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From the Catbird Seat: Optical illusion

My role at this newspaper is primarily as a sports journalist, though I have covered the public process from time to time. I covered the Cloquet School Board for two years and have pinch-hit for Jana Peterson on several occasions to cover the Cloquet City Council.

I am a reporter with more than 30 years of experience in virtually every form of journalism, new and old. My comments in no way represent the Pine Journal or its management. They are mine alone.

Usually, I "stick to sports," as the saying goes. That said, I'm also a public employee with senior management responsibilities in my current job. That's why I'm writing this piece — because as a public employee, I know how public employees are hired.

Or, at least, I know how they ought to be hired.

I also know that, due to that knowledge, it sure looks from where I stand that the City of Cloquet has a few questions to answer regarding how it hired its new police chief.

Before I go a single word further, let me say this: I don't know Jeff Palmer. All I know about his qualifications are what I've read in the city council packet. I also don't know that he isn't the very best possible candidate for his position. He surely could be, and for the sake of our public safety, I hope he is.

What I see as the sad part of Cloquet's situation is that we will never know the answer to the last part of the above paragraph. I think that's too bad. To me, the issue isn't that Jeff Palmer was hired. The issue is how he was hired.

There is a thing as optics, and as a public sector public relations professional, I should come right out and say that Cloquet has a significant problem with optics in its city government at the moment.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Chief Palmer is the most qualified person in the nation to hold his job. That's fair, because the process through which Steve Stracek was hired — a nationwide search — sets that standard as the bar for employment.

As Councilor David Bjerkness correctly noted at Monday's meeting (full disclosure: he's my ward councilor), if this is in fact the case, there's nothing wrong by proving it through an open process, which is what the City of Cloquet does for every other full-time job it posts. Because that's how public employees are hired. That's how you gain the public's trust.

So, why was an open process not followed in this case? Why was the city council asked to play "Let's Make A Deal" by voting on a choice between door No. 1, door No. 1 and door No. 1?

I've known Kerry Kolodge for many years. We were co-workers at the City of Duluth. I know him to be an extremely fair-minded man, and above all, a darned-good cop. If Kerry Kolodge is sounding an alarm bell about the police department, I'm going to listen to it. I do not know Roger Maki well personally, but his public comments appear to show that he gets it as well on this issue.

If any of the issues identified in the inquiry regarding Chief Stracek have merit, doesn't the City of Cloquet owe it to its citizens to see how someone outside the department would view them from a management perspective? A majority of the council has decided that, no, it doesn't owe that bit of due diligence to the taxpayers who fund not only the police department, but the entire city government as well.

I think that's disrespectful to the citizens. And, as I previously mentioned, the optics are horrible.

I get that we elect city councilors to make decisions on our behalf. That's part of living in a representative republic. But those councilors need to commit to the right way to do things. I need to be convinced that was the case here, especially since an open process is, almost by definition, much better at ensuring fair outcomes.

The mayor's published comments seemed to center around him knowing Chief Palmer better than residents who haven't had the time, opportunity or interest to get to know him. As I've noted above, I'm guilty as charged. Mayor Hallbeck knows the police staff better than I do, and that's great. He deserves applause for that.

If Chief Palmer had time to meet with 12,000 residents like me for us to get to know him as well as the mayor does, he'd surely have had time to go through a hiring process, utilizing professionals the residents pay to do that job for them.

City code, section 2.1.04 subd. 5 gives Cloquet City Administrator Aaron Reeves direct authority to use his own judgment, exempt from interference by any councilor, including Mayor Hallbeck, in running the city. I read this as meaning Mr. Reeves could have directed staff to pursue an open hiring process and made it stick. He did not, and I think it's fair to ask why.

Again, this is not personal. Reading it that way would be a mistake. But I feel the City of Cloquet has missed a golden opportunity to show its commitment to the public process during a time of strife and division in our city.

Jeff Palmer is the chief of police. That means, as a law-abiding citizen, I owe him and his officers my support and my promise is that they will receive it. But really, this isn't about him, or even about his staff.

It's about optics. This is a great opportunity for the residents of Cloquet to decide if this is how they want to be governed — and if they're satisfied that others may use this episode as a way to judge our city.

And now, back to sports.