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Ontonagon fires Erickson again

Skip Schulz/For the Gazette Looking back is former Ontonagon Village Manager Joe Erickson while seated next to his attorney, Adrianne Wolf. The council voted 4-3 to terminate Erickson’s contract as village manager for a second time.

ONTONAGON — The Ontonagon Village Council voted to raise property taxes on the economically depressed community. However, that was not the issue that forced the council to hold a special meeting Wednesday afternoon. To accommodate the expected turnout of concerned residents, the council met at the Ontonagon Village Fire Hall. 

The meeting was to decide whether to retain Village Manager Joe Erickson, or to terminate his employment.

During the Feb. 25 meeting, the council voted to terminate Erickson. That decision was changed during the March 22 meeting, as the council voted to retain his employment under a “leave of absence,” which allowed him both pay and benefits.

Village President Tony Smydra opened Wednesday’s meeting with a statement.

“The termination was rescinded at the council meeting of March 22 in order to give Mr. Erickson the opportunity to be heard and to defend his conduct,” said Smydra. “The document, issues and errors list, identifies a number of serious issues with Mr. Erickson with management of village affairs, which the council considers cause for termination.”

According to the president, a copy of the “issues and errors list” was provided to Erickson via the council on March 26. The list included seven issues: from a lack of water bill receipts to not getting the state grant for the dredging of the Ontonagon Village Marina before the deadline to questions on a DNR grant for the controversial paddle-craft landing.

Erickson’s attorney, Adrianne Wolf, who specializes in employment law and has offices in Marquette, opened up the defense of Erickson by first questioning the semantics of termination based on two previous attempts to terminate Erickson’s contract.

A contract, Wolf stated, can have financial implications.

“Whether it is with cause or not,” she said, “as far as the issues, and if they are of cause, many of which are simply incorrect. None of which rise to the level of ‘just cause.’ They do not reflect when looking at his career as a whole.”

Erickson has been with the village for nine years. 

One of the issues brought up by both Smydra and Wolf dealt with the marina dredging grant, a grant that, according to Wolf, did not meet the deadline of the previous village manager, who Wolf stated resigned. 

Erickson, visibly frustrated, stated that the meeting was simply a “formality,” alleging that the council had already made their decision before hearing what he had to say in his defense.

Erickson discussed the council’s October decision to terminate his contract. The vote that ended in a 3-3 tie, thus failing to terminate his contract at that time. At that meeting, Trustee Mike Mogen was not in attendance. After resigning his previous position with two years remaining in his term, Mogen was recently appointed to fill one of the two newly-vacant seats. 

Mogen defended Erickson when it came to the village receiving water bill payments from White Pine Electric.

Erickson went back to the council’s first attempt in October to terminate his contract.

“The council subsequently received a letter from my aAttorney that the conduct of that meeting was a breach of contract, and denial of due process to terminate my contract,” he said. “The village council was put on notice of the need to act in a proper manner.

“Then on Feb. 25 at a special meeting, under the agenda item of ‘other related issues,’ the discussion was about terminating my contract. When I requested a hearing, the village president flatly stated, ‘we’re past that.’ The council then voted on a motion to terminate my contract, without notice (and) breach of contract, and due process accorded by village ordinance.”

According to Erickson, it was at the advice of the village attorney to rescind the vote to terminate his contract and schedule Wednesday’s special meeting.

Erickson stated that he had no expectations from the meeting or that it would be fair. 

“The driving forces on the council have disregarded the intent of due process twice before,” he said. “This hearing is a formality.”

Trustee Sarah Hopper and Smydra questioned Erickson as to why he did not communicate with the council as to the status of the issues on the list for termination.

With the same three that voted to terminate Erickson’s contract twice before, and the appointment of Mike Rebholz to the council, the council now had a 4-3 majority to terminate Erickson’s contract. Voting for termination were Hopper, Chastan, Rebholz and Smydra. In support of Erickson and not to terminate his contract remained: Marks, Hamm and Mogen.

That vote brought out another issue from Erickson’s attorney as to whether Smydra’s vote could count. Wolfe argued that the vote should be from the trustees, and thus Smydra’s role as village president should keep him from voting. There was no response to that issue.

When Erickson was terminated on Feb. 25, the council put Village Clerk Willie DuPont as interim village manager. No decision was made as to whether the council would appoint DuPont as village manager again or not.

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