ISHPEMING - Following a lengthy closed session discussion Wednesday, the Ishpeming City Council voted unanimously to direct city manager Jered Ottenwess to negotiate an agreement with city police chief Jim Bjorne.
Ottenwess was to exchange a retirement transfer Bjorne had requested for Bjorne's agreement to drop a discrimination claim he filed against the city.
Tensions between Bjorne and a number of city council members have risen over the past year as the council voted 3-2 in March not to approve a transfer of nearly four years of service time with the Marquette County Sheriff's Office, which would have allowed Bjorne to retire at age 50 in April of this year.
Bjorne requested the transfer to be able to retire due to back problems, which have left him unable to work a full day and perform duties other than administrative.
"The last nine months have been extremely difficult for both my family and me, but last night the people of this community sent a clear message. It's unfortunate that it takes a public outcry to change the minds of elected officials to do the right thing," Bjorne said this morning. "Last night I told the council I am still willing to work for a seamless transition to a new chief, and I stand by that. I look forward to meeting with the city manager to resolve this issue so we can all move forward and do the business we were appointed and elected to do."
Bjorne said he would be meeting with Ottenwess late this morning.
At Wednesday's meeting, Bjorne addressed council members during public comment, asking them to reconsider their decision regarding the transfer.
In January, Bjorne requested a special council meeting so that he could discuss his medical issues and his request for the retirement transfer with the council, which had already been approved by the Ishpeming Police and Fire Retirement System and the Marquette County Board. That discussion was tabled until the February meeting, causing some tension among council members, with the February vote ending in a tie. In March, the transfer was again put before the council, this time failing by a vote of 3-2, with council members Elaine Racine, Claudia Demarest and Mike Tall voting against and Mayor Pat Scanlon and Councilman John Stone voting in favor.
Recently, Bjorne submitted a complaint to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, stating that he felt he was being treated differently than previous city employees who had requested retirement transfers under Public Act 88, which allows municipal employees who have worked in more than one community to transfer years of service to qualify for a pension.
Accepting the transfer would mean the IPFRS would also accept an unfunded liability of $25,283, which would need to be made up by the pension fund, which has a balance of more than $4 million.
Wednesday's city council meeting was standing room only, with supporters of Bjorne standing in the kitchen area of the Ishpeming Senior Center and even a few looking in at the meeting through the windows from outside. Those who spoke during public comment in favor of Bjorne's transfer included Marquette County Prosecutor Gary Walker, Marquette County Commissioner Gerald Corkin, Marquette City Police Chief Mike Angeli and Marquette City Detective Capt. Gordon Warchock, as well as a number of citizens both of Ishpeming and surrounding communities.
"I have not known a more dedicated, honest, hardworking generally good individual ever," Walker said of Bjorne. "What Jim has given to this community, not just in Ishpeming, but in Marquette County, is incalculable. I've seen Jim deal with horrible situations. I've seen Jim produce marvelous police investigations, but mostly what I've seen is an honorable man."
Others who spoke compared police work to that of military servicemen.
"We did not leave them there to rot," said Ishpeming resident Len Jarrell of family members who were wounded while carrying out military service. "Police work is not unlike combat. We ask these men and women to go out and try to prevent the trouble from coming to each and every one of us. Their selfless devotion to duty is exemplary and representative in this fine man, Chief Bjorne."
Council members who voted against the transfer argued that the city was not blocking Bjorne's retirement.
"In April 2011 Mr. Bjorne could have retired, and he still can, with an annual pension of approximately $31,553. When he turned 60, he would then get the Municipal Employees' Retirement System of Michigan retirement from Marquette County for $4,171 annually. At age 60, he would receive his total pension, one check from Ishpeming and one check from Marquette County," Racine said during the meeting before the council entered closed session. "I was under the impression here tonight that people did not understand that he can retire at any time as of April 1, 2011. We are not holding his retirement from him."
Bjorne has previously stated that he cannot afford to retire without the full pension.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401.