ISHPEMING - The Ishpeming City Council has again denied a request to transfer service credit from Marquette County to allow Ishpeming Police Chief Jim Bjorne to retire in April.
This time the vote was 3-2 with all members present. When the council voted on the issue in February, the vote failed in a tie with Mayor Pat Scanlon and Councilman Mike Tall voting in favor and Councilwomen Elaine Racine and Claudia Demarest voting against, with Councilman John Stone absent.
At the Wednesday evening meeting, Scanlon and Stone voted in favor of the transfer, while Tall, Racine and Demarest cast "nay" votes.
"I am obviously disappointed in the outcome of my transfer," Bjorne said in a written statement provided to The Mining Journal following the meeting. "It is pretty clear to me that this is a personal matter with the three council members who voted against the transfer... I will continue to do my job as chief to the best of my ability, considering my health issues. I stand behind my reputation and integrity to finish these next four years doing the best job that I can."
Bjorne, who is currently on medical leave, requested the transfer of just less than four years of service from the county to allow him to retire when he turns 50 in April due to health problems. The transfer would have come to the city's police and firemen pension fund with an unfunded liability of $52,537. The county would have also have transfered contributions of $27,254 made to the pension by both Bjorne and the county. The remaining $25,000 would need to be made up by the city's pension fund, which has more than $4 million.
Coincidentally, the recent departure of another officer from the Ishpeming department has left $70,000 in the fund from city contributions, which would have helped offset the cost of the transfer.
The transfer was approved by the board governing the Act 345 pension fund, the Department of Public Works union and the police union. City Manager Jered Ottenwess backed the transfer.
Bjorne said during the meeting that he would not retire with his 21 years of service to the city because he could not afford to.
"I had a lot more information this month than I did last month," Tall said of his reason for voting against the transfer, even though he voted to approve it in February. "This has nothing to do personally, first right off the covers. This is strictly business on retirement. I don't want to know about your physical illnesses or anything like that."
Councilman Stone argued for the transfer before the vote.
"Past councils and past city managers, they went out of their way for people in unique situations when they wanted to retire," Stone said. "In each and every case, it was a win situation for the employee and it was a win situation for the city.
"I don't know why Jim Bjorne is treated any differently than any employee who has retired in the past. ... Jim Bjorne is being dragged through the mud for no reason at all."
Racine argued her decision was not personal.
"I think each one of us on this council has spent sleepless mornings and sleepless nights trying to find a way to do this. I do not even know the man. I have looked at a piece of paper with writing on it. I have studied and that is the only thing I have voted on. It didn't matter whose name was there. ... I don't think it's fair to accuse us of that type of behavior," Racine said.
Scanlon said the council would be holding a special work session next week to decide what to do about the situation, as Bjorne is unable to fully carry out the duties of chief and the police department is understaffed.
During the meeting, Bjorne also made a public apology to Demarest, apologizing for what he said was a "derogatory comment" made following the February meeting where the retirement transfer was first voted down.
"I tried to schedule a private meeting with Councilwoman Demarest, but she wasn't inclined to meet with me, so I'll do it publicly," Bjorne said. "What I want her to know and what I want everyone else to know is that my apology is not intended to gain favor or sway anyone's position on my transfer. I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do, it's the Christian thing to do. Claudia, I was wrong with what I said. It was unprofessional. I was out of line. I make no excuses for my behavior and I stand before you tonight offering my sincerest apology and I hope you will accept it."
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.