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City may have violated state statute during emergency meeting

The Cloquet City Council may have violated state statute during an emergency meeting held earlier this month.

Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek was placed on paid administrative leave March 16, during an emergency meeting called by Mayor Dave Hallback after the city received a complaint against Stracek.

But Hallback and the city may have erred during the same meeting when they selected Stracek's interim replacement — and bypassed the department's two commanders — during closed session, without any open discussion.

Hallback defended the process in an interview with the Pine Journal.

"I'm acting in what I feel is the best interest of the city of Cloquet," Hallback told the Pine Journal Tuesday evening. "And I will continue to do that."

Although the contents of the complaint against Stracek are not public record while the investigation is ongoing, Jeff Oveson, recording secretary for the Teamsters Local 346 — the union which represents Cloquet police officers but not police administration — released the following statement to the Pine Journal on Tuesday:

"After all other attempts at communication failed, members of the Cloquet Police Department conducted a 'Vote of No Confidence' in Chief Stracek. This vote was the last resort to express concern over the chief's lack of leadership, lack of communication, lack of support for officers, and poor policy decisions that have created an alarming state of morale and concerns regarding public and officer safety. Areas of concern have been communicated to the city, and Teamsters Local 346 is confident that the city will conduct a thorough investigation into the matter."

Interim Cloquet City Administrator James Barclay said the investigation of the complaint against Stracek will be conducted by an outside person or group; the city was in the process of contacting firms Wednesday.

Mayor Hallback said Tuesday that he called the emergency meeting after the complaint was sent out to every council member, along with (then) City Administrator Brian Fritsinger and Assistant City Administrator/Human Resources Director Barclay. The mayor — who was a Cloquet police officer for 27 years before retiring several years ago — told the Pine Journal he called the meeting because he felt it was a matter of "immediate concern," pointing to a similar phrase in state statute, which notes that emergency meetings may be called because "of circumstances that, in the judgment of the public body, require immediate consideration by the public body."

The Cloquet City Council's own handbook states the council has the authority to hold emergency meetings "because of special circumstances in order to protect the public health, safety, and welfare from harm that would be caused by a delay." A regular council meeting was scheduled for March 21.

The emergency meeting was closed to the public almost immediately March 16, so that council members, the mayor and city staff could discuss the "allegations of law enforcement personnel misconduct" leveled at Stracek.

At the outset, their actions appear to have been appropriate, as state statute says meetings must be closed if certain types of data are going to be discussed, including "internal affairs data relating to allegations of law enforcement personnel misconduct collected or created by a state agency, statewide system, or political subdivision."

However, the Cloquet City Council and mayor may have violated the state's open meeting law if they discussed whom to appoint as interim police chief during the closed portion of the emergency meeting.

The council and mayor voted on two resolutions when the meeting reopened: the first to put Stracek on paid administrative leave, and the second to appoint Cloquet Police St. Jeff Palmer as interim police chief. There was no public discussion about either motion, although there was extensive debate visible through the glass doors of the Council Chamber during the 50 minutes the meeting was closed.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney who acts as an adviser in areas of the law affecting newspapers and newspaper coverage, opined there "was no legitimate basis under the open meeting law for keeping the meeting closed [if] they discussed who to appoint as chief" given that the express purpose of the meeting was to discuss the allegations against Stracek.

In addition, state law regarding emergency meetings states "If matters not directly related to the emergency are discussed or acted upon at an emergency meeting, the minutes of the meeting shall include a specific description of the matters." There are minimal details in the minutes posted on the City of Cloquet website.

After reading a copy of the Teamsters' statement, Anfinson said that closing the meeting under the "internal affairs data" clause was also inappropriate, because that normally applies to complaints against officers in the performance of their duties, not an administrator's management of a department.

Anfinson added that the subject of a meeting closed to discuss personnel complaints is supposed to be notified prior to the meeting, because he or she has the option under the open meeting law of asking that the meeting be kept open to the public.

Barclay, who was appointed interim city administrator because Fritsinger's last day was March 17, did not immediately respond to the Pine Journal's question about whether or not Stracek was notified of the meeting in advance. Stracek was not present at the emergency meeting, although other city staff were, including Fritsinger, Barclay and City Attorney Bill Helwig.

Violations of open meeting law are not overseen by any governmental agency or official, Anfinson said.

"Where a violation occurs, a lawsuit must be filed to bring the matter before the courts," Anfinson said, clarifying that open meeting law violations are committed by individual officials, and not the body itself. "If the court finds that violations occurred, there are a variety of penalties that can be imposed, including civil fines, an award of the plaintiff's attorney's fees, and in extreme cases, removal from office."

The emergency meeting and the two votes conducted there have been the subject of much discussion on social media sites and around town in the almost two weeks since the meeting was held.

Dave Johnson, an engaged Cloquet native who served one term on the city council in the 1970s, said he hoped the meeting wasn't "kangaroo court," defined by Merriam-Webster as "a mock court in which the principles of law and justice are disregarded or perverted."

"I question the procedure, because of the fact that all the councilors weren't present," Johnson said, referring to the fact that Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge and At-large Councilor Adam Bailey did not attend the meeting. "They should have had a full house, and the accuser and the accused should have been there."

When told of concerns from citizens that he should have recused himself from the meeting, Hallback pointed out that he is no longer a police officer or part of the union, and stressed that he cannot discuss any specific concerns or details of the complaint while the investigation is ongoing.

Stracek was hired in August 2014, after Wade Lamirande retired as chief of police and the assistant chief, Terry Hill, also retired. Stracek's appointment was the result of a national search which included finalists from as far away as Florida and Arizona and culminated in Cloquet's own backyard. Stracek, who lived in Esko, had spent his entire 21-year-career working with the Duluth Police Department.

When contacted by the Pine Journal Tuesday, Stracek said he didn't want to comment on the complaint or the city council's action, noting he wants to make sure the investigation is "fair and clean."

"I have to trust in the process," he said. "It's something we have to go through to get to the end."

Stracek did comment on the communications he's received from community members, however.

"It's been humbling to hear from the people who reached out to offer their support," he said. "I'm really grateful for that."

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