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Still no answers in police chief investigation

Cloquet Police Officer Ryan Lunda takes the Police Officer Oath of Office Tuesday with Sixth District Judge Robert Macauley during Tuesday’s Cloquet City Council meeting, as Interim Police Chief Jeff Palmer (from left) and Commanders Derek Randall and Carey Ferrell look on. Lunda started with the department in November and has completed his field training. He came to Cloquet after nine years with the Floodwood police department. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal

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CLOQUET CITY COUNCIL

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Cloquet City Councilors met in a closed meeting for nearly three hours Tuesday, but the public is no closer to knowing what's going on with the investigation of Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek.

The subject of the closed-door meeting is unknown because city officials refuse to comment.

What is known is that all six councilors and Mayor Dave Hallback met with Brandon Fitzsimmons, the city's labor law attorney, Fitzsimmon's assistant Erica Heikel, city attorney Bill Helwig and interim city administrator James Barclay behind the now-frosted glass doors of the Cloquet Council Chambers. Neither the person hired to conduct the investigation nor Stracek was present.

Stracek was placed on paid administrative leave two months ago, following another meeting closed for the same reason given Tuesday: "for the purpose of discussing internal affairs data relating to allegations of law enforcement personnel misconduct."

Hallback called the first meeting March 16 after city officials received a complaint about Stracek from the police union. Although only one person waited outside of that closed-door meeting, dozens tried to wait out the most recent meeting.

Some left as time passed, but more than 20 residents and Cloquet police officers — in and out of uniform — waited the entire two hours and 45 minutes to find out what was going to happen with Stracek. They expected a council vote to reinstate him or to end his employment with the city — or at least some answers. They were disappointed.

At roughly 10:40 p.m., the doors and the meeting were reopened. However, Hallback abruptly adjourned the meeting without comment or even a motion before most of the crowd got into the room.

Councilors began walking out as many of the two dozen audience members were still sitting down. Many were initially unaware that no information was forthcoming and the meeting was over.

Barclay had previously explained to the Pine Journal that any meeting in which the city council and mayor might discuss the investigation report would be closed to the public as well as Stracek, the person being investigated. He would not confirm or deny that Tuesday's closed meeting was to discuss the investigation of Stracek or any other city actions taken regarding the police chief.

Lara Wilkinson was one of those who waited hours for the meeting to reopen. The former at-large city councilor said it was heartening to see so many people engaged with their local government and elected officials.

At the same time, she pointed out that the community is anxious to understand the details of the investigation and the council's corresponding actions.

"It is critically important to all of us to know that our elected leaders are making ethical, objective decisions in the best interest of the people they represent," Wilkinson said after the meeting. "I think the whole community is seeking transparency and answers. Hopefully those answers will be forthcoming and we can all move forward."

That could still happen before the next regular council meeting, scheduled for June 6. Barclay previously explained that discussion of discipline can happen at a regular or special meeting — which requires three days public notice — of the Cloquet City Council and would be noted on the agenda in advance. A meeting for disciplinary purposes would be closed to the public unless Stracek requests that it be open.

According to attorney Mark Anfinson, who advises Minnesota Newspaper Association members on open meeting law and other issues, if Stracek is disciplined in any way (which includes firing), the following information would become public: "final disposition of any disciplinary action together with the specific reasons for the action and data documenting the basis of the action, excluding data that would identify confidential sources who are employees of the public body." Anfinson said if Stracek is not disciplined in any way, nothing more becomes public without his consent.

According to records obtained by the Pine Journal through the Minnesota Freedom of Information Act, the complaint received March 16 was the only complaint filed against Stracek since he was hired in August 2014.

Although the contents of that complaint have not been made public, Teamsters Local 346 released the following statement to the Pine Journal March 28 after the paper learned the union filed the complaint: "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."

Because they are public and elected officials, Stracek, police and city employees, the mayor and city councilors had been told not to discuss anything related to the investigation while it's ongoing. The citizens, however, have not been quiet in the two months since then. They have packed city council meetings to standing room only, and many have questioned the council and/or commented positively and negatively on the character of Stracek and/or Jeff Palmer, the police sergeant chosen to serve as interim police chief at the same March 16 meeting.

Only one person spoke during the council's formal meeting Tuesday. Steve Woollett, a former police officer, said he worked with Palmer in loss prevention (for Super One Foods) under Michael Utecht, who spoke at the council meeting May 2.

"How could you hire someone with a two-year degree to be the chief of a $2 million department?" Woollett asked Mayor Hallback directly, comparing Palmer's education to the four-year degrees held by the two commanders in the department.

Hallback stopped Woollett when he made disparaging comments about Palmer's previous disciplinary record, and the two men argued back and forth before Woollett took his seat again. It was the first time in the past four meetings that the mayor had not allowed someone to finish speaking. Previously, the mayor and councilors have not commented during the public comment periods.

"This is not a platform for you to come up and question me about my character or my decision making on this matter," Hallback said, telling Woollett that his time was over.

"What are you afraid of, why don't you let the public hear what's out there?" Woollett said.

Jim Langenbrunner, retired Cloquet fire chief and a vocal critic of council actions regarding the emergency meeting March 16, was philosophical regarding the newly frosted windows in the Council Chamber doors.

"As everyone else has been denied transparency in this entire mess, it is only fitting the doors of government are no longer transparent," he said in an email to the Pine Journal.

Council meetings (the open portions) are rerun on CAT-7 and its YouTube channel (youtube.com/thecat7tv).

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Council actions Tuesday

During the open portion of Tuesday's Cloquet City Council meeting, councilors and Mayor Dave Hallback took the following actions, among others:

— Passed a resolution 6-1 (Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge dissenting) of support for the Housing Tax Credit Application by Roers Investments to the state of Minnesota for the adaptive reuse into workforce housing of the current Cloquet Middle School. Roers Vice President of Development Paul Keenan explained that if they receive the funding, Roers will would seek final site plan approval from the planning commission and council most likely in early 2018. If approved, construction could start in April 2018 with completion a year later and hopefully full occupancy by fall 2019.

— Unanimously passed a zoning ordinance text amendment defining a "special event" as "a unique or unforeseen event of limited duration" within the city of Cloquet or within 30 miles. Currently the code change will affect only SKB Environmental/Shamrock landfill, an industrial landfill within the city limits of Cloquet. The law change came about after the landfill requested approval of extended hours (from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday rather than 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.) earlier this year to allow trucks to haul in contaminated sediment dredged from a Superfund site at the bottom of Chequamegon Bay in Ashland, Wis. City Planner/Zoning Administrator Al Cottingham said the city can not prevent the landfill from accepting an allowed waste, but the definition change would mean it could deny the extended hours if a similar situation happens in the future. The landfill's conditional use permit defines emergency conditions but not special events.

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