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Duluth City Attorney resigns after investigation into statements, management style

Updated: April 10, 2020 01:45 PM

Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson is responding to news of his resignation from his position after the city received an investigative report substantiating allegations that Johnson had made inappropriate statements to employees and had a lax management style.

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An investigative report prepared by a Twin Cities law firm says the city's human resources department and mayor's office received a number of complaints about Johnson over the course of months.  Some of the complaints dealt with alleged inappropriate statements about management and personnel issues.

Johnson said he loved serving as city attorney. 

"During my tenure as city attorney, I've always tried to put the best interest of the city and the citizens of Duluth first and foremost. For that reason, I submitted my resignation to the mayor today because I don't want to contribute to any distractions for the city or the hardworking city staff," Johnson said. "While I strongly disagree with the way things have been handled in the past couple of months, it is time for me to move on, and we have found an amicable way to do so."

Mayor Emily Larson said she accepted Johnson's resignation.

"The resignation of Mr. Johnson I think is in the best interest of everybody," Larson said, "and I'm really excited about the work that he is going to be doing in many, many other ways because his work here has been really, really substantial with the city." 

Johnson said he was blindsided by the allegations and pointed out that he fully cooperated with the outside investigation of his office.

"The report was inconclusive at best, and the original kind of core allegations were found to be unsubstantiated," he said.

Johnson had been on paid administrative leave since February 13, with Deputy City Attorney Steven Hanke serving as the acting city attorney since then.

Read: Investigative report about Gunnar Johnson

Much of the 88-page report is redacted from public view, but it does say that investigators determined that allegations about Johnson making inappropriate statements are substantiated.  Johnson was interviewed as part of the investigation and acknowledged making many of the statements to employees, including, "I can't fire people, but I can make their lives miserable."

The report also says investigators substantiated allegations that Johnson "had lax management practices and failed to address many interpersonal conflicts" within his office. Investigators also found that Johnson openly discussed the performance of two employees for others to hear.

A large portion of the report dealing with allegations that Johnson harassed and retaliated against employees over the use of protected FMLA leave or sick leave is completely redacted.

"I think the public understands that personnel matters and employment matters are things that people take very seriously and very personally, and I think a redacted report is absolutely in keeping with transparency and data practice requests," Larson said Thursday afternoon.

The city's news release credited Johnson for having "an impact on the forward growth and movement of Duluth," citing his work on the Last Place on Earth litigation, economic development, and work as counsel for the mayor and city councilors.

Hanke continues to serve as acting city attorney.

The city said it will begin the hiring process for a new city attorney in the next week or two, but Mayor Larson said she does not anticipate filling the role until they can conduct in-person interviews. 

Copyright 2020 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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