion of disciplinary action, and that a vote was taken."

When the council was told by this reporter that under the state open meeting law no votes could be taken at a closed meeting, Henry called for a roll call vote. Henry and Councilmembers Lloyd Johnson, Mark Krotzer, and Michelle Otto voted yes and Councilmember Ben Kuehl voted no.

When asked what the motion was, Henry said, "to carry out disciplinary action."

Krotzer and Kuehl are no longer on the council.

Neither the employee nor the disciplinary action was stated at that meeting, as required by the state open meeting law. Swanson was given the termination letter when she arrived at work on Friday, Nov. 14.

Subsequently, Swanson filed a grievance with the city. The council heard the grievance on Dec. 8 but took no action. The issue was then referred to City Attorney Andy Pratt. The grievance then followed the procedures in Swanson's union contract, which led to the mediation session and settlement.



Bald eagles gather a while on Buffalo Lake's ice

An increasingly common sight, especially during spring and fall migrations, bald eagles gathered on the Buffalo Lake ice one day last week.  It appeared they had found something to eat, and while one of the birds feasted, some of the others flew around a while.  The group included at least one adult eagle and five younger birds.  The photo was taken from Lake Blvd. along the north shore.  (Photo by Ed DuBois)



Buffalo gets chance to defend state Knowledge Bowl title

The Buffalo High School Knowledge Bowl team will now be defending its 2014 state title after placing second with a score of 122.5 points in the region tournament last Thursday in Sartell. Above are (from left): Jon Thielen, Ryan Bowers, Abbie Kunze, Sophie Lefebvre, Jacob Nosbush, and Coach Lacy Schramm. The state tournament is April 9 and 10 in Brainerd. For more details about the region tournament results, see the School News page. (Photo by Doug Voerding)



Grand jury indicts Nuttall, Butcher

By Ed DuBois

A Wright County grand jury indicted Robert Nuttall and Gwen Butcher last week on several charges related to the disappearance of Chris Rossing last August.

Nuttall, 28, of Hutchinson, whose next court appearance is taking place on Friday, March 27, is charged with first-degree murder during the course of a kidnapping.  He is also charged with murder in the second degree - intentional, plus murder in the second degree - without intent - while committing a felony and kidnapping.

Butcher, 33, of Hutchinson is charged with aid and abet murder in the second degree - without intent - while committing a felony, as well as aid and abet kidnapping and obstructing investigation.

The grand jury worked five days while considering charges.  Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly said he was impressed with the willingness of citizens to serve as grand jury members.  Work on the prosecution will now move forward with the new charges.

During the night of Aug. 22, Rossing, 25, of Albion Township spoke with Nuttall and Butcher at a bar in Howard Lake, according to the criminal complaint filed in Wright County.  Later that night, there was a fight between Nuttall and Rossing, according to Butcher, and Rossing was allegedly punched repeatedly.  She said Rossing was taken in a vehicle to the home she and Nuttall shared in Hutchinson.

During an investigation, burnt human remains were found near the home of Nuttall and Butcher.  Tests showed the bones were human, male and fresh at the time of burning.  Teeth fragments have features that are consistent with Rossing's dental records, Kelly reported last January.



First of many bond issue projects awarded by BHM School Board

By Ed DuBois

The first of many projects approved by the voters last November was addressed by the Buffalo Hanover Montrose (BHM) School Board last Monday evening, March 23.  A contract is being awarded to the low bidder for the Hanover Elementary School addition project.

Supt. Scott Thielman mentioned that the bid opening for the phase one outdoor venues project at the high school is taking place on Tuesday, March 31.  This project involves two fields for multiple sports (including football, lacrosse and soccer), as well as a new track and practice fields.

For the Hanover project, seven bids ranging from $1.07 million to $1.21 million were opened recently.  The low bidder is Ebert Construction of Corcoran.  With alternate bid features and a deduction from the base bid, the final amount is $1.08 million.

The Hanover project is part of a $33 million bond referendum proposal the voters of the school district approved during the Nov. 4 election.

In other business:



The School Board approved four out-of-state trips for students.  The Buffalo High School marching band is traveling to Boston in July.  A Buffalo Community Middle School science group is traveling to Florida in June.  BHS students learning German are traveling to Germany in June, and BHS students learning Spanish are traveling to Spain in June.

The students going to Germany and Spain will be staying with host families.



Marilyn Splinter, food service director, reported learning about a program involving a new federal funding source for establishing an Open Site to serve breakfast and lunch free of charge to children from age 1-18 during the summertime.

Splinter said she plans to learn more and submit an application.  The program could be significant for needy families whose children rely on school meals during the school year.  She mentioned speaking to a child about the summertime.  When she asked if the child was looking forward to the summer break, the answer was no because there would be no school meals.

"We need to do this," Splinter said.



In other business, the Board:

* accepted 19 donations and 2 grants amounting to $22,556, the largest of which was $9,911 from the I Love to Read-A-Thon DES Families and Friends for Discovery Elementary School;

* heard a student council report by Nicholas Swearingen, who listed activities, including: revising and updating the student council constitution, selecting a featured teacher (Jessica Nickelsen, Spanish), supporting Allie Palmer (student council secretary) in her campaign for state vice president, creating a quilt with homecoming t-shirts, and scheduling student appreciation and staff appreciation committee meetings; and

* approved revised and updated policies on graduation requirements and early entrance, as well as policies on crisis management and health and safety.




The School Board is proud of:

1. BHM State Participants: a. BHS Wrestlers - Hunter Durand, Riley Habisch and Adam Treptau; b. BHS Gymnastics - Alex Zeiss; c. BHS Girls Hockey Team; d. BHS One-Act Play; e. BHS Boys Swimming and Diving - Charlie Bean and Hunter Brings;

2. BCMS MATHCOUNTS Team who took 2nd place in the region competition and will advance to the state competition - Bennet Eld, Tye Van Pelt, Emma Staut and Jonah Forsyth.



Upcoming meetings and activities include:

1. Monday, April 13, 2015 - Special Board Meeting, 4:30 p.m., Hanover Elementary School;

2. Monday, April 13, 2015 - Board Workshop, 4:40 p.m., Hanover Elementary School;

3. Saturday, April 18, 2015 - ECFE Family Fair, 10 a.m. -1 p.m., Discovery Center gym;

4. Monday, April 27, 2015 - Board Retreat, 1-6 p.m., District Office Conference Room; and

5. Monday, April 27, 2015 - Board Meeting, 7:00 p.m., Board Room, Discovery Center.



Medical examiner report and buffer grant addressed by County Board

By Ed DuBois

Among several matters addressed during the Wright County Board meeting on Tuesday, March 24, an annual medical examiner report was presented by Dr. Quinn Strobl.

She expressed some concern about a few of the deaths in 2014 that involved methamphetamine.  Among 22 deaths classified as accidental (and not motor vehicle related), 6 deaths were due to drug toxicity.  These included a 23-year-old man who used heroin, a 28-year-old man who used heroin and methamphetamine and a 35-year-old man who used methamphetamine.  Dr. Strobl mentioned in her report that 2 of 13 deaths by suicide involved people who were under the influence of methamphetamine.

Among the 22 accidental deaths, 5 were associated with acute alcohol intoxication.

Overall, the medical examiner's office investigated 456 Wright County deaths in 2014.  Of 53 deaths for which autopsies were performed, 14 were attributed to natural causes.

Motor vehicle incidents were involved with 12 deaths, and four of the incidents were associated with alcohol intoxication.

In other business:



The Board gave final approval for a grant application that could provide funds for conducting a buffer strip inventory.  The state requires a 50-foot buffer strip of vegetation between farm fields and lakes and rivers.

The county's request is for $65,000.  The county would pay $16,250 for a total of $81,250 altogether.

Commissioner Charlie Borrell expressed concern that requiring 50-foot buffers is the same as taking land out of production.  He suggested that taking the land out of production without compensating farmers is violating the Constitution.

Language in the grant application mentions seeking compliance with the buffer requirement.  When Commissioner Mark Daleiden offered a motion to proceed with the application, Borrell proposed an amendment to replace the word "compliance" with "buffer strips" throughout the application.

Commissioner Pat Sawatzke asked Borrell if he would vote in favor of Daleiden's motion if the amendment were approved.  Borrell said he would, and then Sawatzke seconded the amendment.  The Board approved both the amendment and the motion.



The Board approved a memorandum of understanding for planning a partnership with other counties to help protect and restore the water quality of the North Fork of Crow River.

Commissioner Borrell expressed concern about the possibility that the planning process could lead to a taxing district or to assessments to be paid by the county.  He was assured that the county could opt out in the future if the partnership heads in a direction the County Board does not favor.

The partnership could involve counties all the way from Pope County on the western end of the river to Hennepin County on the east end.



The Board was given an annual report from Central Minnesota Jobs & Training Services (CMJTS), which includes Wright County and ten other counties and has been helping people find employment and training for 30 years.

Expenditures in 2014 were $8.55 million.  CMJTS offers many employment and training programs.  CEO Barbara Chaffee said she and her staff work hard to make sure they do not need to ask the member counties for money.

Tim Zipoy of the Workforce Center in Monticello said 496 jobs are available in Wright County.  He added that a federal grant is helping create advanced manufacturing positions.

Zipoy also told the Board about the annual Central Minnesota Job Fair, which is taking place in the Monticello High School facility on Tuesday, March 31 from 2-7 p.m.  The event is supported by several area businesses and organizations.  Free pizza is being provided for commuters by Bernatello's from 4-7 p.m.  Numerous employers will be on hand to speak with job seekers.

Zipoy mentioned he is involved with the Wright County Economic Development Partnership.

Asked about apprenticeships, Chaffee said a program is launching soon to help establish apprenticeships in Central Minnesota.



In other actions, the Board:

* appointed Delano Mayor Dale Graunke to the Region 7W Transportation Policy Board;

* scheduled a Thursday, April 16 Budget Committee of the Whole meeting at 6 p.m. in the board room for a 2014 budget yearend review; and

* approved $262,582 in claims involving 221 transactions with 136 vendors.



Former area resident dies in California tragedy

A man who formerly lived in Wright County and operated a business at a commercial building in Buffalo, reportedly killed his business partner in California and then took is own life.

News reports about Robert Dahl, 47, said he left Minnesota about five years ago to become a winemaker in California.  On Monday, March 16, he reportedly chased a business partner, Emad Tawfilis, at the Dahl Vineyard and fatally shot the man.  As police were approaching Dahl, he turned the gun on himself.

He had reportedly been in trouble with the law in the past and had also been involved with contentious lawsuits, according to Fox 9 News and other media reports.

Dahl's attorney reportedly said the meeting of Dahl and Tawfilis was to settle a lawsuit, and no one expected it would end so tragically.

Dahl is survived by his wife and three children.

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Resilient survivors connect

Retreat for women surviving cancer now in the fifteenth year at Christ the King Retreat Center

By Ed DuBois

A "resilient survivor" theme is being featured at the 15th Annual Connect Retreat for women cancer survivors and those who have been touched by cancer.  But you don't have to be tough and hardy to take part in the event.  In fact, the retreat is set up to help participants relax, enjoy themselves and maybe even let themselves be pampered for a while.

The 2015 Connect Retreat is taking place Wednesday to Friday, April 8-10 at the Christ the King Retreat Center in Buffalo.

"I hope women know and understand the retreat is a safe and healing place to come.  We think it can be a hard place to come for the first time.  You don't know what to expect," said Karla Heeter, one of the original organizers of the event.  "You can be alone if you want, or you can connect as much as you want."

Each year, a handful of new participants come to the retreat.  A few of the returning participants have been to every one of the retreats since they began in 2000.


Come with others

Organizers say the retreat is not threatening in any way.  You can take as much of it in as you want, or as little as you like.

Joyce Paumen, another of the original organizers, said friends and loved ones are welcome to come along.  Sometimes it helps to come with one or more people you know.  Siblings, moms, daughters, friends, and caregivers are all welcome.

"You can come if cancer touched you in some way," she said.

Cancer doesn't just touch the person who has it; everyone who knows and loves the patient is affected, she explained.


Power of connecting

The Connect Retreat is all about "the power of connecting."  Research shows cancer survivors have healthier lives and live longer when they connect with others.  Connecting can happen in many ways.  It can be spiritual.  It can involve information gathering, resources and tools and techniques for survival.  It can be a simple as making a new friend or connecting with yourself.

Any of this, or all of this, or just a bit of this can happen.  Whatever you take from it is entirely up to you.


Welcome to the King's House

A welcome reception is planned from 4-6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8.  Light hors d'oeuvres and wine are being served.

In addition to the welcome reception, participants will enjoy breakfasts on Thursday and Friday mornings, buffet lunches on Thursday and Friday, and a scrumptious dinner Thursday evening.

Plans for Thursday, April 9 include Laughter Yoga from 1-1:45 p.m.  Learn about the practice of laughing for the sake of laughing while decreasing physical and emotional stress in the mind and body.

A few other Thursday activities for connecting with your inner artist and spirit include (from 2-5:45 p.m.): creating a mosaic, seated chair massage, manicures, and guided imagery.

New this year, a musical group called Sister will provide positive energy, laughter and motivating messages from 7-8 p.m. Thursday.

The ancient practice of Qigong will be featured on Friday from 7-8 a.m.  Qigong promotes holistic healing through balancing and clearing energy fields.  It is simple and effectively reduces stress.


Guest speakers coming

Guest speakers at the retreat include Heeter, a cancer survivor who has a zest for life.  She is uplifting and inspires with stories and laughter.

Christy Secor is presenting "Resiliency: Steps Toward Healing."  She says resiliency is not so much a place where we arrive, but a path we continually walk.  She could help you make new discoveries about yourself.

Julie Saffrin, an author, helps us reflect and thank the people who significantly helped shape our lives.  Her topic is "Our Gratitude Journey."

Dr. Annie Heiderscheit, a favorite at the retreat, returns to offer her music for healing and well-being.

Those who have attended past retreats say it is a place to relax and enjoy meeting many wonderful women who have all been down similar paths.  A newcomer said she was nervous about attending, but during the retreat she felt very welcome and accepted from the moment she arrived.  She made many new friends.

For some who attend, a Friday morning memorial service is very special as those who passed away during the previous year are remembered.  (All are welcome, regardless of their religious beliefs.)

The retreat is full of opportunities to connect or treasure a memory as being very meaningful.


Help with cost available

Some people might not be able to afford the retreat, especially due to the medical costs of cancer survival.

"Survivors should treat themselves to this, and we can help with the cost," Heeter said.

The two-night single cost is $199.  The two-night double cost is $169 per person.

Call the Buffalo Hospital, 763-682-1221, for more information.


Survivors are resilient

Joy Klein, who is going through chemotherapy a fourth time, said her cousin kept asking her to come to the retreat.  She is now going to her sixth retreat.

Jeanne Fobbe, another original organizer of the retreat, said the setting for the event, the King's House, is perfect.

"This place is great!" she exclaimed.

Heeter said this year's "resiliency" theme could be life changing.

"Survivors are resilient because they have to be, and the retreat provides resiliency tools," she commented.

A past participant said she needed to get away "to get my head in the right place.  The King's House brings peace to my soul."