An investigation into three Denison city employees has come to a close. The workers were placed on paid leave in December.
Jim Gilliam was hired by the BrownWinick law firm in Des Moines to conduct the investigation. He informed the city council last week that he found no evidence of criminal conduct or personal profit among Fire Chief Cory Snowgren, City Clerk Lisa Koch and City Manager Terry Crawford, who were all placed on leave from Dec. 18 until Jan. 9.
“Instead, the decisions were made for reasons the administrators believed were in the best interest of the city,” Gilliam wrote in his executive summary of his findings. "However, the decisions were made in an environment where the Council was exercising less than full oversight and control over administration decisions and the administrators, taking advantage of that lack of Council control, usurped the Council’s policy-making authority."
Gilliam said in 2012 when the city manager was hired, the council deferred the financial and budget duties to the city clerk, which altered the city’s functions.
"A contributing factor to this environment was a tendency for prior City Councils to defer to the City administrators for not only day-to-day administrative action but also policy matters," Gilliam wrote. "In this environment, City administrators developed a habit of under-informing Council of their actions and becoming defensive when the Council asked legitimate questions."
The council voted last week to not receive a full report of the investigation. Mayor Jared Beymer said he disagreed with the decision.
“I’m not quite sure why they don’t want to know what the investigator found,” Beymer said.
The investigation's executive summary does not disclose what Gilliam was looking for when he reviewed council minutes, city ordinances, and budget and personnel files.
“It’s unfortunate that we had to resort to these matters but the concerns were serious and I hope that the public, when they’re able to find out…they’ll realize why we had to take these steps,” Beymer said.
One of the issues that led the city to place the three employees on leave centered on a budget concern with the purchase of a fire department training structure.
The city council authorized a payment for the structure in June 2018. In October, other payments came forward as capital improvement expenses. According to a statement from attorneys, the fire chief discussed this with the city clerk and city manager and the payments were authorized.
Attorney Jennifer Zupp represents Chief Snowgren. She says she thinks from his perspective, as the leader of the fire department for eight years, he “thought he had the discretionary authority to improve his department.”
“Now do we need to tighten up channels for paying for projects for this community? Probably so, we probably do. But that’s not a criticism of Cory [Snowgren], that’s a criticism of the entire system,” Zupp said.
Another issue included a transfer of vacation time from Koch to Snowgren. According to attorneys, that transfer was approved by Crawford and other city departments, like the police department, allow employees to send leftover vacation time to each other.
In a statement issued last week, Attorney Mark Sherinian, who represents Crawford and Koch, called the investigation “unnecessary.” He said after his clients were first questioned, Gilliam informed them they had done nothing illegal. But then the city raised more questions.
In a Thursday interview, Sherinian said his clients are grateful to be exonerated.
“At the same time, they wish this whole process had never begun,” Sherinian said. “It wasn’t necessary. Had there been some clear communication, many of these issues could’ve been resolved.”
Denison received a nearly $10,000 invoice from BrownWinick, for attorney expenses through the end of December. City Councilman John Granzen said the amount is concerning.
“I think this was a total waste of resources. Totally,” Granzen said. “As I’ve said, this all could’ve been handled in-house and everything, all their allegations could’ve been investigated and we probably could’ve come up with the same conclusion.”
A January invoice and an invoice from Gilliam himself have yet to be issued.
In his investigation report, Gilliam gave several recommendations to the city, including implementing city council subcommittees to oversee budget and personnel issues, returning the administrative budget authority to the city manager and expanding or creating city policies for conflicts of interest and salary reviews.
The council was asked to submit any questions they have about the investigation’s executive summary. They’ll discuss them at a February meeting.