Forte's Fiefdom

Four city of Minneapolis employees say their boss wanted them out of his way. Now they've filed suit.

On June 4 last year, Rocco Forte convened a meeting of all managers within the city of Minneapolis's regulatory services division. The former fire chief, who had recently been appointed assistant city coordinator, announced that he would be "reorganizing" the division. Forte wasted little time following through on that promise.

Within six months, at least four high-ranking, well-respected employees within the regulatory services division--which includes things such as licensing and inspections--had seen their posts eliminated as part of this reorganization. Three of the employees had been forced into lower-paying, less-prestigious jobs within the city, while a fourth was left unemployed.

In March, the four employees--Ellen Dosdall, Connie Fournier, Gary Berger, and Brian Olson--filed a lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis in U.S. District Court claiming that the personnel moves violated state and federal laws, as well as the city charter. Each plaintiff is seeking in excess of $75,000 in damages. Forte is named as a defendant in the suit, as is Clara Schmit Gonzalez, another manager in the regulatory services division.

Adam Turman

"What they're trying to do is say they had a reorganization," says the employees' attorney, R. Daniel Rasmus, "and we don't think the reorganization meets the tests that you have to meet under the law to justify terminating positions."

The shake-up has caused some raised eyebrows among private developers as well. "We didn't like a couple of things that happened," acknowledges Kent Warden, executive director of the Greater Minneapolis Building Owners & Managers Association, declining to get into specifics. "The main concern we have is that they continue to operate a service-oriented business and I think they are trying to do that."

The case is complicated, but in essence it comes down to the claim that Forte is utilizing his post as assistant city coordinator to get rid of anyone who dares question his decisions. In their place, as portrayed in the lawsuit, he is appointing lackeys who will dutifully go along with Forte's every whim.

Dosdall, for instance, began working for the city in 1987 as a budget analyst. In 1990 she was promoted to finance manager within the Minneapolis Community Action Agency. When that entity was privatized, she moved to the city's department of regulatory services, holding various positions over the next decade. In 2003 she was promoted to deputy director, earning a salary of $83,103. During Dosdall's entire tenure she was a classified civil service employee, meaning that she could only be terminated for just cause.

According to court filings, Dosdall has been an exemplary employee. She has never been disciplined and she consistently received superior job performance evaluations. She has a master's degree in public administration and is currently working on her doctorate. One of her primary accomplishments as deputy director of the regulatory services division was to implement the city's "One Stop Shop," whereby homeowners and developers can efficiently navigate municipal requirements such as licensing and inspections.

According to the lawsuit, Dosdall's problems with Forte began immediately, with the June 2004 meeting in which he announced plans to reorganize the department. "It was obvious from the beginning of his tenure...that Mr. Forte desired a new management team--one that would be entirely loyal to and dependent upon him," the lawsuit states. "He and his direct reports were openly hostile to Ms. Dosdall, conspired to negatively impact Ms. Dosdall's reputation, end her involvement with the 'One Stop Shop,' and deride her personally and professionally."

Over the ensuing months, plans were implemented to eliminate Dosdall's position. On October 21 of last year, she was notified that her current post had ceased to exist. At the same time, however, the city created a new position with virtually the same duties and awarded it to a less experienced employee, Cheri Bootes. According to the lawsuit, there was no competitive application process for the new post, and Dosdall was not allowed to apply.

Dosdall was forced to seek other employment within the city. She eventually secured a job as manager of business development and support in the regulatory services division--coincidentally, the post previously held by Cheri Bootes. This position paid $10,541 less than Dosdall's former job.

In addition, the lawsuit claims that Dosdall has suffered severe emotional hardship--including stomachaches and insomnia--from the actions of Forte and other city officials. "Ms. Dosdall's health care provider has recently recommended that she be granted a medical leave from work on account of the stress, hardship and physical symptoms she has been experiencing," the lawsuit states.

The claims of the other three plaintiffs allege similar pernicious practices by Forte and his underlings.

None of the plaintiffs are talking, per the instructions of their lawyer. "I don't want to in any way jeopardize their case," says Rasmus. The defendants are equally quiet: City policy dictates that employees cannot comment on active litigation. (Forte and Schmit Gonzalez did not return calls for this story.)

In court filings, the city, not surprisingly, refutes the charges. The city attorney's office maintains that the personnel moves are well within the bounds of the law and not aimed at punishing any specific individuals.

The case is currently in discovery, with depositions being taken by both sides. Any possibility of a trial is months, possibly even years, down the road.

Even so, Rasmus says that it's a pretty straightforward situation: "They all had civil service positions that were terminated without any just cause."

 
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