Recording shows Cloquet city meeting likely violated state law

A recording of an emergency meeting of the Cloquet City Council in March -- a meeting that was closed to the public shortly after it began -- appears to confirm that city officials likely violated the state's open meeting law during some parts of...

A recording of an emergency meeting of the Cloquet City Council in March - a meeting that was closed to the public shortly after it began - appears to confirm that city officials likely violated the state's open meeting law during some parts of the meeting.

The March 16 emergency meeting was closed almost immediately so that council members, the mayor and city staff could discuss allegations of "misconduct" leveled at then-Cloquet Police Chief Steve Stracek. A mystery to anyone outside council chambers at the time, it was later revealed that police union members had taken a vote of no confidence in the chief, and the meeting was called in response to a letter from the Teamsters.

The Pine Journal recently obtained a copy of the recording from Stracek, who was the subject of the meeting. He could get it from the city without violating data privacy laws because the data under discussion was his own.

There are nearly 10 minutes missing from the recording, however. City human resources cirector James Barclay told Stracek the city's attorney had redacted the missing portions because they didn't pertain to him. The missing minutes came after then-city administrator Brian Fritsinger told the councilors they should be thinking of interim leadership, but not necessarily at that meeting, as he didn't think the city was ready yet.

Then-police Sgt. Jeff Palmer was named interim police chief in a second vote - with no public discussion - when the meeting reopened, immediately after Stracek was placed on leave.


Stracek was cleared of any wrongdoing in June after an independent investigation; however, after hours of negotiating with city councilors and the mayor, he agreed to retire early provided the City Council announced publicly that he'd done nothing wrong, which they did.

After reading a transcript of the recording, attorney Mark Anfinson - an expert in open meeting law violations and adviser to newspapers across the state - said City Council actions to close the meeting appear to have been appropriate. State statute says meetings must be closed if certain types of data are going to be discussed, including "internal affairs data relating to allegations of law enforcement personnel misconduct collected or created by a state agency, statewide system or political subdivision."

However, Anfinson added that it appears the City Council violated state statute regarding the open meeting law in the following ways:

1. Stracek should have been notified of the meeting before it happened and been given the opportunity to attend and keep the meeting open.

"Obviously if the subject of the meeting doesn't know about it, this option can't be exercised," Anfinson wrote in response to the Pine Journal.

When asked, Stracek confirmed that he was not informed of the meeting in advance, and was only contacted after it was over, when he was informed that he'd been placed on paid administrative leave. Stracek was in town March 16, and could have attended the meeting had he been informed.

2. The discussion about the interim appointment should not have happened during the closed meeting.

Public bodies cannot close meetings to discuss employment decisions, Anfinson explained, noting they are allowed to discuss qualifications of candidates during a public meeting.


He added that the discussion about the interim chief was also outside the bounds of the meeting notice, as it was closed to discuss possible police misconduct.

"The fundamental problem is that this issue (whom to appoint as interim chief) should not have been discussed in a closed meeting, regardless," Anfinson said. "Therefore, the portion of the recording addressing the topic should also be public."

3. Discussion of how the city should handle employee grievances should not have been held in a closed meeting.

During the meeting, Fritsinger tried to explain that under the form of government followed by the City of Cloquet, complaints about the police chief would go to the city administrator first to be evaluated and investigated if necessary, and he or she would bring the complaint to the City Council after the investigation if disciplinary action was warranted.

Although Mayor Dave Hallback, a retired police officer, had expressed concerns before, Fritsinger said he had never gotten a call or a complaint from the police officers regarding Stracek.

In the recording, the mayor suggested the officers were more comfortable talking with him.

Hallback: "I think it was easier for them to, obviously, I know them, three-quarters of the PD, they feel comfortable, you know. And I have had some concerns, too.

Fritsinger: "But that's what I'm saying, you've brought them. But when I've said to you, tell them to come talk to us."


During the meeting, Ward 2 Council David Bjerkness was critical of the mayor's involvement with the affairs of his former department.

Hallback: "I'm going to say, I think and I've said this to James and I've said it to Brian, I think that there's been problems down there for a long time that hasn't been addressed. I've given concerns to the council on some things that I personally see, that I personally know, and I'm sure that during that investigation, I'm gonna voice my concerns that I have with the chief and the job he is doing. James, I told you a couple weeks ago what I thought how he was going. Then this pops up. Now that's just one more big red flag I have.

Bjerkness: "You have to be very careful, David."

Hallback: "I understand. But, and we're not here for any of that."

Bjerkness: "We're talking corruption and collusion because of your relationship with the PD."

Hallback: "We're, we're, no we're not. But there were things that were voiced. Brian, I voiced them here months ago. And, like I said we're not here for that now. But, we're here for this."

- - -

After the meeting reopened, Ward 3 Councilor Roger Maki voted against placing Stracek on leave, and councilors Steve Langley (Ward 5), Jeff Rock (Ward 1), Bjerkness and Mayor Hallback (who is a member of the City Council) voted in favor. Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge and At-large Councilor Adam Bailey did not attend the meeting because they were out of town. Maki and Bjerkness voted against Palmer's appointment, with Hallback, Rock and Langley voting for it.


Violations of open meeting law are not overseen by any governmental agency or official, Anfinson said.

"Where a violation occurs, a lawsuit must be filed to bring the matter before the courts," Anfinson said, clarifying that open meeting law violations are committed by individual officials, and not the body itself. "If the court finds that violations occurred, there are a variety of penalties that can be imposed, including civil fines, an award of the plaintiff's attorney's fees, and in extreme cases, removal from office."

What To Read Next
Get Local