The mayor of Duluth MN sat next to the city administrator during a city council meeting, but left early to fly out of town on city business. Before leaving the building, the mayor taped a short letter to the office door of the city adminstrator informing the administrator he was fired.
DULUTH -- Tacky as a Post-it note breakup.
That's a fair summary of the reaction in Duluth on Wednesday to the news that the city's top administrator had literally been Scotch-taped out of a job.
Mayor Herb Bergson fired Duluth's chief administrative officer, Mark Winson, during the hectic height of budget season by taping a letter to Winson's office door during Monday night's City Council meeting.
Then Bergson left town on city business.
While a red-eyed Winson cleaned out his desk Tuesday and Wednesday as instructed and accepted hugs and handshakes from flabbergasted former co-workers, Bergson issued a statement from San Diego saying ,"my action was justified," but giving no specifics.
Requests for interviews went unanswered Wednesday. But when a television station caught up with Bergson in San Diego, where he participated in decommissioning ceremonies for the USS Duluth, he expressed regret about how he handled the firing.
"It was wrong, it was inconsiderate, and I owe him and the citizens an apology," Bergson said in the interview, broadcast Wednesday night by WDIO-TV in Duluth.
"I have considered you an effective manager, but our philosophical differences are apparently insurmountable," Bergson wrote in the letter relieving Winson of his duties, for which he was paid more than $105,000 a year -- the highest salary on the city payroll.
Winson said that during the early part of Monday's meeting, he and Bergson sat next to each other in their usual chairs and that Bergson said nothing to foreshadow what was to come.
The meeting unfolds
After listening to some council discussion, Bergson left. Later, Winson went to his office to retrieve some papers and found Bergson's letter taped to his door.
"It is with a great deal of regret that I inform you that you will be relieved of your duties," the letter began.
"I was shocked," said Winson, who'd held Duluth's top administrative job for more than five years and previously was director of public works and acting city administrator in Columbia Heights.
He said that while he and Bergson occasionally have disagreed in their approaches to the city's finances and other issues, "it was nothing that would rise to this level." He declined to give specifics of their disagreements, saying he'd leave that up to the mayor.
In a statement released through his office, Bergson said: "Anyone who knows me knows my tolerance level. I am very easy to get along with and I don't expect anything I am unwilling to give in return. My action was not unprovoked and did not come without warning."
Bergson was a popular police detective and mayor in Superior, Wis., before moving to Duluth and being elected mayor there in 2003. Decidedly more liberal on social issues than his predecessor, Gary Doty, who hired Winson, Bergson has taken strong stands for the city's poor and for gay rights.
He's also maintained an unpopular hiring freeze as the city struggles with how to pay for skyrocketing retiree health care -- a problem requiring a close and effective working relationship with his chief administrative officer.
Winson, 51, said he thought they had that relationship.
After learning he'd been fired, he returned to the council chamber, beckoned council President Donny Ness into the hall and informed him.
"I said, 'You've got to be kidding me!' " Ness said. "I said that I couldn't believe Herb would do that."
Ness said he told Winson that he was under no obligation to finish the meeting. But Winson said he'd stay and answer the council's budget questions. Ness said they chose not to announce Winson's termination to the others.
"He knew there were several important initiatives on the agenda and that he had the information we needed to make the right decisions," Ness said.
"He'd just been fired, but he stayed and answered all the questions as if nothing had happened. His professionalism was awe-inspiring."
Ness said he stayed up until 2 a.m. Tuesday, trying unsuccessfully to get through to Bergson on his cell phone, in the hopes that he could get him to change his mind about firing Winson, or at least stay in town and defend his decision.
Ness said he was afraid that Winson's firing would hurt the city's ability to conduct business at a crucial time and could hurt Bergson politically because of how it was done.
"I've been a friend and supporter of Herb's for a long time," Ness said. "I think it's important we get his side of the story. But he does need to account for this, and I can tell you that view is pretty widely shared throughout the community.
"It's shocking because Herb is a people person. This is so out of character."
The Duluth News Tribune's editorial board weighed in Wednesday, calling Bergson's handling of the matter "unprofessional" and "unorthodox."
"It's a rarity in business and government when the person being fired has been performing well and isn't the subject of any known scandal," the editorial said.
It added that the way Winson was fired "flies in the face of the city's civility efforts. Bergson knows better and should have behaved accordingly."