Mayor warned of possible discrimination suit
In the latest development of seemingly ongoing tensions between Merrill Mayor Derek Woellner and City Administrator Dave Johnson, on Friday morning Aug. 30, Woellner was advised of a possible age discrimination suit on Johnson’s behalf.
In a letter written by Madison-based attorney Jeff Scott Olson, Woellner was advised that several statements he had allegedly made to Johnson is grounds for a civil suit based on age discrimination.
The letter comes just ten days following the scheduling of special Committee of the Whole (CoW) and Common Council meetings. One of the items on both agendas, was to consider the possibility of eliminating the city administrator position. Woellner had scheduled the meetings to discuss the matter as a cost savings measure for the 2020 city budget. The CoW meeting was originally scheduled for 5 p.m. followed by council at 6 p.m.Tuesday, Aug. 20, but both meetings were abruptly cancelled by Woellner earlier that afternoon.
“Consideration of the city administrator position will take place during our 2020 budget meetings,” Woellner stated, in explaining the cancellations.
“Although I think the elimination of the city administrator position is the best move, it should really be part of our overall budget discussion so that we receive appropriate input from the public. I would still like to maintain an aggressive timeline on this item, since severance for the position is already eating into next year’s budget. Our planned budget and strategic planning meetings offer a unique opportunity to gather input from the full community on this matter,”
In his letter to Woellner, attorney Olson advised of his representation of Johnson and accused Woellner of “seeing” Johnson’s age as a “fatal liability.”
“Mr. Johnson has two Master’s Degrees and 40 years of local government experience, and by all accounts has done an excellent job as Merrill City Administrator,” the letter reads.
“Yet he seems to have, in your eyes, one fatal liability: he is 67 years old and has no immediate plans to retire – he expects to work until he is 71. Recently, you have talked about taking action to eliminate his position. I can only guess that you may be unaware that it would be a violation of both state and federal law to take any sort of adverse action against Mr. Johnson, in whole or in part because of his age,” Olson’s lettter continues.
“You may think that you are capable of constructing some alternative rationale for taking action against Mr. Johnson, but as an experienced litigator of employment discrimination cases, including age discrimination cases, I can tell you that it is a rare luxury for a lawyer to have available the plethora of direct evidence of age bias that I would be able to bring to bear on behalf of Mr. Johnson.”
The comments alleged in Olson’s letter, date back to last July.
During a meeting with Johnson on July 23 of last year, Olson alleges Woellner told Johnson; “You don’t need to work at your age” and Woellner felt Johnson would “want to take it easy.” Other comments Olson alleges from Woellner include; “why someone your age doesn’t want to retire,” and “at your age don’t you have a nice nest egg put away for retirement? Why would you want to work?”
“You had previously stated that you wanted younger people in elected positions and city management positions,” attorney Olson further stated.
“Age has been a constant theme in your public and private remarks. You once said, “We have already done too much for old people in Merrill. We need to do more for the young people.” In litigating an age discrimination claim on behalf of Mr. Johnson, I would also have the advantage of being able to tie your desire to terminate Mr. Johnson’s employment to the same time frame when you made these blatantly biased remarks, because at that same meeting you demanded Mr. Johnson’s resignation within twenty- four hours, and said that you would “take it to the media” if Mr. Johnson did not resign. You told Mr. Johnson that if he did not resign, “It will not go well for you,” and that “This will not turn out the way you think it will.”
As Olson alluded to, following a July 25, 2018 city Personnel and Finance Committee meeting, Woellner publicly called for Johnson’s resignation. Johnson subsequently declined. Woellner later stated he had asked Johnson to resign twice; once on the evening of Monday, July 24 and upon Johnson’s refusal he asked Johnson once again on the morning of July 25. Johnson again declined the request.
Woellner cited several reasons for the request, including Johnson’s personal conduct and failing to fulfill obligations.
“I have witnessed him be rude to others on many occasions before I took office and since I took office in April,” he explained. “There are times I have seen him be polite and do things the right way. He has also attended some meetings that he didn’t really have to, and I think that’s wonderful. But other times I have seen him be very condescending and telling people their ideas aren’t good ideas. He has a way of making people feel small or beneath him when he talks to them. There’s just a better way to go about things than that.”
Woellner listed various occasions where he felt Johnson displayed poor customer service skills, including city council meetings, Active and Aware Citizen (AAC) meetings and his treatment of a community member who attempted to initiate development of a skate park in 2016. Woellner said he had in fact approached Johnson at one point regarding his conduct and public communication skills.
“It’s not just a matter of me personally being unhappy with him, but its a matter of the community desiring a change in city leadership,” Woellner said.
“I feel and have been told by many, that’s what the community voted for in April. I feel Mr. Johnson has not completely fulfilled the responsibilities of his position. For instance, after examining the city’s comprehensive, strategic and downtown vision plans, I have noticed there are many items which have not been addressed and goals which have not been pursued. I don’t feel the tax payers are getting what they are paying for, with the salary he is paid every year.”
In early August of last year, both the Committee of the Whole and Common Council discussed Johnson’s employment with the city, and unanimously voted to retain him in his capacity as Merrill City Administrator. However, in a statement following the August 6, 2018 meetings, the council advised Johnson’s actions with citizens would be monitored.
“The Merrill Common Council has reviewed the issues surrounding tonight’s Committee of the Whole meeting, and has agreed that the Personnel and Finance Committee will closely monitor Dave Johnson’s interactions with our citizens, and expects improvements in some of those interactions.”
City Administrator Johnson declined further comment on the matter beyond what is contained in the letter from Attorney Olson. Common Council president Rob Norton also declined comment; citing the legal nature of the matter.
Following counsel with an attorney provided by the city’s insurance carrier on Friday Sep. 6 Woellner did not confirm nor deny Olson’s and Johnson’s allegations.
“As much as I would like to, I won’t be giving my side of the story as I was advised by our attorney not to say anything substantive at this time,” Woellner stated. “Our attorney has been provided to us by the city’s insurance company. I’d like to point out that no lawsuit has begun, and that one has only been threatened.”