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Residents challenge police chief suspension, interim chief choice

Cloquet residents and other concerned citizens crowd the Cloquet City Council Chambers Tuesday, waiting their turn to speak about an emergency council meeting held March 16, and the decisions made then to place Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek on paid administrative leave and appoint Sgt. Jeff Palmer interim chief, bypassing the department's two commanders. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com1 / 4
Mayor Dave Hallback listens to a citizen comment during Tuesday's meeting. Jamie Lund/news@pinejournal.com2 / 4
Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge speaks to his fellow councilors and Mayor Dave Hallback Tuesday, questioning both the timing and the necessity for calling the emergency meeting March 16 when he and At Large Councilor Adam Bailey were on vacation. Jamie Lund/news@pinejournal.com3 / 4
Christopher Huard asks councilors if they considered the qualifications they want from their interim police chief when they made their selection March 16. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com4 / 4

Hed: City sells bonds for park, infrastructure improvements

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During Tuesday's regular Cloquet City Council meeting, Cloquet City Councilors and Mayor Hallback took the following actions:

• Approved a letter of understanding regarding contract terms and conditions interim Police Chief Jeff Palmer which establish Palmer as "on leave" from his sergeant's position and not a bargaining unit member while he is acting chief.

• Approved the purchase of a new Dodge Ram pickup truck for the Public Works Department from Cloquet Ford Chrysler, which bid $4 more (at $26,484) than the low bidder from Fergus Falls but also included a lifetime limited powertrain warranty.

• Approved a bid for a single-track mountain bike trail at Pine Valley for construction in 2017 or 2018 for $124,337 from Trail Source LLC, which has constructed a number of mountain bike trails for the city of Duluth. A preliminary bike trail design has been completed. The public works department will be responsible for maintaining the trail, city officials said.

• Approved the sale of $8.4 million in general obligation bonds at an interest rate of 2.61 percent over 20 years, to be paid off with sales tax dollars. Todd Hagen from Ehlers & Associates, which held the bond sale Tuesday morning, said the city got eight bidders, it's highest number ever. As a result of the increased competition, the city will actually get an extra $167,830 to spend on park and infrastructure improvements on top of the $8.4 million. "It's a win-win for the city," the municipal advisor and Ehlers vice president said.

• In other news, Hagen said Cloquet was downgraded from a AA-plus rating to a AA "with stable outlook" rating by S&P on March 31, a one-point downgrade from previously rated bonds but an upgrade of four points since 2003. Hagan blamed the downgrade on the perception of the Duluth area economy as "weakening" and other factors beyond the control of the city of Cloquet.

• The council also held a work session with Cloquet Economic Development Authority members to mostly discuss the city's vision for revitalizing the downtown, including Cloquet Avenue and the city's West End commercial district.

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More than 30 people packed the Cloquet City Council Chambers Tuesday, and it wasn't to talk about the agenda items.

Rather, the majority were there to question actions taken by Cloquet City Councilors and Mayor Dave Hallback during an emergency meeting March 16 when they met in closed session and then voted — not unanimously — to place Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek on paid administrative leave and appoint Sgt. Jeff Palmer as interim chief.

After the business part of the council meeting concluded in about 30 minutes, several citizens and one city councilor spoke publicly about the decisions made behind the closed doors of the March meeting. Audience members included community leaders and engaged citizens, firefighters and at least two police officers not in uniform.

Former Cloquet Fire Chief James Langenbrunner was the first to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting. He asked if the council and mayor sought and followed the advice of the city administrator and city attorney in holding the emergency meeting, if such a meeting was actually warranted and if the mayor and councilors are following their own council handbook.

"The calling of an emergency meeting, the discussion of an interim chief, the questionable paid leave, these are just the tip of the iceberg of possible violations in this matter," he said, suggesting that an investigation, or "root cause analysis," of all parties might be called for.

"I want a council I trust," Langenbrunner said. "In my mind, you have failed in this matter so far."

A number of audience members applauded as the former fire chief finished his comments to the council.

Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge addressed the council and mayor, pointing out that he was unable to attend the March 16 emergency meeting. Kolodge, a veteran of both the Cloquet and Duluth police departments who is now retired, questioned the timing of the meeting and whether there was actually a public safety concern that would have justified calling the emergency meeting.

"I believe this meeting was called with full knowledge that two members of the city council were not going to be present," Kolodge said, referring to the fact that both he and At Large Councilor Adam Bailey were on vacation. "The timing of the meeting prevented me from voicing my opinion and casting two very important votes (regarding Stracek and Palmer). In doing so, I was also prevented from representing the people of the Fourth Ward and others in the city who are concerned about what has taken place."

Although the contents of the complaint against Stracek are not public record while the investigation is ongoing, Teamsters Local 346 released a 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."

No one addressed the council Tuesday in support of the complaint against Stracek.

However, retired Duluth Deputy Chief of Police James Wright called Stracek "one of the best, most ethical law enforcement officers I've ever worked with" and encouraged the council to return him to his post when the investigation is complete.

Cloquet resident John Sanders questioned the council and mayor's choice of Palmer over the two police department commanders who serve immediately under the police chief.

"What qualities does Officer Palmer have that would outweigh his poor judgment displayed in having sexual relations with a witness?" Sanders asked, referring to Palmer's documented firing, subsequent union grievance and rehiring by the city in 2009. "A former council fired him and yet this council found him the most qualified person to lead the city of Cloquet's police department."

Cloquet-area resident, veteran and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College law enforcement student Christopher Huard spoke next.

"We've addressed the underlying misconduct, potentially, of the city council. We've addressed that Steve Stracek is one of the most ethical individuals and probably the most qualified to be the police chief of Cloquet," he said. "My question is the qualifications of Mr. Palmer as a police chief. You have two commanders that are, in my opinion, well known and well liked and are commanders because they exude those leadership qualities."

Huard questioned what educational qualifications the council desires from its chief, pointing out that Commander Derek Randall has been studying for a master's degree in leadership from St. Cloud State University. Randall is set to graduate this year, he told the Pine Journal in a followup call.

"These are the questions I think failed to be asked here [by] the council [at the emergency meeting]," he said, before adding that he thinks the council needs to determine what qualities it wants in a police chief and what core values it wants as a city.

Each comment met with no reply from the councilors or the mayor, who are not supposed to comment on an active investigation. The city did hire an investigator last week.

Kolodge said during his statement that he has taken more calls on this issue than he has on all other issues combined.

He finished by requesting that any further discussion or action regarding Stracek's status be done with a full city council present.

"Every councilor needs to be heard, and every citizen needs representation," he said. "Decisions of this magnitude deserve the attention of a full city council."

Although he didn't speak publicly on the subject Tuesday, last week Mayor Hallback told the Pine Journal that he called the emergency meeting after the complaint was sent out to every council member, along with (then) City Administrator Brian Fritsinger and Assistant City Administrator/Human Resources Director James Barclay. The mayor — who was a Cloquet police officer for 27 years before retiring several years ago — said he called the meeting because he felt it was a matter of "immediate concern."

After the meeting was over Tuesday, Hallback said Stracek hasn't "been treated differently than any other employee" and reiterated that he did what he thought was right for the citizens of Cloquet in calling the emergency meeting, which was also attended by city attorney Bill Helwig.

"He (Stracek) is not disciplined, he's on paid administrative leave," Hallback added.

Efforts by the Pine Journal to get a transcript of the closed portion of the March 16 emergency meeting have been denied because the investigation is ongoing. Attorney Mark Anfinson (who acts as an adviser to the Minnesota Newspaper Association in areas of the law affecting newspapers and newspaper coverage) previously told the Pine Journal he believes the city council and mayor may have violated Minnesota's open meeting law in as many as three different ways March 16. (Editor's note: Read "City may have violated state statute during emergency meeting" in the March 30 issue of the Pine Journal.)

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