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Councilors, officers worked together for police chief's departure

The release of the investigation report into a police union complaint against former Police Chief Steve Stracek reveals a department resistant to change, and elected officials who may have worked with officers to create a reason to fire the chief. Pine Journal File Photo1 / 2
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While a vote of no-confidence by his employees was sold to the public as a "last resort," allegations of unfit leadership were never addressed with former Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek prior to his being put on paid administrative leave by city officials at an emergency meeting in March.

That fundamental lack of communication was just one of the revelations to come from an investigative report which exonerated Stracek and, in turn, pointed the finger at police department personnel and city councilors who, the report alleges, may have colluded to get rid of the now former police chief.

The public exoneration of Stracek at a city council meeting in June and his subsequent retirement appeared to end the chance Cloquet residents had to find out the details behind his abrupt suspension March 16.

But the release of the investigative report by Stracek to the Pine Journal this week reveals a stunning behind-the-scenes drama which some councilors say led to the unnecessary loss of a good police chief, who was found in the report to simply be making efforts at reform as directed by the city council that hired him.

The report paints an unflattering picture of a police department resistant to change.

Stracek said he and his wife, Lisa, considered many different factors before releasing the report and weighed feedback from many community members. In the end, they said, it came down to wanting people to know what happened.

"All of those we spoke with thought it was important for the facts identified by the investigator to become known to the community in order for them to understand the facts and form their own opinions," Stracek said. "The cost to taxpayers for this event was significant. Ultimately, we decided that the community had a right to see where and why those funds were spent and what led up to the investigation in the first place."

The report was written and compiled by investigator Michelle Soldo, who was hired by Interim City Administrator James Barclay two weeks after Cloquet Mayor Dave Hallback called and closed an emergency meeting March 16 to discuss possible "law enforcement personnel misconduct." When that meeting was reopened, the council voted 4-1 to place Stracek on paid administrative leave pending further investigation.

Soldo's investigative report, which was first discussed in a closed council meeting May 16, was confirmed by the Cloquet City Council's 7-0 vote on June 7 that found the complaint against Stracek to be "unfounded."

In her general/overall report findings, Soldo wrote that the allegation that "a failure in leadership by Stracek fostered 'a law enforcement environment dominated by fear' and low morale, creating officer and public safety issues is NOT substantiated," (the emphasis is Soldo's).

The report findings were as follows:

• "Finding 1: Chief Stracek did not engage in any conduct that is illegal, immoral, unethical or unsafe, that violated the negotiated terms and conditions of the Teamsters labor agreement, or that otherwise constitutes misconduct as defined by the PD's Code of Conduct for Peace Officers. Chief Stracek's actions were within the scope of his authority and discretion as the City's Chief Law Enforcement Officer and consistent with Council direction that he implement the recommendations set forth in a January 2014 consultant's report evaluating PD operations. Allegations Chief Stracek's actions created Officer and public safety issues are based on unsupported speculation and conjecture and not fact."

• "Finding 2: PD employee morale is low. Widespread diminished employee morale is attributable, in part, to the need for better communication at all levels. Diminished morale is also attributable to a long-standing (dating back to the prior Chief) and continuing pattern of Sergeant and Officer resistance to change, including organizational and operational changes Chief Stracek implemented, which were consistent with the direction of the City Council. The behind-the-scenes complaining and undermining behavior of some PD employees adversely impacts the work environment of others."

As part of her investigation, Soldo interviewed 23 Cloquet police department employees as well as Stracek. She also requested investigative data from the city. The police chief submitted a 40-page written response to the complaint allegations, which is included with Soldo's 38-page written report and more than 100 pages of additional exhibits.

The exhibits encompass a wide range of written documents, including a list of problems and concerns expressed at the March 15 police union meeting, detailed progress reports made by Stracek to the council and myriad other items.

For Ward 3 Councilor Roger Maki, the report was confirmation of a misstep by the council.

"The only thing we accomplished was losing a good police chief," said Maki, who was the only councilor at the emergency meeting who voted against the suspension and investigation of the chief. (Councilors Kerry Kolodge, Ward 4, and Adam Bailey, at-large, were out of town and didn't vote; Hallback and Councilors Steve Langley, Ward 5, David Bjerkness, Ward 2, and Jeff Rock, Ward 1, all voted for the suspension.)

"I felt there was not enough evidence presented at the emergency meeting to warrant that," Maki added. "All we had was the Teamsters' letter."

Bjerkness explained the reasoning behind his vote for the suspension in response to the Pine Journal.

"Hearing of the vote of no confidence in the emergency meeting was the first time that I was made aware of a major issue between law enforcement management and staff," he said. "Though it lacked detail, it escalated my concern to a level where I thought a brief "time out" was necessary to better understand the concerns. I honestly believed the "vote of no confidence" was a call for intervention, not a call for termination.

"The most important part of the action, for me, was the ordering of an investigation. My motivation for favoring an investigation was to get to the facts, not lay blame. The original complaint included very little information. But it was clear that there were serious issues within the department. I felt it was critical to understand the concerns based on information from an impartial third party. Not to make a decision based on perception, rumor or impassioned community response — but rather the facts. I knew that it would not be beneficial to this community to point fingers at either management or employees. We needed to understand the problems and as leaders resolve them."

Councilors Kolodge and Bjerkness concurred with Maki that the city lost a valuable community leader.

"If you are a supporter of (Stracek's), and a supporter of quality policing, the loss was huge," Kolodge said. "We accomplished nothing by this process, and at significant expense to the taxpayers of Cloquet."

City staff are working to fulfill a Pine Journal request for the total costs of the suspension, investigation and severance agreement with Stracek. A rough tally by the Pine Journal puts the dollar amount at more than $100,000, including wages paid to the police chief while he was on paid administrative leave.

Kolodge said the release of the investigative report is important.

"With the report becoming public, it doesn't matter what I think as much as what the public thinks," Kolodge said. "I will stand by the contents of the report and let the public make up their own minds about what took place."

Rock, the Ward 1 councilor, declined to answer specific questions from Pine Journal, instead making a statement Monday about the investigation of Stracek and the marathon council meeting June 6-7 that saw the city and the police chief reach a formal separation agreement.

"What I can tell you is that I am glad this is over and that we all worked very hard on this issue to do what was best for the city," Rock said. "Remember, the council was unanimous with its decision."

The council publicly declared the police chief exonerated of all allegations and immediately reinstated him to his post after the seven-hour June council meeting — though Stracek also agreed to retire the next day, and received six months of pay as part of the separation agreement.

Council behavior questioned

The investigative report also concludes that some councilors and certain members of the Cloquet Police Department may have worked together to create a scenario which could lead to Stracek's dismissal.

On Page 15 of the investigative report, Soldo writes that the difference between efforts to unseat the previous police chief, Wade Lamirande, and Stracek is that the previous city council backed Lamirande in his "good faith efforts to change the organizational practices and culture."

She goes on to write: "In contrast, this investigation revealed that the objective (confirmed by multiple witnesses) of the current complaint and demand for investigation was to create an event and opportunity by which an organized faction of police department employees and City Council members could vote to terminate Chief Stracek's at-will employment."

After receiving a copy of the investigative report, Pine Journal emailed a list of questions and left voice messages for all seven city councilors (including Hallback, the mayor, who is a voting member of the council). Of the seven, Rock, Kolodge, Maki and Bjerkness responded before the Pine Journal went to press. After initially indicating a willingness to talk, Hallback did not respond to repeated phone calls or the email. He did, however, give the Pine Journal a statement at the end of the most recent council meeting July 5.

In response to the Pine Journal, Kolodge, Maki and Bjerkness all said they were not involved in any effort to get rid of the police chief and said they didn't know which city councilors were involved. The statements from Hallback and Rock did not address the question.

"I am concerned that the investigation suggests that this may have occurred," Bjerkness said. "I was not made aware of an orchestrated effort that involved police department employees and city councilors."

In her report, Soldo did not name the councilors who allegedly were involved, although she does name the mayor — Hallback is a retired Cloquet police officer — as someone who had advance knowledge of the union vote.

On page 24, Soldo writes the following: "The investigation revealed that one month or more prior to the March 15, 2017 union meeting, [a Commander] and one or more City Council members had knowledge of the behind-the-scenes organization of a union meeting and potential vote of no confidence and did not inform Chief Stracek of such knowledge."

Soldo went on: "The unfortunate irony is that, during this investigation, some Sergeants reported that the Chief could have prevented a vote of no confidence if he had simply met with the Sergeants and offered them an opportunity to discuss their concerns with him. Yet, not a single Sergeant (by their own admission) approached Chief Stracek when all acknowledged that any time they sought him out in his office to discuss an issue, he was cordial, invited them in and listened to them."

Soldo noted in her report that "at no time" prior to the union vote of no confidence did "the mayor or other council members with knowledge of officers' concerns" meet with Stracek to discuss and attempt to resolve employee concerns. Soldo said the facts refuted the public statement made by the Teamsters on March 28 that its vote of no confidence was "a last resort" to express concerns.

In a footnote on the last page of her report, Soldo also states: "The action and inaction of involved Council members appears to violate the Cloquet City Council Values Statement," which she then cites in full.

In his statement to the Pine Journal, Hallback said he was "very pleased with the efforts of the council, (interim city administrator) James Barclay, (attorney) Brandon Fitzsimmons and Steve Stracek that stayed here until 2:30 a.m. (June 6-7) and reached a resolution that everyone was happy with," Hallback said. "A lot of hard work went into getting that resolved. It wasn't easy to do."

Bjerkness was more philosophical.

"I believe that everyone involved in this issue, from leadership to patrol, strives for excellence, not mediocrity," he said. "Everyone takes their role seriously, takes great pride in what they do and the contributions they make. We all strive for public safety excellence.

"Yet, we failed each other. The city council, city administration, police department leadership as well as the Teamster membership. The resignation of Chief Stracek is not a solution, it is a reaction."

The city of Cloquet has not yet taken any steps to begin a search for a new police chief. Sgt. Jeff Palmer continues to serve as interim chief.

When informed that a citizen group was organizing to hold elected officials accountable for their decisions and to and monitor the police department, Maki said he was not surprised.

"The people of Cloquet deserve to know what's going on with city government," he said. "It is their city."

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Cloquet Citizens United

A local citizens group created a Facebook page within the last week named Cloquet Citizens United, apparently in response to the controversy surrounding the departure of former Police Chief Steve Stracek.

The Cloquet Citizens United mission statement follows: "To hold our city and those elected officials representing our citizens to the highest standards of ethical servant leadership. To ask questions of those elected officials, city staff, and other city leaders and demand honest and transparent responses. This committee will provide vision and direction to hold our elected officials to high standards and mandate that all official actions are grounded in truth and justice. This committee will also strive to monitor the current practices and actions of our city police department and if needed, make recommendations that instill integrity and trust within the department."

Attempts by the Pine Journal to reach the citizen group before deadline this week were unsuccessful.

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