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Cloquet council censures its own member

The Cloquet City Council voted 5-0 Tuesday to censure Ward 5 City councilor Steve Langley, after independent investigator Michelle Soldo found that Langley had sent an unwanted text message to former Cloquet police chief Wade Lamirande and contacted and complained to Lamirande’s current boss in Langley’s capacity as city councilor.

Lamirande filed a series of complaints against city officials earlier this year, detailing eight issues each with Cloquet city councilor Steve Langley and Cloquet police chief Jeff Palmer. The council hired Soldo to investigate all of the allegations against the two men, as well as lesser claims regarding city administrator Aaron Reeves and human resources director James Barclay. The council previously voted to exonerate Barclay, Reeves and Palmer of all charges, after Soldo reported that they could not be substantiated.

City administrator Aaron Reeves explained that a censure is a formal mechanism for the city council to express displeasure about actions of another council member. The censure has no tangible impact, such as a fine, suspension or loss of voting rights.

“A councilor is not a city employee where the council can take any discipline,” Reeves said. “It’s basically the only action a council can take, a public rebuke where they can also provide some kind of direction about they how they hope the councilor would act in the future.”

According to the complaint filed by Lamirande earlier this year — via email to councilors, city officials and local media — Langley 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 city officials have contacted his employer, interim Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College president Stephanie Hammitt, as well as employers of several other people who were critical of the city or the police department.

In the Langley case, Soldo reported she could partially substantiate two of the charges: sending unwanted text messages and contacting Hammitt.

After requesting that the portion of the meeting considering the charges remain open instead of closed for discussion of the allegations, Langley was prohibited from voting on the resolution to censure and Ward 3 councilor Dakota Koski abstained from voting as the two men are related.

The council resolution found that Langley’s conduct in sending a “mocking text message” to Lamirande in response to issues concerning the city and contacting his employer to criticize him “after invoking his position as a City Council member” violated the City Council Values Statement.

At-large councilor Lara Wilkinson expressed concern during the meeting that Langley’s actions could fall within the realm of intimidation and said that “inaction” was not an option.

“That would leave the door open to any of us or future officials to continue intimidating practices,” she said.

When contacted by the Pine Knot News on Wednesday, Lamirande said he was pleased with the council vote.

“That’s definitely a positive step,” said the former chief, who retired in 2014. “I’m hopeful this is done, and hope the voters pay attention the next time his seat comes open.”

Former mayor Bruce Ahlgren — who served for 16 years from 1998-2014 — said he doesn’t recall any previous vote to censure in the city. They never even came close during his terms, he said.

“Of course, the previous councils I had as mayor were very, very good,” Algren said.

Reeves said the only other actions the council could have taken would have been to remove Langly from committee assignments or ask him to make a formal apology, but they can’t force him to do that.

Wilkinson said it’s another step in restoring the trust of the public.

“This council has been committed to making ethical and informed decisions that represent the best interests of our citizens. This was no exception,” she said in response to the Pine Knot Wednesday. “Moving forward, I hope we maintain that focus and support one another in providing the kind of leadership that Cloquet residents have a right to expect.”

It started with a text

According to Lamirande’s complaint, the issues with Langley all started with a text message on Dec. 31, 2017, when Lamirande got a text from Langley asking, “Will you be my secret friend. WTF?” Langley was apparently referring to a private conversation Lamirande had with Chief Palmer earlier in the year. Lamirande said he simply responded, “Happy New Year Steve.”

The first time the two men saw each other after the text was at the L&M store in Cloquet on July 17, 2018. Following that encounter, Langley filed his first complaint against Lamirande, alleging that he felt threatened by Lamirande’s actions and thought Lamirande might hit him; Lamirande did not hit him.

The complaint was referred by the Cloquet police department — after Chief Palmer watched footage from an L&M camera, according to Langley — to Grand Rapids to avoid a conflict of interest. Following the investigation, the city attorney’s office referred it to Dryer & Overom, a Duluth law firm, to review and determine whether or not criminal charges were warranted.

In a four-page letter to Cloquet city attorney Frank Yetka, attorney Shawn Reed recommended no charges be issued after reviewing the correspondence and reports by Cloquet police, camera footage from L&M, along with the two audio recordings of interviews from Stein with Langley and Lamirande.

Reed noted that neither man appeared to be in a hurry when they walked toward each other in the parking lot, and, while they engaged in a discussion — there is no audio with the footage — neither raised his arms “to suggest an aggressive or defensive posture.” Langley moved to his car and the two appeared to engage in further discussion but the attorney said he still didn’t see any outward signs of aggression or see anyone else in the parking lot react to the interaction.

“In summary, the video footage fails to demonstrate any assaultive type conduct,” Reed wrote. “There is no claim of actual infliction of bodily harm. The video evidence does not support a claim that any conduct intended to cause fear or bodily harm.”

Langley later filed another complaint with the Cloquet police department against Lamirande, alleging that Lamirande yelled at him and he felt threatened when Lamirande walked over during the Labor Day parade with fliers for county attorney candidate Lauri Ketola. That complaint doesn’t appear to have been investigated by the CPD.

Lamirande said Langley telephoned the interim FDLTCC president after the encounter at L&M to complain about Lamirande and suggest that he be disciplined or fired from his position as law enforcement program coordinator.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Langley said he had never requested that Hammitt fire Lamirande from his position as law enforcement program coordinator, but rather suggested that she hold him to a higher standard. They had what he called a 15-minute “courteous and cordial conversation” and she told him she would get back to him in three days.

“I’m still waiting,” Langley said.

Ward 4 councilor Kerry Kolodge pointed out the irony of Langley’s request.

“I heard Steve Langley said he was hoping to hold Mr. Lamirande to a higher standard,” Kolodge said. “As an elected official, the higher standard should be on his part.” Kolodge then read the portion of City Code (2.4.02) which addresses the standards of public officials and states that “conduct in public and private affairs should be above reproach.”

“I think the investigation showed that was not done,” Kolodge said.

Lamirande said he feels vindicated by the vote, especially after the council essentially dismissed all the other allegations.

“It shows he did the things I alleged after denying them,” he said. “But I don’t think he learned anything, because it doesn’t seem like he’s owning his behavior.”

Lamirande added that he felt Soldo didn’t address all of his issues during her previous investigations, including a videotape referencing the Palmer complaint from the police department that was heavily redacted with no explanation.

Lamirande also said there has also been no response to his subsequent complaint about uniformed police officers posing with then mayor Dave Hallback in violation of police code regarding political candidates.

Although he was cleared of all charges, Palmer has been on a voluntary leave of absence since April 16, for reasons that have not been made public, although Reeves previously stated that the leave was unrelated to the investigation.

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