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OUR VIEW: The watchdog role of the press is vital to a healthy democracy, so is civil public debate

Today marks seven weeks since Cloquet Mayor Dave Hallback called an emergency meeting of the Cloquet City Council that ultimately ended with a vote to place Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek on paid administrative leave and the appointment of Sgt. Jeff Palmer as interim police chief.

Since that March 16 meeting, we've gotten to watch democracy in action.

It's been exciting, and it's been messy.

First 35 citizens attended a council meeting, then close to 70 turned out for the next one. Attendance was back to 35-ish (not counting construction union members there on a different issue) on Tuesday.

Each time the ongoing investigation of the police chief — being conducted by an independent investigator hired by the city, as reported in the April 13 Pine Journal — was not on the agenda, but the people spoke anyway.

In many cases, people gave testimonials about the personal character of Stracek, or Palmer, or the heroism of police officers in general. Others questioned the process, the way that city officials handled the complaint and its closed emergency meeting. Two have accused the newspaper of biased coverage, and others have defended it.

We applaud all for their passion and civic engagement. We cheer those who are carefully reading the paper and watching the council meetings on CAT-7 and its YouTube channel (youtube.com/thecat7tv). It is a wonderful thing to see so many people getting involved in local government.

Having said that, we encourage people to stick to the facts of the case as they're known, and bear in mind that the mayor, city councilors, city staff, police officers and police administration aren't supposed to discuss the investigation while it's ongoing. We urge people to avoid making this about personality instead of facts, or some kind of "us vs. them" race toward incivility and antagonism. In short, act like your children are watching, because they probably are.

For our part, the Pine Journal will continue investigating and writing about the issues stemming from the March 16 emergency meeting, because it's what we do. It's part of the job. We sit through public meetings — when many of you are cheering on a local sports team, watching TV, reading, hiking, or hanging out with family — and we report on what happens there, so you don't have to go.

Decent newspapers go one step further when it's needed and dig into matters that don't pass the proverbial "sniff test" — in our opinion, the emergency meeting held March 16. Good newspapers don't just sit and wait for the slow wheels of government to turn, or blindly trust that elected officials will always make good decisions.

We hope that all citizens understand that one of the most important roles of a newspaper is to be a watchdog of local government. Therefore, sitting and waiting for any governmental body to come up with the version of the story it wants to release would be "lapdogging" rather than "watchdogging," and more appropriate in Russia than here.

For those of you who wonder why we have chosen to write about certain topics, remember that we also don't have access to the inner sanctum of the Council Chambers when a meeting is closed. Since March 16, we've researched public records on the internet, requested public data from the city, talked to people and looked in our own archives. We've asked questions, and we've written about the things we discovered.

We wrote about Stracek because he is being investigated. We have his career background from stories written when he was hired. We also now have his disciplinary records from the city, and the only complaint in his file from Cloquet is the one filed on March 16.

We wrote about Palmer — who people have testified is an experienced police officer and a great guy — because his work record is very relevant. The council and mayor bypassed two commanders to choose him, and the one thing readily available in our own archives and the Bureau of Mediation website is the story of how he was fired and then rehired after arbitration. We also now have Palmer's disciplinary records from the city and he also only has that one complaint on file.

We wrote about the police department study because it's public record and its recommendations are part of what Stracek was hired to do.

In between, we've covered every city council meeting and reported comments made there accurately (although if you want everything said there, you'll have to watch it on CAT-7).

Finally, we also wrote about an expert attorney's opinion that the city council and mayor likely violated open meeting law on March 16. One day, if and when the recording of that meeting is made public, we will ask the state to weigh in on whether they did break the law.

There are also very many things we don't know about ... yet.

So we will keep digging, fact-checking and publishing accurate information. And covering as many public meetings as our newsroom staff of two can get to.

We hope to see you there ... even after this investigation is complete.

~ Jana Peterson

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