CROOKSTON – Crookston’s head administrator gave city leaders a choice, and they didn’t choose him.
City Council members late last month approved a separation agreement with City Administrator Shannon Stassen, who, as first reported in the Crookston Times, had put them to an ultimatum: either he goes, or Crookston Housing and Economic Development Authority Director Craig Hoiseth goes. If the City Council was unwilling to remove Hoiseth and reform the development authority, then, Stassen wrote in correspondence later obtained by the Herald, he would ask for a separation agreement.
“Leaving public service is not my wish,” he wrote. “And I have done my best to overcome the challenges, but this has risen to a level that is beyond my toleration point.”
The as-yet-unsigned agreement would mean that, technically, Stassen neither quit nor was fired. He presented it to acting Mayor Dale Stainbrook, according to city staff, and council members approved it on Monday, Nov. 25, without any edits. As written, the agreement goes into effect Dec. 10. Meanwhile, Stassen is still at work at Crookston City Hall.
It includes six months of severance pay, which, at Stassen’s 2019 salary of $96,267.10, means he’ll receive payments that eventually will total $48,133.55. As approved, the agreement stipulates that the city will pay that amount within 20 calendar days, but Finance Director Angel Weasner said city leaders are set to amend it to spread that money out in biweekly payments. It means Stassen would be paid as if he still worked at the city until early June. The amended agreement is expected to be presented to the council for consideration on Monday (Dec. 9).
Six months’ severance is the most allowed by Minnesota law unless some very specific circumstances dictate otherwise. Laura Kushner, the human resources director at the League of Minnesota Cities, said she doesn’t think that amount is uncommon.
“But it’ll depend greatly on the circumstances of the situation and the resources of the city, things like that,” she said. “Each situation is very unique.”
Stassen’s departure is seemingly the culmination of years’ worth of friction between the head of Crookston’s city government and the head of the development authority, which is funded by the federal and city governments and has its own administration and governing board.
In the same correspondence in which he gave city leaders the ultimatum, Stassen said he and his staff have been under “constant attacks, both subtle and overt in nature” that lead back to Hoiseth.
But Hoiseth told the Herald he did not feel a divisive work dynamic existed.
“Shannon and I had altering views on different things and how to approach them,” he said. “But I don’t think there was any time when you would feel like Shannon or Craig was not for the best of Crookston.”
Stassen and former Mayor Guy Martin, who accused Hoiseth of “unethical conduct” when he abruptly resigned in September, were both skeptics of a soybean crushing facility that Redwing, Minn.-based Epitome Energy hopes to build in southern Crookston. Both raised questions about how company and development authority representatives were working to see it through.
They took particular issue with a $250,000 no-interest forgivable loan to Epitome issued by the city and development authority, which was initially pitched as coinciding with a one-to-one matching grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Documents obtained by the Herald indicate that the grant Epitome received is, at most, a three-to-one match.
“We didn’t change anything about the criteria for the grant and it’s been that way for this grant program since before the current year,” Larry Schumacher, a communications officer for the department, told the Herald in October.
Hoiseth told the Herald in November that the development authority has been vetting the loan thoroughly and incrementally. Rather than issue it all at once, the development authority’s board has been paying out the loan to Epitome in pieces as the company presents individual expenses.
Hoiseth and Stassen set competing meetings about the subsidy – “Stand down,” Hoiseth told Stassen in correspondence obtained by the Herald – and exchanged sometimes pointed behind-the-scenes emails about the Epitome project.
And, in late August, Hoiseth drafted an email to the City Council that he showed to council and development authority leaders who are sympathetic to the Epitome project. In the draft, he recounted other businesses that had rejected the city’s courtship and claimed Epitome told him that "North Dakota continues to call" and "many people across the country are considering investing millions, if not tens of millions of dollars, into Crookston and the picture being painted here is not a pretty one.”
In the email, Hoiseth attributed those sentiments to Epitome as a company, and said on Thursday that he wasn’t sure if they came from Epitome CEO Dennis Egan, who has been the company's most prominent public face.
The city would only secure the company if its supporters join forces and work together as a team to rid themselves of ongoing strife, Hoiseth wrote in the draft. He also quoted the Bible: “Cast out the scorner, and contention will go out; yea, strife and reproach will cease.”
City Council member Tom Vedbraaten cautioned against that language because it might look like Hoiseth was pointing a finger at Stassen.
“Although it certainly can reference Shannon,” Hoiseth wrote back to Vedbraaten about the quote, which comes from Proverbs, “it speaks to any of us that sit in the seat of the scorner. There is just no place for it. I just want people to know, we will not get this done with this constant attack on (the development authority). I am fighting my own team much more than fighting the market influence on soybeans and that is a shame! It sure would be nice to have a team that tried to assist instead of undermine.”
Hoiseth told the Herald on Thursday that he wasn’t sure if he ever sent that email to the council proper.
Once Stassen is officially out the door, it will leave Crookston with three important vacancies: mayor, Ward 6 city council member, and city administrator. Stainbrook, the city’s vice mayor, is acting as mayor in the meantime.
Council members are set to decide on Monday, Dec. 9, whether they’ll appoint a new mayor and council member or call a special election to fill those seats.