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Cloquet police chief, commanders unionize

In another split vote regarding personnel, the Cloquet City Council voted to proceed with a joint request for the Cloquet Police Department chief and its commanders to unionize during its meeting Thursday, Nov. 8, at Cloquet City Hall.

Councilors Jeff Rock, Steve Langley and Barbara Wyman joined Mayor Dave Hallback in voting for the measure; councilors David Bjerkness, Roger Maki and Kerry Kolodge voting no.

The Teamsters Union Local 320 filed a request with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) on Oct. 18 to be the exclusive representative of CPD Chief Jeff Palmer and commanders Carey Ferrell and Derek Randall. The union would be separate from the union representing CPD officers, and the city would negotiate individual contracts for the two divisions within the department.

Cloquet City Administrator Aaron Reeves told the councilors the union would happen whether they voted to approve the joint request or not — approval just meant expediting the process. Filing jointly means that the city could begin negotiating a contract in about two weeks. Opposing the joint filing essentially stretches out the process, according to Reeves, forcing the union to mail ballots to the three potential members. Palmer, Ferrell and Randall would then fill the ballots out and mail them back, but the end would the same: a unionized leadership for the CPD.

Unionized police leadership is rare, but not unheard of, according to Reeves. Hallback pointed to Hibbing as an example of a community with unionized police leadership.

Hibbing's situation, however, is significantly different than Cloquet's, according to BMS Commissioner Todd Doncavage. In Hibbing, all city department heads, which includes the police chief, are part of a union. In Cloquet, only the chief and two commanders would be a part of the union, while the remaining city department heads would not have union representation or collective bargaining rights.

The vote fell along the same lines as previous votes on the police department over the past 20 months and highlighted the divisions on the council since former chief Steve Stracek was suspended at a special council meeting called by Hallback on March 16, 2017.

Former Cloquet police chief Steve Stracek The councilors voted to place Stracek on administrative leave while it conducted an investigation into a "vote of no confidence" filed by the Teamsters Local 346, which represents CPD officers and sergeants. After a lengthy investigation, Stracek was exonerated of allegations contained in the letter, but also resigned as chief.

Kolodge made a motion Thursday, Nov. 9, to table the matter until January, when three new councilors will be sworn in and Maki will become Cloquet's mayor.

The motion was defeated by the same 4-3 vote. Three of the four councilors who cast votes to approve the joint request — Rock, Wyman and Hallback — will leave the council in January after losing their re-election bids. Rock and Hallback lost in the General Election on Tuesday, Nov. 6, while Wyman was defeated in the August primary.

Maki questioned the timing of the move coming just two days after the Nov. 6 election and well before new councilors will be seated in January. He also called on the CPD leadership to explain the move.

"I think the timing is a little suspect here," Maki said. "It seems a little odd, right around the time of the election. It does seem like a bit of a rush to me. Why wasn't it done in July? Why can't it wait until January? Why now?"

Reeves said in his experience, it wouldn't be appropriate for Palmer, Ferrell or Randall to speak on the topic, but the reason for the move was obvious: the conflict on the council surrounding the CPD and the men's job security.

"I can speak from my experience on why this happens," Reeves said. "It's quite clear, in my opinion, this is happening because you do have employees concerned about their job security. There's no way around it — that's why unionization occurs. It's because you have employees that are concerned, rightly or wrongly. That's what happens."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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