ISHPEMING - A tie vote over issues surrounding Ishpeming Police Chief Jim Bjorne's retirement plans caused tension at the Ishpeming City Council meeting Wednesday evening and left one councilmember feeling intimidated.
Bjorne, who has been experiencing health problems that prevent him from serving in all capacities as police chief, had requested the transfer of nearly four years of service credit from Marquette County to the city. That would give him a full 25 years of service, allowing him to retire with a full pension when he turns 50 in April. The transfer was approved by the county.
A motion to approve the retirement transfer received "yes" votes from Mayor Pat Scanlon and Councilman Mike Tall, but two "no" votes from Councilwomen Elaine Racine and Claudia Demarest. Councilman John Stone was absent.
"I'm amazed at the position this council has taken. I'm ashamed. A person that's worked for many years for this city ... It doesn't matter who it is," Scanlon said. "There is absolutely no reason that I've seen to not grant this request ... Somebody apparently feels that Chief Bjorne deserves to be railroaded here and I'm ashamed."
Bjorne also expressed his disappointment in the council's decision.
"Obviously I'm frustrated by the lack of foresight by Councilwoman Racine and Councilwoman Demarest," Bjorne said following the meeting. "It's a liability issue the employer needs to consider.
"It's frustrating when you have a health issue that wears you down day in and day out. I feel I have given everything to this city and to have this happen is a slap in the face."
Following the meeting, Bjorne approached the council table and spoke with Racine and Demarest regarding his disappointment. Racine said this morning that interaction made her feel intimidated.
"I'm sorry the mayor felt it was done at a personal agenda and that he became so angry," Racine said of the meeting. "I feel sorry Mr. Bjorne is facing health problems."
Bjorne could not be reached for comment this morning.
During the meeting, Bjorne said he would not be able to retire early due to financial constraints.
Racine said she voted no because she was concerned the action would set a precedent for future councils.
"It had nothing to do with Chief Bjorne," Racine said after the meeting. "I have a concern it could damage the city. I didn't feel confident enough to vote yes even though it was heartbreaking for me to vote no."
Racine also said she felt if a similar situation had come up in a business or corporation, the transfer would not have been granted.
Demarest also said this morning that she felt the move would have come at a cost to the city.
"I stand by my vote. This will cost the city money," Demarest said. "It's not on a personal level. The issue is he wants to retire. His health shouldn't come into it."
The transfer request previously sparked controversy at a special meeting in late January when the discussion was tabled.
The transfer would create a $25,000 unfunded liability - the cost of paying Bjorne's pension for four years - for the city's police retirement fund.
That fund, thanks to the departure of another officer, currently has a surplus of around $70,000, so the unfunded liability would have had a minimal financial impact, City Manager Jered Ottenwess said.
Introducing the issue to the council Wednesday, Ottenwess recommended the transfer.
"I understand the sensitive nature of perceived favoritism especially when it relates to retirement, pensions, retire-rehire. I know this is a sensitive issue," he said during the meeting. "This is a different and unique situation because of some of Chief Bjorne's heath concerns. I don't believe it sets a precedent. I recommend the city council approve the transfer. I think in terms of cost benefit, it's in the city's best interest."
When calling for the vote, Scanlon immediately voted in favor of the transfer, but when calling for the nays, was met with silence from the other three council members.
"No opposed?" Scanlon asked. "How many times do I have to ask. We've been through this before. I'm not going to sit at a table with a bunch of children."
A roll call vote was then taken because of the split vote.
Scanlon said he intended to bring the issue up again at a future meeting.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.