Outside Investigator to Review Censure of Rochester Councilmember
Rochester, MN (KROC-AM News) - The City of Rochester has decided to bring in an outside investigator to "conduct a neutral and independent investigation" of allegations leveled by a member of the City Council.
The city administration issued a statement today in response to communications to City Councilmembers and City Administrators from Councilmember Molly Dennis that allege the city "discriminated and retaliated" against her when the City Council voted two weeks ago to censure her. Her allegations of discrimination and retaliation include unnamed city employees and public officials.
The city cited state data privacy laws for limiting the release of information concerning the allegations and the individuals named by the City Councilmember.
The City Council voted 4-1 on March 6 to formally censure 6th Ward Councilmember Dennis over “ongoing and persistent concerns” about her conduct with fellow councilmembers and city staff. The resolution specifically mentioned "elevated and unproductive behavior" during and after a City Council study session on February 27.
The action limits Dennis to having only virtual meetings with City staff for the remainder of this year and requires that her interactions with City staff be limited to meetings and communications with Department Heads, the City Administrator, and the City Attorney.
BELOW is a list of examples provided by the city of Councilmember Dennis' behaviors that led to the censure vote.
"Intimidating physical behaviors and escalated physical behaviors during times of disagreement”
In June of 2022, Councilmember Dennis confronted City Administrator Zelms at a
League of Minnesota Cities Conference in Duluth, MN. Councilmember Dennis was
physically agitated and seemed out of control. City Administrator Zelms felt cornered
during the encounter, to the point that Zelms had to raise her hand to get physical space
from Councilmember Dennis and to try to get her to stop making accusations and
On July 20, 2022, City Administrator Zelms and City Attorney Spindler-Krage scheduled a meeting with Councilmember Dennis, attempting to clarify communication and meeting expectations and guidelines, following the June Duluth situation. Councilmember Dennis became highly agitated, talking over them and raising her voice. After 10 minutes of attempting to de-escalate the conversation unsuccessfully, City Administrator Zelms and City Attorney Spindler-Krage ended the meeting and got up to leave the conference room. When City Administrator Zelms turned to thank the individual whom Councilmember Dennis brought with her to the meeting, Councilmember Dennis abruptly got out of her chair and moved toward City Administrator Zelms, who was only a few feet away. City Attorney Spindler-Krage stepped in front of Councilmember Dennis, out of concern that she was out of control and that she may have hit or pushed City Administrator Zelms.
Councilmember Dennis has confronted other City Council colleagues after City Council meetings. For example, on one occasion, two City Councilmembers were in the parking lot, following a meeting, engaged in a personal conversation. Councilmember Dennis approached the two, interrupting their personal conversation. Councilmember Dennis became very agitated and upset, yelling at the other members. She then got into her vehicle and quickly drove away, yelling at the members out of her vehicle window.
On February 27, 2023, at the Plummer House City Council meeting, a Councilmember was startled by what they perceived to be a threatening gesture by Councilmember Dennis.
At the National League of Cities 2022 Congressional Conference, the City of Rochester won a Diversity Award. Councilmember Dennis was the City’s representative, but she was not in the room when the award was announced. Mayor Norton accepted the award on the City’s behalf. When Councilmember Dennis learned she had missed the award presentation, she became very upset, made a public scene, and yelled at Mayor Norton. She then stormed out of the room, but soon returned and began yelling again.
At a Move with the Mayor Award Reception, Councilmember Dennis became upset,
saying that she thought participants should have received more gifts. Councilmember
Dennis yelled at City staff, including negative comments about Mayor Norton.
“Excessive Use of City Time”
Councilmember Dennis has repeatedly asked for personal legal advice and assistance on personal matters, including her divorce, her response to a harassment restraining order, her use of campaign funds, and a personal crisis while she was on vacation.
Councilmember Dennis raised concerns that the individual previously operating the
camera for City Council meetings was unfairly portraying her by keeping the camera on
her more than others, or at a bad angle. City staff spent many hours reviewing footage,
and ultimately concluded there was no merit to her claim.
During the 2022 National League of Cities Conference, Councilmember Dennis made a last-minute request to stay an extra night. City Administrator Zelms declined the request because there was not a City business reason for the added day. Councilmember Dennis responded with lengthy and agitated texts and emails, disputing the conclusion and advice provided by City Administrator Zelms and City Attorney SpindlerKrage. They, along with Mayor Norton, spent many hours that weekend trying to respond to and redirect Councilmember Dennis.
In December of 2022, Councilmember Dennis publicly disclosed information that came directly from a closed City Council session regarding Administrator Zelms’ performance review, violating the contract City Administrator Zelms has with the City of Rochester.
In the later portion of 2022, Councilmember Dennis began more frequently pulling
consent agenda items, without notice to the City Administrator or City Council President.
This was despite City Council rules which indicate a Monday, 1:00 p.m. notice
timeline. Extensive efforts to explain the Rule and the reason behind it were rebuffed
with accusations and retaliation by Councilmember Dennis. This included
Councilmember Dennis threatening that she would start pulling all agenda items. A
large amount of staff time went into managing what otherwise should be a cooperative
conversation about how best to run City Council meetings.
“Threatening and manipulative behaviors.”
Councilmember Dennis has asked City staff and others working with the City to keep
secrets from City leadership.
On two occasions, Councilmember Dennis copied in additional attorneys from the City Attorney’s Office, on highly contentious matters that they were not otherwise involved with. City Attorney Spindler-Krage warned Councilmember Dennis that if she continued to copy in other lawyers from the department, she would be risking censure. She then sent another email, again unnecessarily copying in another attorney from City Attorney Spindler-Krage’s office.
Councilmember Dennis has demanded that City staff not share her emails with others, despite being repeatedly told that City staff will share her emails as needed to efficiently and effectively conduct City business.
On February 16, 2023, City Administrator Zelms did a weekly check-in with
Councilmember Dennis, via phone. The conversation quickly deteriorated, with
Councilmember Dennis making various accusations against City Administrator
Zelms. After City Administrator Zelms asked Councilmember Dennis a third time if she
had any other questions about City business, with no response, City Administrator Zelms ended the call. Councilmember Dennis then sent an email, coping in four other City staff, claiming: “Just now over the phone you said to me that you are never talking with me again and you are removing all of our meetings from the City calendar. (I
have it recorded if you need to refresh your memory on these exact words).”
City Administrator Zelms denied stating that she would never talk with
Councilmember Dennis again. City Administrator Zelms invited
Councilmember Dennis to share the recording, as she had offered to
do. Councilmember Dennis refused to share her recording.
"Ongoing inflammatory and unfounded allegations”
Councilmember Dennis has repeatedly claimed to City Administrator Zelms that the City of Rochester is “under investigation” regarding airline benefits despite that being
incorrect. Councilmember Dennis has also alleged that the City is “stealing” “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from taxpayers regarding frequent flier miles. That allegation is
also unfounded and incorrect.
Councilmember Dennis has regularly and wrongfully alleged that the City staff or City
Council colleagues are violating the Open Meeting law, including the most recent claim,
made publicly, regarding the February 27, 2023 City Council meeting.
Councilmember Dennis has habitually accused City Council colleagues and City staff of “gas-lighting.”
Councilmember Dennis has made middle-of the-night accusations via text message that the City has caused her to suffer “life-threatening blood clots” because the City Council meetings are too long.
Councilmember Dennis has made highly personal accusations that City staff and City
Council colleagues are suffering from “pain” in their personal lives and taking it out on
Councilmember Dennis has alleged that Council colleagues and City staff are engaged in “destroying democracy,” “intentionally harming Ward 6 residents,” “slander,”
“defamation,” “threatening her kids,” “harming her family,” “destroying her life,”
“destroying her career,” “lying,” “targeting” her, “hating” her, and “degrading” her.
On March 6, 2023, before the evening Council meeting, Councilmember Dennis sent an email to Council President Carlson. The email contained inflammatory accusations
against Council President Carlson, other Council colleagues, and City leaders.
Councilmember Dennis also commented on Council President Carlson’s personal and
private matters. Councilmember Dennis subsequently forwarded the same email to
many people, and the media. The email was harassing, threatening, manipulative, and
required significant time and attention from City staff.