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By Jana Peterson
Pine Knot News 

City to investigate complaints against councilor

 

March 22, 2019

Jana Peterson / Pine Knot News

Cloquet City Councilors (from left) Kerry Kolodge, Steve Langley and Lara Wilkinson react during Tuesday's Cloquet City Council meeting.

Cloquet City Councilors voted to investigate one of their own with zero objections Tuesday, not even from the subject of the investigation, Steve Langley.

"I welcome an investigation," the Ward 5 councilor said during the council meeting. "It will show these allegations are false."

The action was taken in response to eight complaints about Langley submitted to the city on Jan. 30 by former police chief Wade Lamirande, who retired in 2014 after 24 years with the Cloquet police department. Langley has been the Ward 5 city councilor since 2013.

According to the former police chief, Langley has harassed him, mischaracterized two different encounters with Lamirande by claiming they were criminal behavior, and behaved in a manner contrary to city code on more than one occasion. In his complaint, Lamirande also said Langley and other current or former city officials have contacted his employer as well as the employers of several other people who were critical of the city or the police department.

Attorney Robert Scott, a municipal lawyer who works for Flaherty & Hood and numerous cities throughout the state as a city attorney or special legal counsel, acted as an adviser to the council during its discussions of the allegations and how to handle them.

Those discussions were public at Langley's request. They took place in front of about two dozen audience members - including Lamirande - as well as Langley, who remained seated at the council table although he was not allowed to participate most of the time.

Neither the audience nor Langley were privy to the "privileged memorandum" Scott had provided the other councilors, which included his initial analysis of the allegations in that document, he said.

Scott explained that there is a distinction between complaints about an elected official versus against a city employee. (The council approved investigations into allegations made by Lamirande against two city employees, city administrator Aaron Reeves and human resources director James Barclay, in February. The results of those investigations are still pending, Maki confirmed.)

"Elected officials are not subject to council discipline the way a city employee would be," Scott said. "An elected official is chosen by voters to hold a position, they have an election certificate, so the council doesn't have authority to discipline. It doesn't have the authority to terminate employment - you can't terminate one of your own members."

Scott said the "constitution and the legislature already define under what very narrow circumstances an elected official would lose that right to continue serving on the city council."

The attorney pointed to three different documents that define council responsibilities, ethics and behavior: the city code, the council handbook and the council values statement.

The process

Scott told the council that they were acting to police one of their own, and explained - as Mayor Roger Maki had done already - that they needed to focus on three main items:

Does the complaint allege behaviors by the councilor that would violate city ordinances, the council handbook or the council values statement? He recommended that they assume the allegations were true, explaining that is how a court would proceed.

If they determined the alleged actions would violate standards if true, next the council would have to decide whether to hire an external investigator or assume the responsibility of the investigation themselves.

Determine what action they want to take, but only after hearing from Langley as well.

The councilors and mayor were silent for some time before beginning discussions, before Ward 3 Councilor Dakota Koski broke the silence by asking if they would hear from both parties - Langley and Lamirande. Just Langley, he was told.

"I liked the first comment about taking each complaint as if 100 percent true and seeing if rises to the standard," Koski said. "I think that would be Step No. 1. It seems like a good process."

Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge said he would prefer to consider all of the allegations together.

"In my mind, I feel there were some things that violated the code of conduct, the council values statement," Kolodge said. "I'm OK to go toward looking into those as a whole rather than separating them out."

Kolodge also stressed that he didn't think the councilors should investigate the complaints themselves, because there would be too much emotion, "too much water under the bridge."

Ward 2 Councilor Sheila Lamb agreed, pointing out that Langley said in February that he wanted an investigation.

"To bring unity back to city, I think we need to continue to hit these issues head on," she offered.

Maki agreed, soliciting a motion to approve an investigation of all claims.

It was then that Langley spoke briefly, reiterating his belief that an investigation would disprove the allegations.

The vote came next, with Maki, Lamb, Kolodge and at-large councilor Lara Wilkinson voting for the investigation. Koski abstained because he is related to Langley, and Ward 1 Councilor Bunn Carlson was absent.

Investigation

Scott suggested for the sake of efficiency, that the mayor hire the same investigator who is currently looking into allegations against Reeves and Barclay, attorney Michelle Soldo. Soldo also investigated police union complaints two years ago against then police chief Steve Stracek, who was exonerated of any wrongdoing afterward.

No councilors objected to that idea, and Maki confirmed after the meeting that he was going to ask Soldo to also undertake the investigation into all eight allegations against Langley.

If Soldo finds evidence that the council values statement was violated, it won't be a first. In her investigation of Stracek, she found evidence that the objective of the complaint against him was "to create an event and opportunity by which an organized faction of police department employees and City Council members could vote to terminate Chief Stracek's at-will employment," she wrote then.

In a footnote on the last page of her Stracek report, Soldo also stated: "The action and inaction of involved Council members appears to violate the Cloquet City Council Values Statement," which she then cited in full.

But that was then and this is now. The two complaints do not appear to overlap, although Lamirande did claim that the alleged harassment against him increased after Stracek was suspended and Lamirande began attending council meetings.

At the end of Tuesday's meeting, during the time for councilor comments, Langley asked Reeves if he was tracking how much the city's response to Lamirande's complaints was costing the city. Reeves said he didn't have any numbers yet, but he would be tracking it.

For his part, Lamirande was pleased by the council's decision.

"I'm encouraged that they're looking into it," he said.

What guides the council?

City Code Chapter 2 addresses general government of the city, including elected and non-elected officials, job duties and more. It only briefly addresses ethics, in section 2.4, noting that both public officials and employees must uphold the U.S. Constitution and the laws of nation, state and city, "recognizing that the public interest must be their prime concern. Their conduct in both their official and private affairs should be above reproach so as to foster respect for all government."

Values Statement

The City council's values statement is also available on the city website and states that every council member shall:

• Operate openly, honestly, ethically, and with integrity.

• Encourage engagement and increased participation of the City Council and the community.

• Make decisions after prudent consideration of their financial impact, taking into account the long term financial needs of the City.

• Treat all people fairly, equitably, and respectfully.

• Make decisions consistent with the community's vision and its adopted plans and goals while considering the "big picture of the City."

• Encourage open and free communication.

• Respect differences of opinion.

• Prepare for all issues coming before the Council and respect the decisions made.

• Operate in a safe and environmentally sound manner.

• Seek to continually improve in all areas of our business.

 
 

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