SPU meeting

Shakopee city officials and the city’s separate water and electric utility have long been at odds over transparency issues.

Shakopee City Administrator Bill Reynolds and District 55A Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, sent a letter to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and State Auditor Julia Blaha April 9 regarding Shakopee Public Utilities Manager John Crooks, who — according to his 2020 employment contract — is earning more than the state salary cap allows.

In 2020, the state caps government employees at $178,782. According to his contract, Crooks earns a base salary of $200,000 per year.

The city says the issue is more about transparency than the salary itself. In the letter to the attorney general and state auditor, Reynolds notes the weeks it took to get the information he requested regarding Crooks’ salary — data that, under state statute, is public. Reynolds wrote he eventually needed to get the city attorney involved. 

“The pushback that I encountered from my request for information that was undeniably public data was unexpected,” Reynolds wrote. Former SPUC President Terry Joos called the request "harassment," according to an email obtained by Reynolds and included in the letter to the state. 

The relationship between the Shakopee Public Utilities Commission and the city of Shakopee has included tension and disagreement. The city has claimed SPUC isn’t up to par with transparency standards required of public entities, while SPUC has claimed the city has been harassing the utility through public forums without wanting to meet about their differences. From April 1, 2019 to April 15, 2020, the city of Shakopee has spent $9,767 on attorney fees related to SPUC matters. SPUC has spent $16,900 on attorney fees within the same time frame. 

Salary calculations

Emails obtained through a public data request show SPUC calculates Crooks’ salary in such a way that subtracts paid time off benefits from the base salary, which would put his earnings beneath the salary cap.

According to the statute, benefits such as vacation and sick leave, health and dental insurance and pension benefits should not be included in a government employee’s salary for the purposes of the limitation. However, Shakopee City Attorney Jim Thomson said, that doesn’t mean the value of those benefits should be subtracted from the employee’s salary.

“The (statute) exclusion means that the annual value of an employee’s vacation and sick leave is not added to the employee’s annual rate of pay to determine whether the employee’s salary exceeds the salary cap.”

An email obtained by the Valley News from Reynolds to a Shakopee resident on Feb. 28 says Crooks should be “fired immediately” for accepting a salary he knew was above the state salary cap.

A February email from Joos, following an email from Reynolds requesting the salary and benefits of its employees, stated “I think at this point we should run all this harassment by our legal counsel.”

SPUC would not comment on the relationship between the utility and the city until after its special meeting on Monday, April 20.

When asked to comment on whether it is the city’s position that Crooks should be fired, Assistant City Administrator Nate Burkett said in his 12 years of working for city government, he has never interpreted the salary cap in the way SPUC is trying to interpret it.

“I think that, if (Crooks) knew he was violating the salary cap, that is a serious violation of the public trust. If you could find anyone with experience in Minnesota local government who agreed that there was any validity to their argument I would be utterly shocked.”

Crooks declined to comment until after the SPUC meeting on April 20. 

'Public business' 

The last feud that occurred between the two entities began in January over changes in how SPUC calculates its annual contributions to the city’s general budget fund. The head-butting was not about the numbers, but about transparency, the city said at the time. The city was only notified of the change by councilmember Matt Lehman, who serves as the SPUC liaison. At the time, SPUC posited that because the city had a liaison to represent the city at its meetings, it didn’t need to explicitly notify other councilmembers of the change.

This winter, Reynolds said he tried to initiate a conversation about revisiting the PILOT calculation in June 2019 but was met with no show of interest from the commission.

“I think it’s right for the two entities to sit down and lower the water rate and adjust the electric rate,” Reynolds said. “I’m making a plea to SPUC in general. Come to the table.”

In emails obtained by the Valley News, Crooks asked Reynolds at least three times to meet for coffee to talk about that PILOT. One email shows Crooks attempting to put a date on the calendar for the two entities to meet, but that date fell at the same time as a city council meeting.

"I would propose a date of Tuesday, February 18 for the Joint Meeting," Crooks wrote to Reynolds. "As previously provided, this Joint Meeting would be held in the Shakopee Public Utilities Commission Room." 

Reynolds responded, "Unfortunately this date will not work. It is the night of a City Council meeting. Also, after consultation with the City Council, the meeting will be held here at city hall... In the future, I would suggest that there be an agreement as to the meeting location as opposed to demanding where it is to be held." 

Burkett said the only setting the city will meet the commission in would be a public setting, which he claims SPUC has been unwilling to do.

“We want the public’s business to be conducted in public instead of behind closed doors,” Burkett said. “The offers they’ve made to meet are just the mayor and Bill, or just John and the president. We are trying to make sure that the decisions are being made transparently, both on our side and on theirs.”

Burkett added that due to the ongoing tension between SPUC and the city, resolving the issues between a couple key people isn’t going to fix anything.

On April 14, SPUC was scheduled to have a special public meeting to discuss the salary cap issue, but the public was unable to access the meeting due to a password requirement SPUC said it was unaware of. The meeting has been rescheduled to Monday, April 20.

Correction: The Valley News previously reported Crooks asked Reynolds to meet for coffee to talk about the investigation into his salary. This attempt to meet was actually to talk about the utility's annual contribution to the city, or the PILOT.