Our view: Public bodies owe residents transparency
March 24, 2023
There is a fine line between public duty done right and dereliction, and currently the city of Kettle River is skating on it. After a lengthy letter from the state auditor’s office in February outlining a long list of questionable procedures by elected city officials and city employees, the city found itself in trouble with procedure once again.
This time it was in the process of declaring a vacancy on the city council. That’s all well and good, since member Monique Doward has missed meetings for more than 90 days. State statute allows a council to pass a resolution on the vacancy and then choose a replacement. This is how things went down at Kettle River’s regular city council meeting on Feb. 14. All was proper, until it wasn’t.
Mayor David Lucas announced at the March 15 meeting that the person the city purportedly selected to replace Doward could not be seated because the council had not properly voted to seat that person. As Sarah Sonsalla, the attorney for the city, explained to us this week:
“When that individual was appointed by the council at the meeting, a motion was made to appoint him. However, it was not seconded (but it was voted on). He was sworn in and was allowed to vote at the meeting. When the mayor later realized his mistake after the meeting, he informed the individual that his appointment was not valid. The individual’s votes were removed from the council record. (I believe that the council voted unanimously on everything that this individual voted on that night, so his vote did not change any decisions that were made). He is not on the council. Meanwhile, Ms. Doward has requested her seat back (which she is authorized to do under Minnesota Statutes Section 412.02, subdivision 2b) and the city council intends to re-appoint her to her seat at its meeting on April 13.”
Kudos to the city and the mayor for realizing the mistake. We’ve had far too many instances in recent Carlton County history where procedures by an elected public body went astray and those in the wrong have repeatedly denied it, until a newspaper (us) or members of the public have taken them to task to get things straight.
But we won’t let Kettle River off the hook just yet. Sonsalla answered questions we had about the Feb. 14 meeting, namely confirming that the vacancy question was added to the agenda at that meeting and also the fact that had the council actually voted on the replacement. It would have been its right to do so.
But in the name of good governance, several things should have happened before what became a fiasco on Feb. 14. The mayor should have informed the council of his plans to vacate Doward’s seat well before the meeting. She hasn’t been to meetings for far longer than 90 days, so he should have prepared the council and the public. Instead, this cropped up at the meeting and then Lucas brought up the name of an individual he had spoken to about filling the seat. While there is no statutory obligation to inform the public about such vacancies, it doesn’t do anyone a favor by springing it on the council, then dropping a name, and then asking the council to approve that person — all in a few minutes at a meeting.
State statute does require that the person be eligible to fill the position of an elected official. The meeting minutes from that night show no indication that there was any discussion about the replacement’s qualifications. Was he a resident? Did he have any conflicts of interest? How did he hear about the vacancy?
Transparency. That is the bottom line. That’s what was needed here, as it was in Wrenshall and Thomson Township in recent years when they made appointments that didn’t pass the smell test.
Kettle River has a ways to go to gain the public’s trust that the council, mayor and staff are operating within state law. Mayor Lucas says many of the items on the state auditor’s list are being taken care of. It is our hope that he is up front about those things and addresses all of them in public. (We reported on the letter from the state in the March 3 issue of the Pine Knot.)
Again, kudos to Kettle River for self-policing. But when it comes to items like its appointment in February, do better. It serves all of us when those who we elect to office can be trusted to follow the law and be more transparent about it.