Three Denison city employees return to work today after being placed on paid leave nearly three weeks ago.
Denison Mayor Jared Beymer has declined to comment on why Fire Chief Cory Snowgren, City Clerk Lisa Koch and City Manager/City Engineer Terry Crawford were placed on paid administrative leave or why the city hired an investigator to look into the situation. However, attorneys for the employees have talked with the investigator and say they have insight into several reasons for the investigation.
During a packed Tuesday city council meeting, residents showed their support for the employees and emphasized their frustration with the city.
“All of this that’s happening is kind of a misrepresentation of what Denison is all about,” said Rylee Gehlsen, a college student and Denison native. “When I graduate from college, I want to come back to Denison because I love Denison, I think it’s a great community, it’s a great place to grow up, it’s a great place to have kids. And I just feel like all of this negative publicity is a very bad reflection of what Denison is all about.”
Resident Lowell Johnson spoke on behalf of the city clerk and city manager, calling them “professional” and saying he would be “shocked” if the results of the investigation show “any wrongdoing.”
“If there’s no wrongdoing found, I think…it’s going to cost the City of Denison much more than the attorney’s fee that you hired from Des Moines,” Johnson said.
Crawford and Koch each addressed the council, talking about a scope of issues related to their jobs in their absence, like the need to write the city’s budget for the next fiscal year and grants that could be in jeopardy if they cannot get back to work. Chief Snowgren was not present at the council meeting.
The council voted unanimously to reinstate Snowgren to his fire chief position. However, council members hesitated over a second motion for Crawford and Koch, and ultimately voted to reinstate them as long as they “not talk to anyone about the areas of investigation with the understanding that the investigation does need to reach its termination,” per the motion.
The investigation will continue and could conclude in a week, the mayor said.
Attorney Mark Sherinian, who represents the city manager and city clerk, called the council’s decision a compromise.
“They get back to work,” Sherinian said. “They are able to do the business of the city and whatever issues need to be resolved from here on out can be resolved without interfering with the business of the city.”
He said the ongoing personnel investigation is “unusual” because the city won’t communicate with the three employees about what exactly the issues are.
Though Sherinian’s client, City Manager Terry Crawford, said he was “pretty astounded” when he found out in December that he was placed on paid leave, he said he and his colleagues are “just trying to cooperate,” and he is looking forward to getting back to work.
“I’m happy to have the chance to get back and do my job. That’s all I’ve ever done,” said Crawford, who has been with the city since 1976.
Outside of the council chambers, Mayor Beymer was seen giving a key back to City Clerk Lisa Koch.
Issues At The Center Of The Investigation, According To Attorneys:
Though the city won’t say why Crawford, Koch and Snowgren were placed on paid leave, attorneys for the three employees have met with Jim Gilliam, an investigator from Brown Winick in Des Moines, hired by the city. Sherinian said Gilliam has “acknowledged informally” that he has not found anything related to criminal conduct or malintent.
Attorneys for the city employees say there is a general lack of communication between city department heads, the mayor and the council.
Snowgren’s attorneys Jennifer Zupp and Michael Carroll, in a statement issued Jan. 4, said they were told of several issues believed to be at the center of the investigation. One includes the purchase of a training structure called a “slanted roof prop” for crews that the fire department used city funds for.
According to the attorneys, Snowgren discussed the payment with Koch, who authorized it, but some members of the council “reportedly believed” it should have been voted on.
A second issue the attorneys say was communicated to them is a transfer of vacation days to Snowgren, who had no vacation days left, that Koch deducted from her own pay stub. According to Sherinian’s statement for his clients, issued Jan. 7, Crawford approved the transfer. The city’s police department allows employees to send leftover vacation time to one another.
“Given the City’s practice of allowing this practice, the implication that there was something wrong in Koch’s generous donation is absolutely improper,” said Sherinian in the statement.
Based on the comments made during council, Mayor Beymer reflected in an interview on whether there are concerns that the personnel investigation has torn the community apart.
“I wish the community can know what we know,” Beymer said. “This has been a lot of hard decisions and things that no one ever wants to go through. Council has taken it very seriously and I think they thought hard about the decisions they made tonight.”
Beymer said once the investigation wraps up, the city council will review the conclusions and make decisions about the findings going forward.