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Union contract approved for Cloquet police chief, commanders

In its final meeting as currently constituted, the Cloquet City Council remained as divided as it has been for most of the last two years regarding the police department.

During the meeting Tuesday, Dec. 18, in a 4-3 vote, the council approved a two-year agreement negotiated with the Teamsters Union Local 320 on behalf of Police Chief Jeff Palmer and commanders Carey Ferrell and Derek Randall.

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

City Administrator Aaron Reeves said the contract is largely in line with other union contracts for city employees. The city will save $634.87 per month per employee by mirroring the health and dental insurance levels for other union employees, he said. The contract also includes 3 percent wage increases for employees in 2019 and 2020.

Bjerkness took issue with a clause in the agreement that would allow commanders laid off in a command staff restructuring to move to the top of an eligible list for the hiring of patrol officers.

Bjerkness, who was part of the negotiating committee, said he "couldn't believe" the provision remained in the contract presented Tuesday and that the union representing rank-and-file patrol officers, Teamsters Union Local 346, didn't oppose it.

Reeves said the patrol officers' contract doesn't address hiring — only promotions of existing employees. He also told the council this would put a qualified, proven police officer at the top of the eligible hiring list in the event of of a command restructure.

Bjerkness and Kolodge voiced concern a position may be held open for an commander in the event of a restructure. Reeves said that scenario wouldn't happen because the department needs a full complement of officers in Cloquet, so reserving a spot in that manner would be counterproductive.

Councilors have remained bitterly divided over the police department since Hallback called a special meeting March 16, 2017, in which former chief Steve Stracek was suspended. At the meeting, the council voted to place Stracek on administrative leave while it conducted an investigation into a "vote of no confidence" filed by the Teamsters Local 346.

After a lengthy investigation, Stracek was exonerated of allegations contained in the letter, but also resigned as chief.

Three of the four votes in support of the contract — Rock, Wyman and Hallback — will leave the council in January after losing their re-election bids. Rock and Hallback lost in the General Election Nov. 6 and Wyman was defeated in the August primary.

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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