RHINELANDER - Rhinelander City Administrator Kristina Aschenbrenner walked into what she thought would be a routine performance review Monday night.
She left without a job.
The City Council voted to terminate Aschenbrenner's contract a little more than a week away from her one-year anniversary. The council voted 6 to 2 to fire the city administrator, terminating her contract immediately. Alderman Mark Pelltier offered the motion and Alderwoman Sherrie Belliveau seconded it. Aldermen Steve Sauer and Tom Gleason voted against the motion.
The vote happened after a closed-door session at City Hall. Aschenbrenner declined an on-camera interview with Newswatch 12 Tuesday. But over the phone she says she was called in after an hour and a half of closed-session discussion and read a statement by Council President George Kirby. In essence, Aschenbrenner said that statement read: the City Council is "moving in a new direction."
"In hindsight, you have the feeling this was decided before the meeting," Aschenbrenner said Tuesday.
Aschenbrenner was hired in August 2015 and started September 8 of that year. She beat out three other candidates for the job.
Aschenbrenner replaced former administrator Blaine Oborn, who left to take a similar job in Lake Geneva. Aschenbrenner came to Rhinelander from Eau Claire, where she had served as a District Court administrator.
Aschenbrenner was offered the chance to resign Monday night, but she would've needed to agree not to sue the city. She told the Council, "I'm not interested in resigning." Aschenbrenner said she decided on termination without cause, taking a three-month severance package worth about $21,000 as well as a payout for her accrued vacation time. Aschenbrenner made $85,000 a year, not including benefits.
Aschenbrenner said she was "blindsided" by the decision. She said she asked for more time to consider her options or for the reasons she was being fired. According to Aschenbrenner, the council refused both requests.
"She was shocked, I was shocked. It kind of came out of nowhere," Seventh District Alderman Steve Sauer said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.
Sauer couldn't comment on what happened during Monday night's closed-door discussion, but he said Aschenbrenner's involvement in city projects and the community was "spectacular."
"I believe it was the wrong decision," Sauer said. "I believe that the Council went in a direction that is going to hurt in the near future with the budget process and the major projects we do have going on right now."
Council President Kirby turned down an interview request Tuesday, opting instead to read a one-line statement saying, "the city council has determined to move in a new direction." But Kirby noted the Council met with Aschenbrenner for a six-month review on May 31. There, Kirby says the Council set a 90-day period to allow Aschenbrenner to follow a new direction.
"She didn't achieve that direction," Kirby said.
City ordinances don't place any term limits on the administrator position and allow a council majority to vote to remove the administrator at any time.
"Given the fact she had less than a year of experience in the position and the fact that we had never actually completed a formal performance review to give her direction, I believe she was doing precisely the job that we gave her," Sauer said. "There were some issues that needed to be worked on, and there were some issues that I did not know about going into that meeting, and the general belief was that more communication would definitely help."
Reached by phone Tuesday morning, Mayor Dick Johns said the vote to terminate Aschenbrenner came "as a surprise to me." Johns declined to comment further.
Aschenbrenner told Newswatch 12 over the phone, "I honestly can say I have not done anything wrong or illegal.
"Is it possible someone claimed I did? That's possible," Aschenbrenner added. She went on to say she could "work with anyone" and would gladly take her job back if the Council offered it.
Sauer wouldn't comment on any issues or criticism he may have had with Aschenbrenner's job performance, but he stands by his vote to not fire her.
"We're going to have to move forward together because we're all working toward the same benefit," Sauer said. "Just not necessarily in the same direction.... I can't speak to the future. I don't know if that will change, but I definitely think she was 100 percent pro-Rhinelander and was working her best to make it a better place."
Aschenbrenner says she's focused on her 7-year-old daughter starting school this week, but is "not bitter and not done working."
"I do have concerns," Aschenbrenner added. She says the City might not have handled the process properly.
Kirby says that he, Johns, and City Attorney Carrie Miljevich will work together to figure out a plan to hire a new administrator.
"We're in good shape," Kirby said of the upcoming budget process and current projects. "We don't see any big areas where there's a lack of coverage right now."
All other City Council members either didn't return phone calls or directed any questions to Kirby.
(Original story below)
Rhinelander City Administrator Kristina Aschenbrenner finds herself out of a job this week. City attorney Carrie Miljevich confirmed that the city council voted 6-2 Monday night to remove Aschenbrenner following a closed-door performance review. The vote took effect immediately.
Alderman Mark Pelletier moved to remove Aschenbrenner in open session and Alderman Sherrie Belliveau seconded the motion. Aldermen Tom Gleason and Steve Sauer voted against the decision.
"The City Council has determined to move in a new direction," Council President George Kirby said via phone Tuesday morning. Kirby stressed that the move was not a "firing," but declined an on-camera interview at this time.
Aschenbrenner was hired in August 2015 and started work September 8. She beat out three other candidates for the job.
Aschenbrenner replaced former administrator Blaine Oborn, who left to take a similar job in Lake Geneva. Aschenbrenner came to Rhinelander from Eau Claire, where she had served as a district court administrator.
The council did not discuss a plan to choose an interim city administrator at the meeting.
Kirby said the city attorney, Mayor Dick Johns, and he will work together to begin the search for a new administrator. In the meantime, all city business will flow through the mayor's office and department heads.
This story will be updated.