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Debate follows prayer vigil

Jenny Rackliff speaks to the city council and the large crowd that filled the chamber Tuesday. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com1 / 4
A large crowd of 70-plus people pack Cloquet City Hall and into the hallway for Tuesday's regular city council meeting. The crowd and speakers were well-behaved. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com2 / 4
A crowd of 50-plus people gather to pray for city leaders and suspended Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek at a vigil before the Cloquet City Council meeting Tuesday evening. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com3 / 4
Bill Clifton of Cloquet angrily addresses city council members and the crowd that filled the chamber Tuesday night during the regular Cloquet City Council meeting. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com4 / 4

Two distinct and large groups of people gathered at Cloquet City Hall Tuesday evening.

Inside, nearly 40 members of various trade unions filled the Council Chambers as Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, explained to city officials public-sector project labor agreements and why Cloquet should consider allowing such agreements.

Outside, even more people stood on the west side of the building, alternately singing Christian songs and praying for truth and justice for 45 minutes in the face of a cold wind. Part religious ceremony, part civil rights gathering, most of those who spoke during the prayer meeting didn't directly address the actions that sparked the event — the decision by elected officials to place Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek on paid administrative leave in an emergency meeting last month.

Singer Kelly Harms talked about being "called to an uncomfortable place in support of a very ethical person" while others prayed for city unity and for God to help elected officials. The bulk of the time was spent in song rather than comment, and Stracek was one of those gathered there. He didn't address the crowd but rather sang and prayed with family members and others.

Organizer Jenny Rackliffe said the gathering wasn't a protest.

"It was a time to bring the community together through prayer and worship at a time when it's very divided," she said. "We are praying for our leaders to lead with honor and integrity."

As the prayer meeting and a city council work session ended, the two groups traded places, with many of the union members departing City Hall as others moved from their cold prayers into the Council Chambers.

By the time the meeting started, more than 70 people were crowded into the room and the hallway outside, twice the number that attended the previous council meeting with the same issue in mind.

The crowd waited quietly through 19 minutes of council business and then it was their turn to speak. The audience was respectful and the speakers earnest as they addressed elected officials.

"None of us are here to cast stones. We're looking for honesty, integrity, the right thing to be done, for the truth to be known and the truth to come out," said Cloquet's Brian Smith, paraphrasing the Bible verse which suggests that "he who is without sin cast the first stone" before looking around at the Cloquet city councilors and Mayor Dave Hallback. "I did cast a vote for one or two of you fellas up here, that's why I'm here: I want you to know that I'm looking at you. I'm expecting you to do the right thing, just as you expect us to do the right thing as citizens."

Nine people addressed the council on the issue of the police chief's suspension over the next half-hour, six in support of the police chief, two against, and one — Diane Lambert — who didn't take sides but reminded the six councilors and the mayor that if they want citizens to follow the city code, they should do the same.

More than one person testified that Stracek's character was what they wanted in a leader: honest, strong, calm, a man of integrity who is not afraid to lead.

Others questioned his leadership.

Fourth Ward resident Randy Roberts, an Army officer for 25 years, pointed out that the situation was not about whether Stracek is affable or godly.

"This is a situation where we have a good, affable man, that doesn't understand the relationship between mission and men," Roberts said. "Leaders lead men; men complete the mission. If you do not listen to those men, your mission degrades. ... It's not his character. It's his leadership that is lacking. I hope you understand the difference here."

Although the contents of the complaint against Stracek are not public record while the investigation is ongoing, the police officers' union Teamsters Local 346 released a statement to the Pine Journal March 28 noting that members of the Cloquet Police Department had conducted a vote of no confidence in Chief Stracek, citing "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."

A longtime Duluth police officer and drug task force commander, Stracek was hired after a nationwide search in August 2014, after Police Chief Wade Lamirande retired and the assistant police chief, Terry Hill, retired several months later.

Although there were several police officers at the meeting Tuesday, no one from the police department addressed the issue publicly. Nor did city officials. Because the investigation of the complaint against the chief is ongoing, they are not supposed to comment.

However, retired law enforcement officer Bill Clifton spoke at length about Sgt. Jeff Palmer, who was selected to serve as interim police chief by city officials during the March 16 emergency meeting and whom Clifton knew in Floodwood. Clifton hasn't worked for Stracek.

"In the few weeks that [Palmer] has been interim chief, the tense attitude of officers has diminished considerably," Clifton said. "There's nothing worse for officers than to have constant concerns whether they are going to be called down for something on an ongoing basis by the administration. To live with this and take it home after a shift is an unnecessary burden, and that's what happened. It affects their family and they don't want to come to work the next day."

Clifton had a litany of complaints: Stracek micromanaged; the department structure is flawed and shouldn't have commanders; officers aren't using the bicycles purchased for the department; and even how Stracek was hired in the first place, claiming he was promised the job. Clifton also criticized "biased" coverage of the issue by the Pine Journal.

Others talked about the need for change at the police department, highlighted in a 2014 study commissioned by the city.

Jenny Haberle said it was no surprise that people were "whining" about Stracek.

"Those of us that work for companies, the biggest thing we do is whine if someone starts to clean up," Haberle said before continuing. "This is a mess. As citizens, we want a change. ... We pay taxes, we want a good city, and that's why we're all here."

Cloquet resident Andrew Genereau, a friend of Stracek's, said he wouldn't venture to talk about Stracek's leadership qualities because he hasn't worked for him and stressed that neither should Clifton or Roberts.

Genereau's said his problem is with "the process," and the fact that city officials bypassed two commanders to appoint a sergeant to lead the force. He surmised that the city or city officials could be sued for the way they handled the issue.

"I love this community, I've been here for 18 years," Genereau said, "but this is very stinky right now and that's what bothers me the most about this."

He suggested that city officials work with Stracek, if there is an issue, the same way they would work with a police officer.

"Somewhere in the middle, there is a workable solution to this problem," he said.

Mayor Dave Hallback, a retired Cloquet policeman, closed the meeting by thanking the people for attending and asking for a moment of silence for Howard Vargason and Stacia Heaton, both members of the Cloquet law enforcement family that recently died.

"They will be sadly missed," he said, encouraging people to keep Vargason's and Heaton's families and loved ones in their prayers.

SIDEBAR TO RUN WITH JUMP: Council actions Tuesday

In other matters Tuesday, Cloquet City Councilors unanimously voted to:

• Appoint Loren Lilly to serve on the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District Board for a term to expire in July of this year.

• Approve the site plan for White Pine Apartments, with conditions. The apartments will be constructed next to the existing Aspen Arms apartment building on 14th Street in Cloquet. The building will include 35 rental units, including six one-bedroom units, 26 with two bedrooms and three units with three bedrooms. Seven of the units will have supportive contracts for people with an illness or mental health issues. Councilor David Bjerkness asked for an additional condition, requiring a privacy fence between a play area and an adjacent property.

• Approved amendments to the city code, defining and allowing for breweries, taprooms, brew pubs and micro-distilleries. "There's not anyone knocking on the door, but we want to be ahead of the game," said Al Cottingham, city planning and zoning administrator.

• Approved a "charge off" of a loan to Cloquet Home Center for $31,273 because the business closed and the debt is uncollectible. The city loaned the business $50,000 in October 2008 when it moved to the Cloquet Business Park.

• Approved a city-wide mowing contract for the Highway 33 corridor and some rural ditches.

• Approved the purchase of plastic hockey boards (like the ones at Pinehurst Park) for Sunnyside Park.

• Approved a stormwater facility easement and maintenance agreement with Taco Bell.

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