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Recording of closed meeting shows city violated state law

A recording of an emergency meeting of the Cloquet City Council in March -- a meeting that was closed to the public shortly after it began -- appears to confirm that city officials likely violated the state's open meeting law during some parts of...

A recording of an emergency meeting of the Cloquet City Council in March - a meeting that was closed to the public shortly after it began - appears to confirm that city officials likely violated the state's open meeting law during some parts of the meeting.

The March 16 emergency meeting was closed almost immediately so that Council members, the mayor and city staff could discuss allegations of "misconduct" leveled at then-Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek. A mystery to anyone outside council chambers at the time, it was later revealed that police union members had taken a vote of no confidence in the chief, and the meeting was called in response to a letter from the Teamsters.

The Pine Journal recently obtained a copy of the recording from Stracek, who was the subject of the meeting. He could get it from the city without violating data privacy laws because the data under discussion was his own.

There are nearly 10 minutes missing from the recording, however. City Human Resources Director James Barclay told Stracek the city's attorney had redacted the missing portions because they didn't pertain to him. The missing minutes came after then-City Administrator Brian Fritsinger told the councilors they should be thinking of interim leadership, but not necessarily at that meeting, as he didn't think the city was ready yet.

Then-police Sgt. Jeff Palmer was named interim police chief in a second vote - with no public discussion - when the meeting reopened, immediately after Stracek was placed on leave.

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Stracek was cleared of any wrongdoing in June after an independent investigation; however, after hours of negotiating with city councilors and the mayor, he agreed to retire early provided the City Council announced publicly that he'd done nothing wrong, which they did.

After reading a transcript of the recording, attorney Mark Anfinson - an expert in open meeting law violations and adviser to newspapers across the state - said Council actions to close the meeting appear to have been appropriate. State statute says meetings must be closed if certain types of data are going to be discussed, including "internal affairs data relating to allegations of law enforcement personnel misconduct collected or created by a state agency, statewide system or political subdivision."

However, Anfinson added that it appears the Council violated state statute regarding the open meeting law in the following ways:

1. Stracek should have been notified of the meeting before it happened and been given the opportunity to attend and keep the meeting open.

"Obviously if the subject of the meeting doesn't know about it, this option can't be exercised," Anfinson wrote in response to the Pine Journal.

When asked, Stracek confirmed that he was not informed of the meeting in advance, and was only contacted after it was over, when he was informed that he'd been placed on paid administrative leave. Stracek was in town March 16, and could have attended the meeting had he been informed.

2. The discussion about the interim appointment should not have happened during the closed meeting.

Public bodies cannot close meetings to discuss employment decisions, Anfinson explained, noting they are allowed to discuss qualifications of candidates during a public meeting.

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He added that the discussion about the interim chief was also outside the bounds of the meeting notice, as it was closed to discuss possible police misconduct.

"The fundamental problem is that this issue (whom to appoint as interim chief) should not have been discussed in a closed meeting, regardless," Anfinson said. "Therefore, the portion of the recording addressing the topic should also be public."

3. Discussion of how the city should handle employee grievances should not have been held in a closed meeting.

During the meeting, Fritsinger tried to explain that under the form of government followed by the City of Cloquet, complaints about the police chief would go to the city administrator first to be evaluated and investigated if necessary, and he or she would bring the complaint to the Council after the investigation if disciplinary action was warranted.

Although Mayor Dave Hallback, a retired police officer, had expressed concerns before, Fritsinger said he had never gotten a call or a complaint from the police officers regarding Stracek.

In the recording, the mayor suggested the officers were more comfortable talking with him.

Hallback: "I think it was easier for them to, obviously, I know them, three-quarters of the PD, they feel comfortable, you know. And I have had some concerns, too.

Fritsinger: "But that's what I'm saying, you've brought them. But when I've said to you, tell them to come talk to us."

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During the meeting, Ward 2 Council David Bjerkness was critical of the mayor's involvement with the affairs of his former department.

Hallback: "I'm going to say, I think and I've said this to James and I've said it to Brian, I think that there's been problems down there for a long time that hasn't been addressed. I've given concerns to the Council on some things that I personally see, that I personally know, and I'm sure that during that investigation, I'm gonna voice my concerns that I have with the chief and the job he is doing. James, I told you a couple weeks ago what I thought how he was going. Then this pops up. Now that's just one more big red flag I have.

Bjerkness: "You have to be very careful, David."

Hallback: "I understand. But, and we're not here for any of that."

Bjerkness: "We're talking corruption and collusion because of your relationship with the PD."

Hallback: "We're, we're, no we're not. But there were things that were voiced. Brian, I voiced them here months ago. And, like I said we're not here for that now. But, we're here for this."

After the meeting reopened, Ward 3 Councilor Roger Maki voted against placing Stracek on leave, and councilors Steve Langley (Ward 5), Jeff Rock (Ward 1), Bjerkness and Mayor Hallback (who is a member of the Council) voted in favor. Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge and At-large Councilor Adam Bailey did not attend the meeting because they were out of town. Maki and Bjerkness voted against Palmer's appointment, with Hallback, Rock and Langley voting for it.

Violations of open meeting law are not overseen by any governmental agency or official, Anfinson said.

"Where a violation occurs, a lawsuit must be filed to bring the matter before the courts," Anfinson said, clarifying that open meeting law violations are committed by individual officials, and not the body itself. "If the court finds that violations occurred, there are a variety of penalties that can be imposed, including civil fines, an award of the plaintiff's attorney's fees, and in extreme cases, removal from office."

********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

Editor's note: The transcription of the March 16 meeting, with the redacted parts omitted, is posted below:

DH = Mayor David Hallback

SL = Steve Langley, Ward 5 councilor

JB = James Barclay, human resources director and assistant city administrator

BF = Brian Fritsinger, city administrator (His last day, planned, was March 17)

JR = Jeff Rock, Ward 1 councilor

RM = Roger Maki, Ward 3 councilor

BH = Bill Helwig, city attorney

DB = David Bjerkness, Ward 2 councilor

Editor's Note: At large Councilor Adam Bailey and Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge were both on planned vacations out of town and did not attend the March 16 meeting.

March 16, 2017 - Emergency Meeting of Cloquet City Council, after meeting called to order and closed:

DH Council members, I would like to discuss the actions we should consider taking. Let's proceed. Anybody want to start? I'll go on the record saying that I didn't push for this meeting because obviously there are concerns lined out here from police officers on the force. I guess without beating around the bush, I think it is deservedly so that he be placed, Steve Stracek, Chief of Police be placed on administrative leave pending investigation.

SL I agree.

DH I know it was told to me today that this is very vague. We don't have the laundry list that it lists but for the concerns of the public of Cloquet, City of Cloquet, citizens of Cloquet, for what I take for these guys that were at this meeting, for them to effectively do their job, they need to know that it is going to be investigated, however long that takes. I'm at a rock and a hard spot here, I explained it to you earlier today James and Brian you tonight, everybody here is. If we don't act on it, you get, get perceived one way, if we don't act on it, we're going to perceived the other way. So I feel comfortable that I can say when wildfire goes that I can say I'm doing the right thing by placing him on administrative leave pending investigation. That's all I have.

BH And Mayor you were referring to the letter from the Teamsters?

DH Yes.

BH Union, yes.

JB Can I ask the scope of the investigation, just so I have some clarity? Meaning are we . . .

DH We're gonna see where that takes us, I guess. I don't know. I'm not privy to the laundry list, I'm not, but this to me is very concerning. I wanna treat the Chief as an employee of the city, that's how I'm looking at this. I know he's a department head and he's in charge, but there obviously something is going on where we need to take action. That's why I feel there's need for this meeting tonight.

BH I believe for an investigation to take place, there has to be a complaint signed by a complainant.

BF One of the, again, one of the issues we spent a good part of the day trying to understand is again when we are talking about an employee, especially within the PD that there is a very formalized complaint process that is supposed to be followed for complaints. The letter, while obviously you know contains some very strong concerns, isn't specific in any way and with the larger part of at least the legal world would not be considered directly as a complaint. So...

BH Right. So the further investigation would need to obtain a written complaint or maybe multiple complaints signed by individuals that are alleging these charges and they need to be alleging more specific charges.

RM My, my concern with the letter and, an I guess the accusations in the letter are that, and help me if I don't have all of the information, but it seems to me Teamsters isn't following their own protocol by not having filed any grievances against Steve that relate to this, but all of a sudden this is what we're seeing. It seems like they've leap frogged over their own process.

DH I don't know if this warrants a grievance. Not that, not that . . .

RM? Well, I would think any of these claims, which they aren't willing to share in the letter, should have been grievances, already filed.

BF Are you referring specifically to grievances and the grievance process versus complaints?

RM? Complaints to the union, you know, as, as situations occurred, that's why they're there. You know it's just like they leap frogged over to demanding this action and they haven't followed their own process. And that's concerning to me. I mean what all of a sudden precipitated this?

BF And we obviously, at least I can only speak for James and I, I don't have information because those complaints have not been forward, brought forward to us so I don't have ...

RM If there has been a historical record developed, you haven't seen it. Okay.

BF Which we assume part of that is James is asking and Bill is indicating that the investigation process to see if that is [inaudible]

DH Jeff, anything to add?

JR Here's my concern. For them to have gone to this measure and have a . . . does anybody know what the vote was? Just out of curiosity, do we have their numbers?

DH Hypothetically.

JR I don't want hypotheticals; I want to know the numbers. Do we have them or don't we?

BF They were not provided to the city.

JR For them to have gone through this process there is a senior failure of leadership to get to this point and it needs to be . . .

BH or RM? On the part of the union or the city?

JR On a part of leadership at the police department for this to have gotten to this point. That troubles me. For an entire body to vote a vote of no confidence. How do you come back from that? How do you lead a group of people that you're in charge of when they have no confidence in you?

JB That's actually, Jeff, the scope of my question that I was asking earlier, I understand what you're saying, via a serious lack of leadership, but it's leadership at all levels, it's not just at the senior level, when you get to something like this, from my experience anyway. So that's why I was asking the scope of the investigation, is it really just focused on his actions or the entire police department?

DB? Well and are they limiting their demands to the Chief or the Commanders as well?

BF Which is, you and I talked about that earlier based upon your comments, as to . . .

DH I don't see Commanders in here. I can tell you how I feel about the commander system.

DB ? But to Jeff's point, they're leadership ...

JB And so are the Sergeants.

JR During the meeting all concerns brought forward pointed back toward Chief Stracek. That's what I'm reading, anybody else seeing anything different that I'm not seeing?

BF Not in this letter.

DB? I guess my, part of my question is is this just phase one? I don't know how they're thinking here . .

?? Well its..

DB You know, what is the strategy here, really? First get rid of him and then get rid of the other two?

DH We're not here for that.

BF And again as you move through this process, one of the things that I assume will be coming forward to you is, is on this point is going to be while there's an investigation issue specific to this complaint is there going to be an assessment of the full department in terms of all of this, that a better understanding. Again Jeff, when we talk about this, where is it? Is it just one guy? Is it more than that? So I would expect James to be at some point chatting with you about that next layer beyond just investigation but an assessment of the department as a whole.

DB? I'll, I'll go on the record saying I don't think we would be doing our jobs as elected officials when we receive something like this, because it is serious, by not requesting administrative leave and a investigation. I think it's appropriate - if that's what we're here to discuss and decide.

DH I think it's very serious also and I think we're doing a disservice to the public if we don't investigate this and we don't take action. So there again, Roger, what's your feelings? Before I do anything, I want to get everybody, their feelings on this.

RM Well, my feeling is that the Teamsters letter in and of itself is not sufficient for me to move forward with any kind of action.

DH Not even an investigation?

RM No, because you only have one side and it is vague, no specifics, not, what does it mean or overwhelmingly supported, no confidence in the chief. I'm not comfortable with that.

DH I would think the reason they say overwhelming confidence and they don't give you a number is so the people, they don't, being that I went through this before I know how it works. They don't put up people's names, they don't have them sign, they take a vote if it's by hand, if it's by paper. Then that way there's nobody that can come back and say if Brian was at that meeting or Brian did this so they have something to unfairly treat Brian, or unfairly treat Dave, or unfairly treat Roger. But I do know, it says overwhelming, I don't think they're gonna come to the council and ask these of us, or ask this of us rather, if they don't have the numbers. I don't think, they're not asking for him to go on administrative leave pending investigation because they don't like the color of the suit that he wears or the color or the way he wears his hair, these are obviously major concerns. And if they're not taken seriously and it's because if they don't, there's enough to me in this letter that it warrants it.

JR Okay. There's one line in here that stands out to me. James, I understand you're looking at, looking for what the allegations are. There's one line that sticks out to me, laundry list of issues, too much to list here.

JB And I don't mean to be argumentative, but that's cute but it really doesn't say anything.

JR If, if . . .

DH It says volumes to me.

JR If we...

DH That's why we put him on a paid administrative leave.

JR If there's no merit..

DH There's no harm in that.

JR If there's no merit to this, this sentence we have no action we can take. If we find out there's merit to this laundry list, we're doing the right thing.

JB Well that's why, as Bill mentioned earlier, we need to. I don't even know what the process would be. Do we solicit from them . . . specific allegations? I don't actually know.

BF Again, the dual issue that comes into play here is again how we might investigate this in a normal employee setting versus again the chief is afforded all of the same rights and obligations as a member of the police force as any one of these individuals who, were participated in the development of this letter. So, it becomes a very formal process at a certain point. Literally, calling in individual, individual by individual and soliciting that information from them through that process that is outlined within the complaint, policies that we have indicating . . .

BH Individuals that will need to be willing to actually sign complaints stating what the issues are. Here, here we just had a vote; maybe it was a hand vote or whatever. That's different that there's gonna have to be some individuals willing to sign an actual complaint saying here is something he did that was wrong and then there is something for the council to look at and consider whether discipline is warranted and that would be after he has the right to respond to those complaints.

DB? What, what, having received this letter, and we all did, what liability does the city bear by not taking action?

BH The city has been, they have been provided a notice that something is wrong and I think that the city is obligated to investigate this type of letter. This isn't just from some angry resident in the community that is upset with one of the police officers, this is the union bringing a complaint that they say is, was produced by an overwhelming vote. So, I'm assuming that there should be a number of individuals willing to sign complaints to back up this letter. If there aren't well then that would come out in the investigation. But I think the city has an obligation to investigate this letter. I mean this, it's clearly there is something behind it. I think the city is opening itself up to liability if they don't do anything.

?? That is not . . .

DH Knowing, knowing what, what we've got here. You heard a conversation with James and Brian when I first got here. I don't know if it's, if I should bring that up now or if it's part of it. Inaudible (?16:49) kind of thing . . . pertaining to . . . is that the time to bring this up? James, you shake your head no, but two other council member, four other council, well, Steve was in the room. Jeff wasn't here, David wasn't here, Roger wasn't here.

SL ? The problem is they'll be retaliated against. That's why you don't get the complaints as it is. They get . . .

DH But that being said, what I, what I told you in here and like I say I have no problem telling what was told to me, but in part of that, that can come out in the investigation.

JB I'm asking Bill but all of you as well, you know an investigation is what Bill is directing us, an investigation is something we're looking at when we have a specific allegation. Would something preclude us from doing a climate assessment type evaluation of the police department to try to get to the bottom of this?

JR Here's another question. At what point do we need to have an independent review of the...

BF That's exactly what, that's exactly what he's talking about.

JR Instead of doing it internally...

JB Absolutely.

DH I don't think it should be done internally.

JR Worrying about these guys having to worry about retribution.

DH Yes.

BF Again, that's specifically what James is referring to is again the nature of this if the council in terms of investigation. You have a couple different things. The first is you hire [cut out] is find an individual basically that is skilled in those sorts of investigations. You bring them in to investigate the specific issues. James is kind of taking it to another level which is actually a climate assessment which actually deals with the whole, or all these issues, not just specific to this regard. So one is similar one is a little different.

JB So I'm not obviously used to city government. The reason we did climate assessments in my former life, Jeff would know this, is so we don't have people having to come forward with their name and...

DB But isn't that chicken shit?

JB Not necessarily.

DB I mean you're trying to get rid of you know the top police officer in the city, and you're not willing to sign a complaint?

JB Well we'd still have to have...

DH We don't know that, David. We don't know that. And that's why I'm saying, let's have an investigation. If it comes out to be just a turnout, then it's a turnout.

DB I mean a laundry list of issues, come on. There have to, you know. To me that's a pretty long list.

JB But it could be a laundry list of issues that don't rise to the level as Dave is pointing that requires discipline, or just requires action or change. That's really what, is that what you're getting at?

DH Yeah. If, if if, if this investigation goes where if it's not, I mean this is what we're here for, to determine that. One, I think what I'm hearing from everyone other than Roger, doesn't warrant, or it does warrant an investigation.

JB Of some kind ...

DH At the conclusion of that, I'm sure it's gonna be brought to the council in hopefully a timely fashion so then at a later date we deal with it. And that'll also include the man that sits to my left and my far left, Adam Bailey, and this, we're not looking like, like Bill said we're looking for the discipline end of it. Let's get were to the bottom of this.

SL Let's get that laundry list out and . . .

DH And if there are guys that wanna come forward and sign it, so be it. I'm, I'm with David, I think yes, absolutely, if someone is onna call me out, I want them pointing the finger at me saying this, this and this.

DB You know the result of it could be to a document for us as community leaders to fix it and not tear it apart.

DH I, I'm going to say, I think and I've said this to James and I've said it to Brian, I think that there's been problems down there for a long time that hasn't been addressed. I've given concerns to the council on some things that I personally see, that I personally know, and I'm sure that during that investigation, I'm gonna voice my concerns that I have with the chief and the job he is doing. James, I told you a couple weeks ago, what I thought how he was going. Then this pops up, now that's just one more big red flag I have.

DB You have to be very careful David.

DH I understand. But, and we're not here for any of that.

DB We're talking corruption and collusion because of your relationship with the PD.

DH We're, we're, no we're not. But there were things that were voiced. Brian, I voiced them here months ago. And, like I said we're not here for that now. But, we're here for this.

JR Can I, can I change the, change the subject here for a second? A couple months ago, I brought forward the fact that city council is not being made aware of grievances. The response I was given from Brian, it's not, it's not needed for us to know. And now here we are six months later.

BF That's not what I said.

JR What did you say, please...tell me.

BF What I said was, again, the process here is that grievances go through the city administrator and are handled at that level. They are not sent to the council.

JR Do you remember what my response was to that?

BF I do.

JR What was it?

BF That it basically you want them to come here.

JR Because?

BF And that I'm not going to remember.

SL Hmm, because of this.

JR It's an underlying, we're, we're in the dark here. We need . . .

BF You know, here's part of what I was trying to say and again I'll say it here with this. Part of what you're talking about is again, if you look at like my weekly updates, I make you aware if there's grievances going on. I'll say it right in there that we dealt with a grievance down in this department or whatever it is from that standpoint.

JR That's vague.

BF And that is exactly what it is it would be that vague. But again, the form of government that we are and the process that you have in your codes and in your practices, that's not how we're set up. And an even this process tonight, the process that's outlined in the city code is this is dealt with on an administrative level first. We then are coming to you if it raises to that level to make that recommendation. So, again, to that point what I was trying to get it, it leapfrogs the whole form of government that we've got set up. We used to be a clearer form of government here and that's where the council would have gotten every grievance and would have taken care of every single personnel issue that went on in the city. But we're set up so that's handled internally so that we're taking care of those issues. That doesn't mean that we don't have a responsibility to bring things to you guys when they raise to a certain level, but like I said in this case, he and I have never gotten a call. We have never had one of those staff outside of you guys talking about some of the things that we hear. And you guys have heard me more than one time say please tell them to come talk to us, haven't I?

DH I think it was easier for them to, obviously I know them, three quarters of the PD, they feel comfortable, you know. And I have had some concerns too . . .

BF But that's what I'm saying, you've brought them. But when I've said to you, tell them to come talk to us.

DH Here's their deal, is probably why they're having this because they feel like a bullseye on their back. I think I've used that term; that's why I was trying to remember what I said. Lastly, Steve, anything?

SL No, I think we should have an internal investigation and administrative leave pending internal investigation.

DH That would be another for.

SL Not an internal investigation, external investigation.

DH Yeah, yeah, independent like Brian said.

SL Right

DH Independent.

BF The other thing again that I, I, at this point if that is the path that the council is going to go down which needs to be thought about but we're not ready yet in terms of tonight having that discussion is clearly if he's put on paid leave, is the situation of what happens in terms of leadership within the department in the interim. I will sit here and tell you, at least off the cuff, I don't think this is a situation where somebody from within is going to be somebody that I would suggest to you guys put into that spot. It may be, but again we have not had time yet to even delve into this issue, whether or not it would be more appropriate to see if there was somebody from outside that served in these sort of capacities can act as acting chief in the interim while this goes on. But it is something that that we will be talking about and James will have to talk with you guys fairly quickly obviously as to what that would mean moving forward so.

SL Dave....

DH I guess before we get to that point, I wanna know if there is obviously after discussion to make a motion to place Chief Stracek on administrative leave.

SL We [inaudible]

DH I realize that and I'm not asking for a motion now, I'm saying after this motion if it does take place, one I would like to say is there, is there another option. Is there someone on, we have two commanders, we have ... [cut out between 26:42 -29:16]. Steve's on vacation today, tomorrow, we'll deal with it maybe next week or so and I'm thinking no, it's got to be dealt with now. You know, when things calm down a little bit. Well no, that's why it had to be dealt with now, because Steve goes on vacation, he still has his commanders that you know if he's on paid administrative leave, it's my understanding that he's to have no contact with his commanders, with anyone from the department, including secretaries, including down here, being Brian, being you. Pending that investigation that's . . . [cut out between 30:00 - 38:31]

MARCH 16 MEETING REOPENED TO THE PUBLIC HERE

DH Members, anyone vote to make a motion?

SL I'll make the motion to put Steve Stracek on administrative leave, being on administrative leave until pending investigation.

DH Is there a second? Is there a second?

JR I'll second the motion.

DH Councilor Rock. Any other discussion? All in favor?

JR Aye

SL Aye

DB Aye

DH Those opposed?

RM Aye

DH Motion passes. Is there a second motion?

SL I'd like to make a motion to put Sgt. Jeff Palmer in as a Interim Police Chief.

DH Is there a second?

BF Just for clarity subject is acceptance of that?

DH Yes. I'll second it. Any discussion? All in favor?

SL Aye

JR Aye

DH Those opposed?

RM Aye

DB Aye

DH Motion passes. We're adjourned.

END OF RECORDING.

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