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Editorial: The issue is procedure, not personality

OUR VIEW

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Undoubtedly, things are not good in the Cloquet Police Department. For a majority of police rank-and-file union members to take a vote of no confidence in their chief, well, that says something.

But whether you think that says "the chief is a poor leader" or "the cops here don't like change," doesn't really matter at this point.

What matters is procedure, not personality.

What matters is that city officials do things right. We are a nation of laws, and that means local elected officials should follow city code and state law when they act. If they don't, then they should be held accountable.

Unfortunately, because of the gag order that's been in place ever since the mayor and three city councilors voted to place Cloquet Chief Steve Stracek on paid administrative leave, it's been difficult to find out exactly what happened.

Fortunately, it appears the investigation is complete and this issue will likely come to a head soon. A well educated guess says the Cloquet City Council will hold some kind of hearing regarding Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek at its next meeting on June 6.

By then, Stracek will have been on paid administrative leave for nearly 11 weeks.

Here's what we hope comes from that hearing (whether it's held on June 6 or a later date).

1. We hope this meeting follows the law.

Mark Anfinson, an expert attorney who advises Minnesota Newspaper Association members on open meeting law and First Amendment issues, opined that the city may have violated open meeting law in as many as three different ways when councilors and the mayor went into closed session March 16 and emerged to put Stracek on leave and appoint Sgt. Jeff Palmer in his place. There should be no questions about the legality of any future actions.

2. We hope this meeting is public.

City officials argue such a meeting doesn't have to be open because it's a personnel matter and a matter of possible police misconduct on top of that. We argue they're wrong. First of all, if the complaint really was about the way Stracek runs the department — which the union statement seems to indicate — that's not police misconduct. So closing a meeting for the previously cited "allegations of law enforcement personnel misconduct" doesn't hold water.

Second, state law states that: "A public body may close one or more meetings for preliminary consideration of allegations or charges against an individual subject to its authority. If the members conclude that discipline of any nature may be warranted as a result of those specific charges or allegations, further meetings or hearings relating to those specific charges or allegations held after that conclusion is reached must be open.

A meeting must also be open at the request of the individual who is the subject of the meeting, meaning Stracek could choose to open the Council Chamber doors too.

3. We hope people get answers at this meeting, or after its conclusion. Citizens want to know what is happening at our police department and at City Hall. They have a right to know, because their taxes pay the wages for everyone who works in both places. Besides, people need to know police and city hall are working for the betterment of all. Some transparency would go a long way toward restoring the trust that has been bent, if not broken, by the events of the past two-and-a-half months.

4. No matter what happens, we hope people don't forget.

Don't give up and go back to sleep please, don't retreat to the cocoon-of-apathy and non-engagement. Don't hold grudges either. Move forward, to make the world a better place, however you define that.

Certainly the past 10 weeks have been both frustrating and refreshing.

Frustrating, because of how little city officials have communicated. Maybe they're following the letter of the law, or maybe they're manipulating it. And rumors that elected officials are talking freely with supporters and trying to sway the opinions of others on this matter are distressing, because it would show they are not neutral in this matter.

Refreshing because it feels like at least a portion of our population woke up. They realized that democracy doesn't function well without "the people" ... and it all starts with local government.

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