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Lawsuit challenges recall of Two Harbors mayor

A hearing is scheduled for Thursday morning.

Chris Swanson
Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson listens as residents speak during the public comment period March 28.
Jimmy Lovrien / Duluth News Tribune
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TWO HARBORS — A Lake County Republican party official has filed a lawsuit aimed at nullifying the recall effort of Mayor Chris Swanson.

Tim Jezierski, chair of the Lake County Republicans, along with a Jane and John Doe, filed the lawsuit in State District Court in Two Harbors on Friday, two days after the Recall or Resign Committee delivered almost 1,000 signatures to City Hall calling for a recall of Swanson.

The lawsuit names five of the recall organizers, the Recall or Resign Committee itself, the Two Harbors City Council and City Clerk Patricia Nordean as respondents in the case.

The lawsuit asks the court declare the recall petition "null and void" and argues the recall petition did not define “malfeasance” for people signing the petition. According to the Two Harbors City Charter , a recall petition can move forward if 20% of the registered voters in an officer’s constituency sign a statement of removal that outlines “allegations of malfeasance or nonfeasance.”

“Any allegation of ‘malfeasance’ cannot be determined without an articulated definition of ‘malfeasance’ to enable the challenged official and the electorate to make informed decision in the recall process, or, at the very least, a public hearing to determine whether the allegations set forth in a proposed recall petition provide sufficient grounds for a recall prior to circulation,” the lawsuit said.

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Additionally, the lawsuit said a Jane Doe and John Doe signed the petition to recall because they were assured by recall organizers that names and addresses of people who signed the petition would be private. The lawsuit said recall organizers were "misleading" signees by promising such anonymity.

Recall organizers Todd Ronning and Cynthia Kosiak did not respond to the News Tribune’s request for comment Tuesday.

In a YouTube video showing the committee delivering the recall petition to city staff last week, Kosiak told Two Harbors Interim City Administrator Joel Dhein and Nordean that the signatures should remain private.

“I’ve expressed this repeatedly but we really had so many people inquire as to whether Mayor Swanson was going to have an opportunity to look at the names on the list and people really want to make sure that he does not,” Kosiak said to Dhein and Nordean.

Dhein told the News Tribune on Tuesday that the city reached out to the Minnesota Office of Data Practices for clarification on that but the agency ultimately sent them to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, which as of Tuesday afternoon had not yet provided the city with an answer.

As part of the case, an attorney for Jezierski on Monday morning filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against the respondents, calling on them to stop the “erroneous, and wrongfully procured recall petition,” to make the full petition available for public inspection, to make future recalls conform with Minnesota law, to require recall petitions define “malfeasance” and to make any recall petition require a hearing in court “to determine the adequacy of the allegations before it can be circulated for signatures.”

A temporary restraining order hearing is scheduled for Thursday at 9 a.m. over Zoom.

Swanson is not a party in the lawsuit. But Jezierski and the Does are represented by Brendan Tupa, a Bloomington-Minnesota-based attorney who sent cease-and-desist letters in late March to several news outlets, including the Duluth News Tribune and Duluth Monitor, over their coverage of Swanson. In those letters, he wrote “my law firm has been retained by Christopher Swanson to investigate and take legal action against you” and the respective news organizations.

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In his signed declaration supporting the lawsuit, Jezierski said he was "concerned" the petition "may contain a multitude of invalid signatures, which could include simple mistakes such as duplicates or ineligible voters, or frauds such as outright forgery and 'bait and switch' fraud, in which an individual signs the petition based on a misrepresentation of the underlying issue."

City verifies 735 signatures

Last week, recall organizers said they delivered 997 signatures calling for a recall of Swanson.

Dhien said his count was 963 names on the petition as delivered, but after verifying each signature and address, the final number came out to 735, which is still well more than the 498 signatures he said were required for the petition to move forward.

He said names that were repeated or illegible were removed, as were people who lived outside the city or were not on the current voter registration roster. Additionally, two pages of signatures were removed because they did not have the correct certificate that describes the rationale for the recall, Dhien said.

The City Council will hold an emergency meeting, now open to the public, at noon Wednesday to “discuss pending litigation and retention of specialized legal counsel,” the city said in a notice Tuesday.

The council will consider the recall during Monday’s meeting. If the councilors vote to move the recall forward, Swanson will have five days to resign. If he does not (he has said he won’t) in five days, the council must schedule a recall election where a "yes" or "no" question would ask if Swanson should be recalled.

Because it is a redistricting year, the August primary is the earliest the recall question could appear on a ballot.

If a majority of voters mark "yes," then a special election would be held to fill the position because there would be more than two years until Swanson's term expires in January 2025.

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Recall efforts were spurred by Swanson's underwater hotel and cryptocurrency pursuits and other potential conflicts of interest and ethical concerns coming to light.

In a memorandum of opinion, City Attorney Tim Costley wrote that Swanson repeatedly used his official city position “for personal benefit or business interests” on a number of issues, the News Tribune reported in March .

This story was updated at 10 a.m. May 4 after the City Council meeting became open to the public.  It was originally posted at 4:41 p.m. May 3.

This story originally incorrectly described the process to fill a vacancy. If the mayor is recalled in August, a special election would be called to fill his position because there would more than two years left in his term. It was updated at 12:10 p.m. May 4 with the correct process. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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