Seeking to part ways with a city employee, the Savage City Council this week approved a proposed separation agreement to end the employment of former liquor store manager Suzie Dahl.
City leaders claim Dahl, a city employee for five years, violated the city's social media policy and failed to perform other managerial duties.
The complaints listed by Savage City Administrator Brad Larson against Dahl were aired publicly during the council meeting Monday. Dahl, who took the podium several times to respond to the accusations, requested the discussion be held in an open meeting rather than a closed session.
The Council opted to offer Dahl a separation agreement rather than issue a dismissal, but councilors' opinions varied over which allegation carried the most weight in their decision.
Larson said a social media post Dahl made on June 7 led him to question her decision-making ability and treatment of staff and customers.
Larson said the social media post related the two individuals suspected of stealing Dahl's phone from the store to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Larson said the post stated: "if those people want respect they should gain it," and "sadly, 90% of the thieves I report stealing (expletive) from my store are folks that want to matter."
The individuals involved in the alleged theft were not wearing any clothing representing the movement, and did not otherwise reference it, Larson said. Therefore, he told the Council, Dahl drew the connection based on race.
"This is not the type of personality that I want managing our stores," Larson said.
"I'm being accused of racism, which is very troubling to me," Dahl told the Council. "I'm not racist, I feel like my statements can be supported by freedom of speech, which is supported by our Constitution."
She said her words "may not be appealing to everyone," but judgement of the post is "subjective."
The individuals suspected of stealing her phone returned to the store a week later and allegedly stole liquor bottles from behind the counter before being apprehended, Dahl said. Police recovered her phone, but the SIM card had been removed and she needed to purchase a new phone.
"I felt like when the Black Lives Matter issues are gaining so much respect, why am I not getting any?" she told the Council.
Larson's presentation to the Council also included several examples of times he felt Dahl had failed to perform tasks expected of store managers, to which Dahl also responded.
He said he'd spoken with Dahl about creating an employee availability document used to schedule shifts, but he ended up creating the document himself when Dahl hesitated to do so.
Dahl said she hesitated to create a scheduling form because she felt it would require employees to unfairly work holidays, and Larson didn't express any objection to making the document himself.
The complaints made against Dahl also related to COVID-19 precautions.
In mid-June, Larson said Dahl didn't want to comply with his request that store managers begin wearing face masks. She instead suggested she quit until masks are no longer required, he said.
Dahl affirmed she felt comfortable not wearing a mask, but added that she'd asked for plexiglass barriers to be installed in the store this spring. Larson rejected the idea and told her barriers would "look stupid," she said.
She also stated she'd been on vacation to Puerto Vallarta in late March, but she was asked to return to work without observing any quarantine because the store needed her help.
Larson's other complaint stemmed from a workplace injury, which he said Dahl failed to report in a timely manner. Dahl said the delay in reporting the incident occurred because she wasn't notified immediately, and it took her a week to obtain the injured employee's signature.
The city doesn't need to offer a separation agreement, Larson told the Council, but staff decided to recommend an agreement rather than a dismissal because of the time Dahl spent with the operation.
When the Council began deliberation, Councilor Matt Johnson voiced condemnation for the contents of Dahl's social media post.
"The thing that really concerns me is your comments and your blanket comments about race and that is not right," Johnson said to Dahl. "And in the state of our current affairs, you should be highly aware of that."
"While I recognize the fact that you were using a personal account instead of a city account, we do all put ourselves out there as city employees and as such we do take responsibility even in our personal lives," Councilor Christine Kelly said. "As a council we have to recognize and state that we really need to curb comments that can hurt and really cause division and problems."
"I also recognize that, and I think it should be stated, that you really have done a lot for the liquor operations and I don't have a problem saying thank you," she continued, adding there's no reason to not "honor and respect" Dahl's work in helping turn around the liquor operation.
Savage's liquor operation had been sustaining losses for several years before recently turning profits. In 2018, officials considered ending the operation altogether, but now, sales are booming, which officials attribute to the pandemic and other operational changes.
Councilor Gene Abbott told Dahl he acknowledges the stressful times she's experienced at the liquor store, and suggested the city could "maybe go a little higher" on the cash being offered in the separation agreement.
Councilor Bob Coughlen began his comments by thanking Dahl for her years of service, but suggested her move into the manager position hasn't worked well.
"The social media part, that was maybe not the best choice, but that's not the main reason where I'd support this separation," he said.
"The thing I have a hard time getting over is the social media post," said Savage Mayor Janet Williams, adding all employees need to be aware of the ramifications of social media posts.
"This is an unfortunate circumstance, and as an elected official I just feel that this is what we have to do," Williams concluded.
The Council agreed to offer the separation agreement. Dahl provided a counteroffer requesting a higher payout, but it wasn't granted.
According to Larson, the agreement includes a vacation and sick leave payout, in addition to a payout totaling 0.5% of Dahl's annual pay multiplied by each year of her employment. In exchange, the agreement releases the city of any claims.
At Dahl's request, the Council did amend the agreement to state the city will not oppose Dahl's unemployment application, but it cannot guarantee unemployment benefits.
Coughlen initially made a motion to support the agreement as written, but the motion failed because other councilors stated Dahl should have access to unemployment benefits.
The amended agreement passed unanimously, and Dahl's acceptance is required by July 18.
Under state statute, the agreement will become public once finalized.