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Police complaint prompts closed meeting

Deja vu, anyone?

The Cloquet City Council adjourned into a closed meeting Tuesday to discuss allegations of law enforcement personnel misconduct. In March 2017, a similar closed meeting resulted in the suspension of then-Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek, pending an investigation.

The Tuesday meeting, on the other hand, resulted in a 5-2 vote (councilors Kerry Kolodge and Roger Maki dissenting) to deny an appeal by the Citizen Advisory Board, a three-person board that has historically worked with the police chief on hiring, complaints and discipline within the department.

City Administrator Aaron Reeves confirmed Tuesday that the action was based on a complaint against the police department, but said the city could release no further details, such as an officer name or alleged wrongdoing, because they have not formalized any disciplinary action.

In November, Cloquet Police Chief Jeff Palmer said there were four current complaints against the department. Around that same time, councilors adopted a new policy document for the Citizen Advisory Board (CAB).

Under the new guidelines, CAB members are to be notified after a formal public complaint is received, receive a copy of the complaint with the officer's name redacted and confirmation whether a formal investigation will be conducted. Once the investigation is completed by the chief or another agency, a copy of the investigative report will be provided to the CAB, with the name still redacted, and the police chief will notify the CAB if any formal action will be taken.

According to the guidelines for the CAB, if the CAB and police chief don't agree, the CAB can appeal the police chief's decision to the city administrator in writing after a formal vote, and to the City Council if they disagree with the city administrator's decision, which would appear to be what prompted Tuesday's closed meeting when the CAB appeal was denied by a majority vote of the Council.

Time for discussion

After councilors balked in February at the idea of allowing the mayor to make citizen appointments to city boards and commissions without involving the Council in the decision-making process, City Administrator Aaron Reeves was tasked with rewriting the guidelines to reflect the Council's preference.

On Tuesday, Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge asked that two items — the new "Commission Appointment Policy" and a revised project labor agreement (PLA) ordinance — be pulled from the consent agenda. That portion of the agenda is usually reserved for routine, noncontroversial items that need little or no deliberation. The items were placed under "Council Business" to be discussed.

Regarding the appointment policy, Kolodge objected to step 3 of the proposed appointment process, where it stated: "A majority of the Council must approve an appointment. In the event of a stalemate, after three rounds of voting on a specific commission appointment, the mayor shall have the authority to make the appointment."

While Reeves explained that he got the language from a state statute regarding the appointment of a new councilor in case of a tie, Kolodge said he believed it took it out of their hands as a Council

Ward 1 Councilor Jeff Rock asked Kolodge if he had any alternative suggestions in case of a stalemate.

"No, we just need to work together as a council," Kolodge said, adding that in all his years on the Council, there had never been a stalemate on a commission appointment.

On a motion by Kolodge, the council voted 5-2, with Mayor Dave Hallback and Ward 5 Councilor Steve Langley dissenting, to approve the new appointment policy after removing the sentence that gave the authority to the mayor in case of a tie.

Regarding the PLA ordinance amendment, Kolodge said he believed he and perhaps some other councilors would like to completely remove any language regarding private projects from the PLA ordinance.

A PLA is a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement with one or more labor unions that establishes the terms and conditions of employment for a specific construction project.

In May, the Council had voted unanimously to require a PLA for any city project or private project — but only those involving assistance of city funds, no matter what level — with a total cost greater than $175,000. In February, Reeves and the Council had discussed changing the ordinance at the recommendation of the city attorney, to make the PLA requirement for private projects be tied to the amount of city investment in the project, rather than total project cost.

Kolodge suggested they go a step further and remove all reference to private projects.

"We're the only city in the state that has this (private business requirement) at this time," Kolodge said, noting that he has no problem with a PLA for public projects.

"I think it's problematic," he said.

"Is that true? I thought this was a mirror image of a lot of other cities," Rock asked Reeves and the rest of the Council.

Reeves said "the private part is more unique," but added that the city of Duluth will be adopting an ordinance very similar to Cloquet's soon.

Duluth's Chief Administrative Officer Dave Montgomery told the Pine Journal that Duluth currently has PLAs for public projects, but confirmed the city is looking at making modifications to its PLA policy.

"It likely will apply to certain publicly funded (private) projects," Montgomery said. "We haven't finalized anything at this time ... but it is moving in that direction."

The Two Harbors City Council recently voted against a proposal to revoke its public project PLA, a move spearheaded by the mayor to reduce costs for a streets and alleys public project.

After some discussion about whether the revised PLA ordinance would stop any of the projects that didn't go through after the original Cloquet PLA resolution was adopted in May — they didn't think so, but weren't certain — Kolodge said if there was "no appetite" for his suggested change, he'd let it stand.

The council voted 5-2, with Kolodge and Ward 2 Councilor David Bjerkness dissenting, to pass the PLA amendment as written, including both public and private projects.

The next Cloquet City Council meeting is scheduled for March 20.

Editor's note: This story was corrected on July 24, 2018