Pertler discipline 'up to the voters'

Carlton County officials do not have the power to discipline County Attorney Thom Pertler after his drunken-driving conviction, a lawyer they hired to advise them on the subject told them this week.

Thom Pertler
Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler (File / Pine Journal)

Carlton County officials do not have the power to discipline County Attorney Thom Pertler after his drunken-driving conviction, a lawyer they hired to advise them on the subject told them this week.

County Board Chairman Ted Pihlman said that based on that advice it's up to the voters to decide whether Pertler should keep his office. The board took no action on Pertler at its Tuesday meeting.

"The next election (for county attorney) is in 2014," Pihlman said, "and I'm a firm believer in not spending one cent on this. Mr. Pertler has made a name for himself for the good things he's done, and it should be left up to the voters to decide when the time comes."

Pertler was arrested July 17 and later charged with fourth-degree driving while impaired, speeding, driving over the center line, failure to signal, open bottle and no proof of insurance. He pleaded guilty in St. Louis County Court to third-degree driving while impaired -- refusal to submit to a chemical test -- on Sept. 11. He was sentenced to one year in the St. Louis County Jail, but the sentence was stayed for two years of supervised probation. He was fined $2,095, $1,000 of which will be stayed if he follows the conditions of his probation.

Pertler returned to his job with the county in late August after completing a monthlong course of treatment at Hazelden Treatment Center in Center City, Minn.


The Carlton County Board had directed Pihlman to form a committee with Carlton County Auditor/Treasurer Paul Gassert and County Coordinator Dennis Genereau to research the county's options on dealing with the Pertler matter. As part of that investigation, they met with Minneapolis attorney Scott T. Anderson of Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, P.A., who represents municipal clients in state and federal courts, as well as in police misconduct claims and elected officials' salary and budget disputes.

Pihlman said he'd had a number of constituents ask whether the county planned any disciplinary measures against Pertler for his behavior while serving as county attorney.

"As far as we could see," Pihlman said, "there was no clear answer to that question."

Anderson told the County Board on Tuesday that its only real power over Pertler's position was to set his salary and the budget of his office.

"If you feel the performance of such an employee is lacking," Anderson said, "you can exercise your authority when it comes to the salary of that employee. You can't reduce that salary during his or her elected term, however, but you can freeze it if you deem it necessary."

"The board can pass a resolution indicating it is unhappy with things," said Anderson, adding that sort of thing usually results in a breakdown of the working relationship with that employee or lengthy, expensive lawsuits.

Anderson said attempts to remove elected officials from their posts have been rare in Minnesota, citing only six or seven in the state's history. Only one of those attempts, he said, was successful, and that was back in 1941 when a sheriff was removed for failure to take action against illegal gambling.

Anderson said an attempt to have an elected employee removed from his or her position would require the county to prove malfeasance -- willful, wrongful action in either the performance of that person's duties or in his or her personal character.


He said another option, though with only a small chance of success, would be a petition signed by 25 percent of the county residents who voted for the position of county attorney in the last election. The county auditor would have to validate all the signatures on the petition, which then would be sent to the chief of the Minnesota Supreme Court. He would appoint a special master to conduct a trial-like hearing, at the end of which a decision would be handed down. If the appeal is successful up to that point, Anderson said, a special election would have to be held within 30 days for the residents of the county to vote whether he should be removed from office.

Anderson said such a process usually turns out to be a drawn-out procedure often lasting a minimum of six months and costing more than $100,000.

Other than that, Anderson said there are no viable options in terms of internal discipline in a case such as Pertler's, and often the best advice is basically to do nothing.

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