Cloquet Council gives interim police chief the job, bypasses normal hiring process

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In a surprise move, Mayor Dave Hallback and the Cloquet City Council voted 4-3 Tuesday to remove the “interim” part of the title and appoint former police Sgt. Jeff Palmer as the new Cloquet police chief without going through the usual hiring process.

The vote came after a contentious work session discussion regarding how the council, which includes the mayor as a voting member, wanted to proceed with the police chief hiring process. That debate ended without agreement as the time for the 7 p.m. council meeting drew near.

Shortly after the start of the formal meeting, Mayor Hallback motioned to add the police chief appointment of Jeff Palmer to the Council agenda. Hallback and councilors Steve Langley, Jeff Rock (Ward 1) and Adam Bailey (At-Large) voted in favor of appointing Palmer. Councilors Roger Maki (Ward 3), David Bjerkness (Ward 2) and Kerry Kolodge (Ward 4) voted against the appointment.

Tuesday’s vote reflected the same split evident in the council over the past six months since Hallback called and closed an emergency meeting March 16 that ended with the paid administrative leave of the previous police chief, Steve Stracek, following a vote of no confidence by members of the police union. An outside investigation cleared Stracek of any wrongdoing and found he was simply doing his job. After a marathon negotiating session in June, however, the former police chief agreed to retire a day after being reinstated, provided the Council publicly admit he had done no wrong.

After the closed meeting March 16, Palmer was appointed interim police chief by a 3-2 vote. Hallback, Langley and Rock voted for the appointment. Maki and Bjerkness voted against and Bailey and Kolodge were out of town.

He has remained in the role since then.

When the public was allowed to speak at the end of Tuesday's meeting, after the vote to make Palmer the permanent chief, former Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande — who retired in 2014 and was replaced by Stracek after a nationwide search — told the council he was very disappointed.

Lamirande outlined the disimilarities between his appointment and Palmer’s. Lamirande tested and scored the highest of the 20 applicants. He was interviewed by the city council for several hours. He had a bachelor’s degree in criminology and sociology, and attended the FBI Academy and other elite law enforcement training programs. Palmer, according to the resume obtained by the Pine Journal from the city, has a high school diploma from White Bear Lake, attended the New Orleans Police Academy for six months and an FBI White Collar Crime Seminar along with numerous other police training programs with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and D.A.R.E. He was never interviewed by the council and completed no formal tests, nor did he submit an updated resume.

Lamirande said, like Rock, that he prefers hiring from within because it sends the right message to others in the department.

“But it needs to be based on qualifications,” Lamirande said, noting that he simply wants the police department to succeed. “Not just because it’s from within.

“I understand you have a 4-3 vote and you could ram it through. But I also think you will make it more difficult for him. People will question this, why and how it was done, rather than an open process.”

The city’s website includes a detailed list of qualifications for the job of police chief, which were not part of the council packet or discussion Tuesday. The Citizen Advisory Board — a three-person group appointed by the council to assist with hiring, discipline and firing in the police department — was not part of the actions regarding Stracek’s original suspension in March or Palmer’s promotion Tuesday.

In previous meetings, Hallback had said the city would do nothing about hiring a new police chief until the new city administrator arrived.

City Administrator Aaron Reeves started Oct. 2. Reeves’ staff request in the council packet outlined three options for the Council to discuss regarding the hiring process for a new police chief including: 1) an open search, as was done the last time Cloquet hired a police chief; 2) an internal-only hiring process that could include multiple candidates, or 3) remove the interim tag and appoint Palmer as chief. Reeves did not make a recommendation in his staff request, although he did stress in the packet and during the work session that he would have “ample time” to work with Palmer during his one-year probationary period to help him make a successful transition to chief.

Also included in the packet were 13 different letters of recommendation for Palmer, many written by people in positions of power, including retired Sixth District Judge Dale Wolf, Cloquet school principals Connie Hyde, Warren Peterson and Tom Brenner, Carlton County Commissioner Tom Proulx, Fond du Lac District 1 Representative Vanessa Northrup, Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler, as well as by officers from the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, Minnesota State Patrol, Fond du Lac Police Department, a retired Army officer and the Super One Foods loss prevention director.

Kolodge said he thought including the letters was inappropriate, since no other Cloquet police officers were given the opportunity to present letters of recommendation.

During the work session, Maki was the first to speak. The Ward 3 Councilor suggested that the city administrator and human resources director do an open search of external and internal candidates, even if it would take 4-6 months.

“I’d rather do it right than just insert somebody because it’s easy to do,” he said.

Rock asked if there was anyone unhappy with Palmer’s performance, stating that he was “dumbfounded” by how well Palmer has done since he was appointed and happy with the police department’s drug arrests.

Kolodge answered Rock with a motion that the discussion be tabled until Reeves could reach out and do exit interviews with the three people — two administrative secretaries and a female police officer — who have resigned from the department over the past six weeks.

“Before we do anything, we need to see if there’s a problem,” Kolodge said, noting that he wasn’t attributing their departures to Palmer, but thought it highly unusual and worthy of further investigation. “None of them have switched careers as far as I know. We won’t know until we ask.”

Hallback said that he had talked with the two administrative secretaries and named both of them, noting that they told him they were both unhappy coming to work, because there was obviously a divide when Steve Stracek left.

“They felt because they supported Steve Stracek, they were unfairly treated,” Hallback said. “They weren’t getting hellos in the morning, whatever else. They both told me they were getting better benefits by going to work for St. Louis County.”

Reeves cautioned that no one should answer Rock’s question about Palmer’s performance, because such discussions amount to a performance review and are not appropriate in a public venue.

It was very public. There was standing-room only in the council chambers, with close to 50 audience members representing both the police department and citizens attending both the work session and the formal meeting.

Hallback pushed aggressively for Palmer’s appointment more than once, noting that he had taken the time to visit the police station and talk to officers there.

“Morale has never been higher,” he said. “The community is getting better service. I think it’s fair for him to know tonight that we either support him or move on from him.”

No one spoke against Palmer, but rather in favor of going through the city’s established hiring practice and opening it up to other candidates.

“Why wouldn’t you support Jeff Palmer being part of an open process? He could rise to the top,” Bjerkness asked, noting that he wanted more information and to know how Palmer has handled the police department finances and overtime since his appointment.

Toward the end of the work session discussion, Maki pointed out that the council was going to vote on the hire of a new police officer and compared that to the proposed promotion of Palmer.

“Much is made in this memo from Jeff Palmer about all the stuff that went into (the police officer hiring process), all the people who were involved — interim city administrator, interim police chief, administrative commander, citizens advisory board, all that stuff — he says that’s a good way to go,” Maki said. “But when it comes to him, he wants no competition. Just give me the job.”

Hallback responded.

“To me he’s interviewed for the last seven (sic) months for this job,” Hallback said. “If I didn’t think he was cutting it, I wouldn’t recommend him for the position.”

Reeves said the discussion was a council-level discussion and not prompted by Palmer.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, former city councilor Barb Wyman spoke first, and congratulated the council on their appointment of Palmer, praising him. She also took some verbal jabs at unnamed audience members for “slamming” the interim chief without full knowledge of what they were talking about, as well as councilors Maki and Kolodge for comments they’d made earlier in the meeting.

Resident Jan Anderson expressed her disappointment at the “lack of process” by the mayor and councilors with putting Stracek on leave and now hiring a new chief without public comment.

“I feel the behavior I saw tonight was appalling and I felt it is was bullying,” she said. “I am not making comments about Jeff’s ability or inability to do the job, but I think it was clear after what happened [with Stracek] that the community did want an open process.”

Resident Kris Papas agreed.

“To not have a vetting process for a job of this importance is a terrible disservice to the citizens,” Papas said.