Police chief appointment legal, but against policy

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While several residents raised concerns with the Cloquet City Council's vote to give the police chief job to interim chief Jeff Palmer without any kind of vetting process on Oct. 17, it appears the council did not break state law by doing so.

Attorney Mark Anfinson, a Minnesota Newspaper Association adviser who specializes in issues such as open meeting law and data privacy, said regular meeting agendas "can be amended at any time," even on the fly. The rules are different for special meetings.

So when Mayor Dave Hallback motioned to add the police chief appointment to the agenda at the start of the Oct. 17 meeting following a contentious work session discussion on the same subject, it was likely legal.

It did, however, deviate from policy and past practices for Cloquet city officials in several ways:

1. The city's personnel policy, which applies to personnel not in a union including the police chief, states that all vacancies for permanent, full-time duties will be posted on the city bulletin boards and advertised in at least one Cloquet newspaper. The police chief position wasn't.

Former Cloquet fire chief Jim Langenbrunner also pointed out in an email to the Council and city officials (the Pine Journal was copied on the email) that the council's appointment bypassed personnel policies and therefore also bypassed processes put in place to prevent the denial of qualified veterans and others identified by equal employment opportunity laws.

2. The Citizen Advisory Board — a three-person group appointed by the council to assist with hiring, discipline and firing in the police department — was also not part of the decision to appoint Palmer interim chief in March or award him the permanent position last week.

3. As pointed out by former police chief Wade Lamirande, who retired in 2014, the appointment of a police chief without a competitive process also went against past practices.

Addressing the Council during the public comment portion toward the end of the Oct. 17 meeting, 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.

Lamirande's successor and Palmer's predecessor, Steve Stracek, was hired after a nationwide search in a highly competitive and open process.

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 DARE He was never interviewed by the council and completed no formal tests, nor did he ever formally apply for the job.

However, new City Administrator Aaron Reeves did include 13 letters of recommendation for Palmer in the Council packet for the Oct. 17 meeting.

In response to the Pine Journal, Reeves said he included the letters because the interim chief provided them and they were "pertinent to the discussion."

Reeves did not include the city's official police chief job description or Palmer's resume in the council packet.

When asked about the requirement in the police chief job description for a bachelor's degree in police administration, criminal justice or related field (master's degree preferred), plus eight to 10 years progressive police experience, including four in a police supervisory capacity, Cloquet Human Resources Director James Barclay said experience could be substituted for a degree.

The initial appointment of Palmer as interim police chief was also unusual, as it followed an emergency closed meeting that resulted in the paid administrative leave of then-Police Chief Steve Stracek. The council bypassed the department's two administrative commanders, Derek Randall and Carey Ferrell, when it appointed Palmer, who was a sergeant.

Although Stracek was cleared of all allegations in June following a lengthy investigation by an outside investigator, Stracek agreed to retire early and Palmer remained in the interim position throughout.

Mayor Hallback, a retired Cloquet police officer, said last week he believed that Palmer should be given the chance to have the job permanently, noting that he's interviewed for the job by doing it for the past six months.

"I just want to move forward and make a decision for the benefit of the entire community," Hallback said. "I'm just for it. You're never going to please everyone."

Hallback and councilors Steve Langley (Ward 5), 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.