BROOKINGS – Four former members of two volunteer boards confronted the city manager and mayor at the Tuesday Brookings City Council meeting, with the back-and-forth becoming contentious at times.
In January, 10 members of the 11-member Brookings Committee for People who have Disabilities resigned. The only one who did not was the student representative. Three members of the Human Rights Commission also resigned recently.
Jessie Kuechenmeister, who served on the Disabilities Committee from 2005 to 2019; Lonnie Bayer, who served for more than 11 years; and Dave Miller, who served from 2007-2019, expressed frustration with new city management, debunked rumors, and warned the council to take the committee seriously.
Kuechenmeister read the purpose statement for the Disabilities Committee, which is listed on the city’s website and said the service the committee does is not provided by any other entity in Brookings.
The group advocates with many partners in the city, and members are involved with the annual Able Award, program reviews, facility reviews, provision of technical assistance, and other activities.
“We are a well-known and well-respected resource,” she said.
Loss of experience
The mass resignation “was a loss of over 85 years of combined experience after one meeting,” Kuechenmeister said.
She submitted a resignation letter from the committee to the council on Feb. 8. In the letter, “we were very clear, it was not about our previous ADA coordinator” Shari Thornes, who recently retired as city clerk, Kuechenmeister said.
Kuechenmeister “got a little fired up” after watching the council meeting on Feb. 12 and hearing some comments that “were not accurate or true,” she said.
Although the Disabilities Committee did not meet in October, November or December, Kuechenmeister said they were still active with a speaker they hosted, sending a snow removal brochure with a Brookings Municipal Utilities mailing, executive meetings and sub-committee meetings.
She objected to City Manager Paul Briseno’s comment that he had reached out to them and “were unwilling to meet,” Kuechenmeister said. Miller had met with Briseno, and Kuechenmeister said she had been in correspondence with Briseno. She said some council members had reached out with their questions.
It was said earlier that Brookings has a city code enforcement officer who was International City Council Code certified, she said.
“That’s wonderful; that’s great,” she said, but wanted the councilors to know ADA was about more than codes.
“So important for you to know ADA does not stop with building code … ADA is federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life including employment, including education, transportation, and all public places,” Kuechenmeister said.
“Our committee was an essential piece for the city of Brookings, in making sure the ADA was upheld,” she said, adding the committee provided education, advocated, reviewed building plans, and helped with access to programs and services, too.
One comment that offended her at the previous meeting was that “we were a great committee to bounce ideas off of.”
“We were much, much more than a committee to bounce ideas off of,” Kuechenmeister insisted. They helped businesses and individuals with advocacy and education, provided experience and knowledge, helped other communities, worked with state and federal authorities, “a network of colleagues,” she said.
“I really want you to take this (resignation) seriously,” Kuechenmeister said. “You lost a lot of experience and knowledge that you’ll have to work very hard to replace.”
Bayer said Thornes was the common thread that made the committee work so well.
He heard “from a reliable source that somebody was trying to put the blame on her for this committee disbanding. (Why would we) all resign when she was already gone, if she was the problem? It’s just the opposite,” Bayer said.
Over the past few years, the committee has not been allowed to be involved with what’s going on, he said.
“We’ve had roadblocks put in front of us. We’ve become ineffective (due to people who) didn’t want to see us do the job we were appointed to do,” Bayer said.
He expressed how frustrating it was for them and asked the council to put people on the committee who were passionate about it.
“We’ve done this because of passion,” Miller said of those who resigned. “I have 25 years of dealing with a child with disabilities. Every one of us lived this.
“I want to challenge you to take this ADA role and the committee serious,” Miller said. “It has become very apparent with the new staff on board that things are changing, that there’s a new agenda. We have fought this battle long enough without getting the respect that we’ve earned.”
Miller said he met with Maggie Owens, director of administrative services and city ADA coordinator, and met with Briseno, and “it became very apparent to me that we were just getting lip service and we’re just not gonna fight that battle any more,” Miller said.
Briseno interrupted to say that if Miller wanted to talk about operations or personnel, that’s not a city council decision.
“That’s my role. I cannot have you sit here and let you throw my staff under the bus,” Briseno said.
“I’m not throwing your staff under the bus, Paul, whatsoever,” Miller contradicted. “I committed 11 years to this committee; please give me the due respect to share my thoughts, whether you agree with them or not. And you just simply proved my point, Paul, that when I met with you that it’s just lip service. You just tried to cut me off and don’t let me share my thoughts.”
Miller mentioned a meeting with Briseno, Owens and another person.
“The end of that meeting, you totally twisted what I said and you blamed it on Shari, that she didn’t share her thoughts on the seriousness of what went on with you. Well, maybe the challenge, Paul, is that you weren’t receptive to it. Maybe she couldn’t come to you. I don’t know, I’m not there,” Miller said.
He said he resigned because of the struggles the committee had with the council members not supporting what they did.
Miller referenced Mayor Keith Corbett’s comment at the Feb. 12 meeting about reaching out to the committee.
“That is not a true statement,” Miller said.
“I’ve reached out to the people I received a resignation from,” Corbett said. “I’ve talked to five members that have reached out to me. I’d like to sit down and visit with you.”
Miller said he’d sent Corbett an e-mail; Corbett said he never received it.
Miller asked what the criteria is for the ADA coordinator, and Briseno said he would talk about operations after the meeting.
“I do appreciate your years of service. I wish you would have stayed, but you’ve chosen to resign. I look forward to the new committee and hopefully picking up where we left off. If you want to talk operations, my door is always open,” Briseno said.
Kuechenmeister recalled that Briseno had said at the last meeting that Owens, the Human Resources director, “has more qualifications than we’ve ever had in this organization. We’re just wondering what those qualifications are?”
“Once again, Jessie, if it’s personnel issues, I wish you’d talk to the city manager,” Corbett said.
Kuechenmeister wasn’t done expressing her frustrations about the previous city council meeting.
“And what hurt me the most was you did not convey any of our concerns. You did not convey any of our feelings, our perceptions on why we resigned and our lack of support. You did nothing to stick up for your own city volunteer committee,” Kuechenmeister said.
“Because every council member received that letter and had that information,” Corbett said.
“In a public forum, when we are just disregarded. It’s sad,” Kuechenmeister continued. “People with disabilities have a right to be included and have a right to access to buildings as well as programs and services and right now, I don’t feel like that’s being taken seriously.”
After the three returned to the audience, George Hamer spoke.
He was on the Human Rights Commission for 13 years. He also listened to the city council meeting on Feb. 12 and brought up Corbett’s comment about meeting with those who notified him they were resigning.
Hamer had composed a resignation e-mail, which he read at council, including information about Owens.
“After talking with Maggie about issues with her serving as chair and then finding out that the city manager has made her the liaison to the city, I feel I can no longer be effective in the position,” Hamer read from his letter of resignation. He added that he was proud of the past work the commission has done.
Hamer said he’d sent the e-mail to Corbett the evening of Jan. 2 and received a reply a few minutes later, acknowledging receipt and Hamer’s concerns, as well as expressing appreciation for his service.
Hamer said he had not been invited to talk to Corbett, so he wanted to point out the inaccuracy of Corbett’s statement that he’s tried to talk to everyone who resigned.
“My comment was about people on the Disabilities Committee (those) were the ones I was trying to reach out to,” Corbett clarified.
Hamer said he felt Corbett’s statement at the last meeting “was disingenuous” and wished the new members of the Human Rights Commission luck.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected].
The following is the letter submitted by former members of the Brookings Committee for People who Have Disabilities, to the mayor and Brookings City Council, after board members had submitted individual resignation letters. It was provided by Jessie Kuechenmeister:
Dear Mayor Corbett and members of the Brookings City Council:
The purpose of the Brookings Committee for People who have Disabilities is to advocate for the rights of people who have disabilities in our community. The goal of the committee is simple: improve the quality of life for people who have disabilities.
For many, many years, committee members passionately worked together to ensure the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was implemented/upheld in our community. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including employment, education, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. Some challenges were faced in these efforts to support and uphold inclusion and access; however, there were many successes as well.
In January 2019, 10 members of the committee made the difficult choice to resign from their voluntary roles in this group. Several recent changes ultimately led committee members to resign. Our goal with this letter is to dispel any potential rumors and share reasoning for these resignations. Contributing factors included the following:
It is our sincere desire that city staff, as well as the city council, would take our feedback earnestly and work to rebuild the committee. The city has recently been undertaking great work to enhance diversity and inclusion of all people, and we hope to see this extend more fully to people with disabilities. The work the committee could and should do is valuable and improves the quality of life for not only people who have disabilities but enhances life for all citizens in our community. Though we have resigned from the committee, we will still push forward to advocate for people with disabilities and work to enhance access, inclusion, and diversity in the Brookings community.
Former Members of the Brookings Committee for People who have Disabilities