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2017 story: Hastings fire chief has fallen under past scrutiny

Hastings city officials have questioned its fire chief's leadership for several years.

Before Fire Chief Mike Schutt returned to his job this month following a lengthy investigation, city leaders raised past concerns about his ability to head the department, a RiverTown Multimedia review of disciplinary records has found.

The reports, obtained through a public records request, detail allegations and findings of workplace bullying, patterns of intimidation, threats to demote staffers and concerns with Schutt's management ability during his tenure.

An oral complaint brought forward at the end of May saw Schutt placed on paid administrative on Aug. 30.

In a 4-3 vote last month, the City Council decided no disciplinary action was warranted after reviewing the latest probe's findings.

"With any organization, leadership is also about mentorship and educating, taking classes and so forth," said Schutt, who returned as the fire and EMS department's director Dec. 4. "I look forward to continuing to lead the department (and) to ensure its continued success."

Hastings Fire and EMS Director Mike Schutt

A Hastings native, Schutt has headed the department for the past decade after rising through the ranks over the course of more than 30 years.

Schutt said he has the support of his staff and plans to focus on training, team-building and communication.

City leaders who felt discipline was necessary touched on the need for improvement.

"I am concerned about the chief's leadership style and department policies," wrote council member Lori Braucks by email following the council's vote Nov. 30. "I expect a higher level of professionalism, accountability, and ethical conduct moving forward."

In a memo this March, Hastings City Administrator Melanie Mesko Lee outlined concerns about Schutt's interaction with staff.

The city's labor attorney, who led the investigation, alleged Schutt violated the city's conduct and ethics policies and used offensive behavior during union contract negotiations.

Schutt said the grievance stemming from the report was dismissed.

Mesko Lee wrote the allegations echoed past complaints against Schutt.

A 2013 disciplinary report highlighted instances of workplace bullying, absences during a training session and failing to notify city leaders regarding the assault of a firefighter, among others.

Then-city administrator Dave Osberg wrote improvement was needed but said he was confident in Schutt's ability to make needed changes.

The oral reprimand required Schutt to submit a written plan on improving his communication skills, as well as ways to better develop his working relationships.

Hastings Fire Lt. Steve Crisp said oral reprimands are typical for department heads, and he recalls times he's received similar discipline as a 25-year veteran.

"Those are the things that help build your character," he said.

A lengthy investigation

Details related to the most recent investigation cannot be publicly released. State laws require public agencies to reveal the existence and status of complaints, but details are not released unless they result in discipline.

Hastings hired an outside legal firm to head the investigation, which totaled $26,727, according to city officials.

Findings for the investigation were completed in September, pending a final review.

City payroll records show Schutt logged 464 hours of administrative leave totaling $27,200 within the past year.

Schutt's three-month absence has had a negative impact on the fire department's morale, Crisp said.

"Mike Schutt is not the most perfect person in the world. None of us are," Crisp said. "But if we're looking at things that happened years ago on Mike, I think this story is a dead issue because he's been cleared of any wrongdoing."

Council members voting against disciplinary action were Tina Folch, Joe Balsanek, Lisa Leifeld and Trevor Lund. Those who voted for action included Mayor Paul Hicks and council members Lori Braucks and Mark Vaughan.

Majority-voting council members said the investigation didn't reveal findings they believed deserved disciplinary action.

"Chief Schutt is clearly a dedicated professional who is willing to strive towards making improvements," Folch said.

Folch said, however, she was disappointed the process prevented elected officials from asking clarifying questions during discussions.

City leaders met behind closed doors for more than 2 1/2 hours for preliminary consideration of allegations against Schutt.

Hicks said the long process has been frustrating for the community, but he defended the need to explore the grievances against Schutt.

"Such long deliberations and close vote indicates the seriousness of the situation," Hicks said. "However, the City Council has made a decision, and it is now time to move on."