City to county:  ‘Can you hear us now?’: North Branch rejects Chisago County interim contract for radios

The ongoing heated debate between the city of North Branch and the Chisago County Commissioners over the use of county-owned radios and the corresponding service agreement for radio frequency access through the ARMER radio system for emergency personnel has come to a head with the city drawing a proverbial line in the sand.

During the May 28 city council meeting, the council on a 3-2 vote, with council members McPherson and Neider voting no, rejected a proposed interim service contract with the county outlining the terms for the city’s police and fire departments using the system until a new, permanent contract could be written up. The county has been pushing all of the cities and townships within the county who have been using the county’s radios to sign the interim agreement after the county purchased new radios for them back in 2018.

In recommending the rejection of the agreement, city administrator Renae Fry pointed to the fact the city already has an ongoing agreement in place that won’t expire until Dec. 31, 2019 – the exact same time as the expiration of the proposed interim agreement.

“There were a number of items in your packet, including the 2012 agreement, which contrary to other statements, automatically renewed at the end of 2018 for all of 2019,” Fry said. “So we still have an agreement in place. And there’s even language in the agreement that says if we were to acquire radios on our own that they’re deemed owned by the county for the purposes of this agreement. So I do believe strongly there is an agreement in play, so we’re not really at risk of some of the threats that were made that somehow the state was going to shut us down.”

“We do have an approved agreement, which is in my hot little hands,” council member Brian Voss said while making the motion to reject the interim agreement. “There’s no need to ratify a new agreement just so we can entertain future talks for a new agreement. I think that’s an under-handed and devious way of entering into discussions, and it would certainly put us at a disadvantage.”

While acknowledging the fact that there are some less-than-appealing portions of the previous agreement, Fry rattled off a litany of objections she had with the interim agreement, which in essence makes the old agreement the lesser of two evils.

At the same time as rejecting the interim agreement, the council agreed to send directly to the county commissioners not only a copy of the old agreement – it has been speculated that the commissioners are unaware of the existing agreement – but also a draft of the interim agreement that includes a number of changes recommended by both Fry and the city’s attorney that the council may be more inclined to sign.

What if...

Council member Joel McPherson asked what would happen, or what the council is prepared to do, if the county came back with a “take it or leave it” response. 

Fry told the council that part of the old agreement is a 180-day notice of cancellation, so since no notice of cancellation has been given, the agreement can’t be canceled until the end of 2019 anyway.

“The interim agreement also expires on Dec. 31, 2019,” Fry said. “Ultimately, whether you sign off on the interim agreement or whether they give the 180-day notice, it ends on Dec. 31, 2019. It behooves all parties to enter into conversation about what that continuation looks like.”

“If we don’t agree, we don’t agree,” reiterated Voss. “I don’t think there’s any reason to sit here, sign with pen while gnashing and gritting our teeth and mumbling obscenities under our breath. ... I don’t see any reason why we can’t negotiate in good faith while standing firm in saying ‘no, we do not agree with the interim agreement.’ It is my opinion that we have very little to be concerned with.

“The ‘Plan B’ (if the county refuses to negotiate and gives a 180-day notice) is we start sending out feelers for what it’s going to take to set up a secondary radio system,” Voss continued. “I’m not afraid to go down that road. If we’re strong enough to stand firm here, we’re strong enough to come up with an alternative.”

New finance director named

After a search for applicants for the vacated finance director position, the council first whittled down the list to five semi-finalists who were interviewed by 11 staff and council members. Of those five finalists, one of them rose above the rest. Therefore, after a final interview in front of the entire council, the council approved offering the job to Joseph Starks, pending a background and drug test.

Starks comes to the city from the city of Minneapolis as one of their accounting managers after recently earning his masters degree in Public Administration.

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