Righteous Mistake

For 12 of her 13 years as an office support specialist at the Minneapolis Convention Center, Bridgit Melnick has followed a similar routine. A few times a month, after working a full day in a basement office, she puts on a tuxedo, climbs the stairs to the convention-center floor, and works another shift schlepping drinks as a bartender for Kelber Catering, a food-service company that has an exclusive contract with the arena. The pay isn't great--$9 an hour, plus tips--but the bartending gig is convenient, and Melnick, a single parent, needs the money to supplement her city paycheck.

Certainly, Melnick says, she never imagined that such modest moonlighting would cause her to be branded a malcontent. Nor did she imagine that she would stand to lose her job because of the city's conflict-of-interest policy. "I'm a nobody when I'm working down in the basement," she asserts, "and I'm a nobody when I'm up on the convention floor, bartending."

Melnick's troubles began in May, when she received a memo from the executive director of the Minneapolis Convention Center (MCC), Anthony Lopez, explaining that the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office had recently ruled that outside employment with a company that does business with the convention center could constitute a conflict of interest. Therefore, Melnick had two options: Either quit her freelance job with Kelber, or quit her job with the city. Failure to do one or the other within 30 days, the memo concluded, would be considered "a willful violation of city policy," and could be grounds for termination.

The decision, explains Lopez, was based on concerns about two companies--Med Event, which contracts with the convention center to provide first-aid personnel, and Stagecall, which provides stagehands. Both were partially owned by MCC employees; they've since been forced to sell their respective stakes. According to Lopez, Kelber Catering, which employs a handful of MCC personnel as part-time waitstaff, was drawn into the fray by the city attorney.

"We're not telling anybody they can't have additional income," Lopez says, noting that employees are free to work elsewhere. "To be honest, I think they have a right to earn additional income. But I'm not the one who wrote the opinion."

According to Melnick, though, her situation is hardly comparable to that of MCC employees who also own businesses contracted by the center. She has no stake in Kelber. And, as an administrative worker, she has no contact with convention-center clients. Rather, Melnick contends, she is being singled out for reasons that have little to do with city policy. "I think they're doing it to spite me," she says. "I'm being treated like crap because I'm not the kind of person who'll sit back and pretend everything's fine when it's not."

In particular, Melnick charges that the conflict-of-interest decision is retaliation for a sexual-harassment complaint that she and three other convention-center employees filed in 2001 against an MCC manager, Ron Ewing, who has since left the center. Although the complaint was not sustained by city investigators, Melnick asserted in a June 18 letter to Mayor R.T. Rybak that she is being treated unfairly because of it.

"I feel that I have been mistreated by MCC management since filing the claim," she wrote, "and believe that this may be another way to harass me as a result of being party to a claim against a personal friend of the MCC executive director, Anthony Lopez."

Lopez disputes Melnick's claim. In his own letter to the mayor, he wrote that "an action on my part to harass or retaliate against Ms. Melnick would be reckless and completely inconsistent with my ethics. To impact so many other people to this extent would defy reason."

Melnick has yet to receive a response from city hall, but her complaints haven't fallen on deaf ears elsewhere. In May, Melnick's union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), asked Lopez to delay any action until its attorneys could review the new policy. According to AFSCME representative Jill Kielblock, the union is concerned that the policy, if enforced citywide, could have far-ranging effects. "Potentially, this could affect every city employee who has outside employment," she explains.

Because of that, Kielblock says, the convention center should hold off until the city has completed the ongoing review of its ethics policy initiated by the mayor earlier this year. "We should see what they're recommending, and try and get it written in a manner that works better for our folks."

Fourth Ward city council member Barbara Johnson agrees that the MCC's position may prove ill-considered. "I think it's really draconian," Johnson says. "The problem I see is, there's a big difference between hourly employees making extra money and being a contractor or an owner of a company that's doing business with the city."

And, Johnson concludes, the city attorney's decision in the case of Kelber Catering could have consequences far overshadowing Bridgit Melnick's immediate circumstances. "There's lots of electricians and plumbers working for the city who might want to make some extra money around Christmastime doing work for companies that contract with the city," she says. "According to this [policy], they would be prohibited from doing that. If we go to the nth degree with this, the scope is huge."

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