Last month, October 20-23, the International City/County Management Association held its annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee.
Minot City Manager Tom Barry attended the conference and brought along Minot Fire Chief Kelli Kronschnabel.
This was interesting for a couple of reasons:
- Why was Kronschnabel, who is not a city or county manager, attending a conference for city and county managers, since she is neither? Even if you could squint your eyes and say she’s someone who manages people in Minot, wouldn’t training more specific to first responders generally, and fire chiefs specifically, be more appropriate? UPDATE: A sharp-eyed reader notes that the National Firehouse Expo was held in Nashville just before the IMCA conference.
- Conferences like these are often clearinghouses for job offers (the IMCA even runs a job database, complete with an app, for members), was that why Mayor Shaun Sipma tried to ram-rod a contract extension for Barry?
On the latter point, I had flagged Sipma’s very-last-minute addition of the contract extension to the agenda for this last Monday’s meeting (he called the changes “minor” despite their value coming in at roughly $1 million over five years). At the meeting, the city council immediately voted to table the issue as soon as it came up.
The cost of sending Barry and Kronschanbel to the conference was not especially cheap. You can see the details below, as well as the electronic communications between Barry and Kronschnabel about the trip (including a brief mention of the recent controversy surrounding Minot state Senator Oley Larsen).
Here’s a summary the City of Minot provided me in response to an open records request:
What you’re looking at is nearly $2,000 in hotel charges, roughly $1,500 in airline tickets, about $1,300 in registration fees, and almost $600 in per diem, plus other expenses, for the four-day conference.
These conferences for government workers are big business, and these associations push hard for attendance. The ICMA even has a “convince your boss” section of their website intended to help members justify the expense of the conference to the elected officials, or other decision-makers, who have to approve it. I was a little shocked to see the section even included a fill-in-the-blank justification letter apparently for those not bright enough to make their own argument:
This conference cost Minot taxpayers nearly $1,300 in registration fees alone for two people. Extrapolate that to attendees from all over the country, and it turns into a nice payday for the ICMA.
Maybe the expenses are justifiable. After all, there’s nothing wrong with training and professional development. I asked city spokesman Derek Hackett what the purpose of this trip was, and why was Kronschnabel on it.
His answer was a little underwhelming.
“The purpose of the trip was Professional Training & Development. The ICMA Conference is the World’s Largest Conference for Local Government Management Professionals. The Fire Chief attended for the same reason. Staff all across the City routinely attend professional training and development courses and conferences,” he told me.
That’s not terribly explanatory, nor is the ICMA website much help. The descriptions of the events at the conference are generic to the point of being meaningless (though I guess we all know what “yoga” means).
I asked Hackett two days ago if the city has a record of which panels or training Barry and Kronschnabel attended, something you’d think city government would want from attendees to justify the expense of the trip.
So far, he hasn’t responded.
Whether or not the trip was justifiable for Mr. Barry is an open question. It’s a lot of money, but the ICMA is a real organization, and I suppose the value to its members is subjective. Kronschnabel’s attendance was a red flag for me, though.
I decided to see if I was alone in that feeling, so I contacted several elected members of city and county government around the state and asked them about it. They spoke on the condition of anonymity since this isn’t an issue in their jurisdiction.
They all thought the situation strange.
“It’s definitely weird,” one said.
“I wouldn’t have approved it for the chief,” said another.
Some in Minot believe that Barry has been planning to leave and that Kronschnabel was his chosen successor. But then, the Mayor just tried to approve a million-dollar contract extension for Barry, and I’m assuming he did so because Barry told him he’d accept it. So who knows.
The city certainly isn’t being very forthcoming about it. I’ll leave it to you readers to decide if the expense of this trip was appropriate.