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Council meeting draws union support

Members from both construction trade and police unions, as well as citizens, again pack the Cloquet City Council chambers for Tuesday’s council meeting. Meetings have been standing-room-only for more than a month. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal

Cloquet City Hall was union strong Tuesday, as close to 50 members of various construction trade unions packed the council meeting for an early vote, only to be replaced by a strong showing of police union members and supporters later in the meeting along with other citizens.

Two people addressed the council during the public comment portion of the meeting about the ongoing investigation of Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek, who was placed on paid administrative leave March 16 during an emergency meeting of the Cloquet City Council, called by Mayor Dave Hallback after city officials received a police union complaint about the chief.

Although the contents of the complaint have not been made public, Teamsters Local 346 released the following statement to the Pine Journal March 28, basically summarizing the complaint by the police union members:

"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."

Former City Councilor and city engineering technician Barb Wyman spoke first, saying she feels the public needs to know that an outside mediator is investigating the complaint against Stracek, and that the council will make its decision once the investigation is complete. In the meantime, no one involved in the investigation can comment about what's going on now, she noted, before reading off the Wikipedia definition of "vote of no confidence."

"What do you do?" she asked. "Some of us can strike but the police don't have that option. Everything they attempted to do did not work, this [vote] was the last resort."

Wyman said officers need a leader who will back them up.

"Their lives depend upon it," she said.

Wyman finished by telling the police officers there that they had her support, and so did the council, comments that were greeted with a big round of applause from the audience.

Michael Utecht of Brookston was the only other resident to address the council, noting that he could no longer "sit idly by" as the situation gets "unjust negative feedback fueled by the irresponsible, poorly written newspaper article by Jana Peterson."

He compared the description of Stracek's career in the newspaper with the account of Interim Chief Jeff Palmer's firing and subsequent rehiring, asserting that his dismissal was "unjust." He then listed Palmer's job history as Floodwood police chief and a detective in New Orleans, and asked why the paper didn't include his qualifications in its articles. He also lambasted a teacher who said last week that she'd heard the police department was corrupt.

Utecht said his work brings him into contact with the Cloquet Police Department, so he can speak first-hand.

"I stand here because I have a great deal of respect for the men and women who work for the Cloquet PD," he said as part of a series of comments supporting the police department. Utecht's comments were also greeted with applause.

In other matters Tuesday, the council agenda was nearly as packed as the council chambers, as councilors also approved a slew of resolutions regarding Country Club Patio Homes, a planned unit development of 12 single-family townhomes on the northeast corner of Reservation Road and Carlton Avenue West. The homes will be one level, 1,500 square feet each with a patio facing the Cloquet Country Club and a two-car garage.

In addition to approving the site plan and preliminary and final plats for the development, councilors also created a Tax Increment Finance district for the area and approved a TIF note in the amount of $488,444 requested by developer David Chmielewski.

Cloquet Development Director Holly Hansen explained that TIF is a gap-financing tool used by the city that funnels the increased property taxes that a new real estate development generates to basically pay back the developer for some of the up-front costs of the development. In Chmielewski's case, the TIF funds will allow him to charge under $200,000 for each townhome, even though the value would be closer to $235,000.

"The goal is to provide quality move-up or move-down homes," said Hansen, when explaining how the project fits into the city's goals of increasing affordable housing options for residents.

Grant Prentice was the only person to speak during the public hearing on the TIF district. He lives across the street from the proposed development, and expressed concern that it will cause his taxes to increase.

It shouldn't unless the development simply enhances the value of neighboring homes, said financial consultant Todd Hagen.

Had the vote come two weeks later, Chmielewski may have been bound by another vote taken by the City Council Tuesday, which will require Project Labor Agreements on any city construction projects with a total project cost of $175,000 or more. As passed by the council, the requirement would also apply to any project (including private projects) that receive any city financial assistance, such as Chmielewski's $2.9 million Country Club Patio Homes.

A Project Labor Agreement (PLA) is a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement with one or more labor organizations that establishes the terms and conditions of employment for a specific construction project. Before any workers are hired on the project, construction unions have bargaining rights to determine the wage rates and benefits of all employees working on the particular project. The terms of the agreement apply to all contractors and subcontractors who successfully bid on the project, although they do not have to be union companies themselves.

Craig Olson, president of Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, said a PLA won't increase the costs of a project already required to pay prevailing wages. It can prevent any strikes, lockouts or work stoppages for the length of the project.

By passing the PLA, Cloquet joins Carlton County and the city of Duluth, who already have existing PLA resolutions, although Cloquet took it a step further by requiring that private projects above $175,000 receiving city funds also abide by the PLA.

"If there's something that doesn't work, we're willing to come back and discuss it," Olson said.

City Attorney Bill Helwig opined that the Country Club Patio Homes project won't be affected, however, because it was passed before the Project Labor Agreement resolution will be published in the newspaper, which is when it becomes law, he said.

During the council comments portion of the meeting, Helwig clarified various points about closed meetings at the request of Ward 1 Councilor Jeff Rock, noting that once the investigation of Chief Steve Stracek is over, the results will be made public. Until then, the information is confidential and shouldn't be discussed by councilors, police or city staff with anybody.

He also explained his role during such a meeting.

"I'm there to provide legal direction and guidance," Helwig said. "If I believe an issue could create a liability, of course I will discuss that. I provide legal advice — the council decides. I don't tell the council what to do."