The Shakopee Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved a private investigation into Utilities Manager John Crooks following a letter that Shakopee City Administrator Bill Reynolds sent to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and State Auditor Julia Blaha, which highlights transparency and salary cap concerns.
Commissioners Jody Brennan and Mathew Meyer interviewed several attorneys this week before landing on St. Paul law firm Levander, Gillen & Miller to investigate three allegations in Reynolds’ letter: that Crooks’ salary exceeds the state’s salary cap, the alleged use of commissioners-only packets during public meetings and the alleged alteration of public documents used for review of staff salaries by the commission.
The state caps government employees at $178,782. According to his current contract, Crooks earns a base salary of $200,000 per year.
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.
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.
Crooks also declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Meyer, who is a commercial litigation attorney, said his interpretation of the salary cap statute is “unambiguous,” adding he’s unsure why Reynolds sent a letter to the state attorney general instead of getting the city's lawyer involved to work out the potential differences in statute interpretations with the utility's lawyer.
“As an attorney, I’ve read thousands of statues over the years. I know when something is ambiguous and when it is not,” Meyer said. “I can’t see how you can set a salary other than the way we did. I’m not giving a legal opinion, but that’s just my interpretation of that statute.”
Matt Lehman, a Shakopee City Council member who serves as the SPUC liaison, concurred with Meyer, saying he believes the letter Reynolds sent to the attorney general was business that should have been conducted between the attorneys of the two entities.
“We need to have our legal people and their legal people, and if they don’t agree, they need to go to the state and sort it out,” Lehman said. “This is where judges are supposed to step in and make determinations on what that means. Not the state attorney general.”
Reynolds did not wish to speak further to the Valley News about the issue, stating in an email “I suggest you discuss SPUC issues with SPUC directly.”
Brennan, a newly-appointed SPU commissioner who is also a city council member, said she couldn’t comment on the allegations during the ongoing investigation.
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.