EDA discusses way forward after losing director

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Spring Valley’s Economic Development Authority (EDA) discussed at length during its May meeting how to proceed after being taken by surprise by a seemingly unilateral decision made by the City Council to terminate the city’s services with longtime economic development director Cathy Enerson.

Enerson, who reported to the EDA during her 11 years in Spring Valley, worked under a contract with Community and Economic Development Associates (CEDA) one day a week in Spring Valley. CEDA provides economic development services to various communities throughout southeastern Minnesota. Enerson’s time was split between Spring Valley, Preston and Eyota.

The EDA welcomed CEDA CEO Ron Zeigler, serving as acting director while the EDA sorts out what might be its next course of action in procuring a replacement director. Zeigler was on hand to hear comments and help provide direction if the EDA chooses to continue with CEDA’s contract.

The first question at hand was whether to allow Enerson to keep working on a specific business education project being done collaboratively with Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC), even if she is not coming to Spring Valley each week. Since the EDA determined that her experience with the education project was vital to its completion, it decided it would be best to have her continue with that project remotely as she has the most knowledge of the issues involved.

After establishing that, Ziegler stated he had received an e-mail outlining the council’s dismissal of Enerson. “The e-mail came about Cathy, and it said that the council blindsided the EDA,” he said. “I was never approached if there were issues.”

Spring Valley Mayor Tony Archer, who took office at the beginning of the year following longtime mayor Jim Struzyk’s retirement, was present at the meeting as he became a member of the EDA at the same time he became mayor. Archer remarked he’d concluded that part of the conflict was related to pledges made by City Council candidates during the fall election campaigns to seek another economic development director due to Enerson’s dual roles with Spring Valley and Preston.

“It caught me off guard that night, and I wasn’t expecting anything to happen. You’ll have to talk to them (council members) because I can’t speak for the council. Unfortunately, those things happen and they did, and I wish they would seek the counsel of the EDA if they had any questions or concerns. They did not. It wasn’t the best way how it happened, and the email was not a reflection of you,” Archer said, addressing Zeigler. “I’ve been on the council for 13 years and had no complaints. You do a good job. I think we need to look into the future, not ruminate on everything that happened, but I know you have questions. I would like to see more of a story coming out of the EDA, versus 11 years of nothing. Cathy – that meeting was the first time she’s been to a council meeting in 11 years — and I’d like to see the council more involved.”

“That’s the way it’s set up,” EDA President Kim Brown interjected.

“Right, but I think we need to see the council more involved, and I think we need to work together better,” Archer continued. “I’d like to form a work group. I know Jim was on the EDA and reported to the council, and I think you need to go out and sell it yourselves, go out and talk to people and make sure our community prospers more than it has.

“As far as the council’s decision, it was unanimous and quick, the response was quick from the director at the meeting, so I do find it hard to believe she had no idea what was going on.”

Archer cited he had spoken with a council member who was “very adamant” that Enerson be removed from her position because the councilor had been confronted by residents about the director’s position with the city.

“This was a big thing for candidates running for council…they were passionate about what they wanted to see in the future, and why they didn’t come to the EDA, I don’t know,” Archer said.

The question then arose as to what the reporting procedures are for workers employed through contracts with the city, and city administrator Deb Zimmer outlined this is an unusual situation because most directors are employed by the city, not through a contract.

When asked about other communities, Zeigler said concerns typically come to the EDA for possible action. He added that he doesn’t ever recall a similar process in which the termination was in a surprise vote at a council meeting attended by the director.

Archer pointed out some concerns about Enerson had been raised previous to the termination, although the EDA’s membership stated it was unaware of these.

“Our board was never informed of anything, or we would have handled it with CEDA,” Brown said.

Zeigler registered, “Our process is to provide review on an annual basis, and that’s where we learn about it.”

Zimmer shared that she felt that the council, EDA and its directing staff should collaborate, as doing so would offer more communication between the contracted individual and the city that person serves.

Zeigler agreed, but called for more communication from the city to keep him apprised of what its concerns and desires are for economic development staffing because he had been placed in a difficult situation through the termination.

The issue of Enerson assisting community-based committees from both Preston and Spring Valley on the future site of a state veterans home was brought up during the meeting as this had been a concern expressed by some community members. The competitive process ended with Fillmore County commissioners voting in favor of Preston on a 3-2 vote.

EDA members pointed out that Enerson had offered to recuse herself from the work to assist both Preston and Spring Valley with developing veterans home campaign planning, but the Spring Valley veterans home committee leaders had given Enerson approval for her to proceed with committees in both communities.

“I’m in a very tough position to replace Cathy. When it came to Preston and Spring Valley, she was very upfront…she had no input in the process of the veterans committees. I think she did a wonderful job representing the committees,” Zeigler said. “If you’re looking for a one-day-a-week person, obviously that person can’t live, work or shop in Preston, if that’s the issue…(for the council) to have the animosity of one community versus another.”

The EDA’s members expressed their wishes to continue using CEDA’s services, and suggestions were made to have the EDA meeting minutes forwarded to the City Council or have EDA staff report to the council.

Zimmer noted that minutes have not been provided to the council in the past but could be in the future.

Zeigler also laid out his difficulty in placing a new person in Spring Valley without certainty details have been ironed out so that termination won’t happen by a vote of the council again, as a result of only a few individuals’ perceptions of the staff member’s allegiances. A replacement may have reservations about taking this position due to that uncertainty, he added.

The EDA concluded that holding a couple workshops, one including Zeigler and/or a CEDA staff member to see if the council wants to continue the contract and another with the entire EDA to make sure the council wants a separate EDA in Spring Valley, would be prudent as the EDA moves to establish better relationships with the council. It was also noted that the EDA and CEDA staff should be included in the city’s annual council and administration retreat workshop held at the beginning of the year.

Ultimately, the EDA determined suspending any new work plans, aside from the educational modules Enerson had begun with RCTC and local business entrepreneurs, made the most sense until after the staffing issue has been resolved. The EDA will gather for its next regular meeting on June 5.

Zimmer hoped to schedule a workshop with council and CEDA yet this month.