by Dennis Dalman
All five members of the Sartell City Council held a special meeting Nov. 21 to discuss a tangled series of mis-communications, personal accusations, some degree of distrust and other issues that came to the surface in recent months.
The recorded special meeting took place in a meeting room at Sartell City Hall and included the Sartell City Attorney Adam Ripple.
(The Newsleaders wasn’t aware of that special meeting until Nov. 27 because the newspaper rarely covers special meetings, just regularly scheduled council meetings.)
Many of the council-member disputes and/or misunderstandings had to do with recent controversies that arose from two council decisions: the agreement (vote of 3-2) to sell public golf-course land to a private developer and the approval (3-1) of a solar-garden ordinance. Mayor Ryan Fitzthum had recused himself from voting on that topic.
The special meeting was called because of three emails Jill Smith received from another council member. The meeting began with Smith reading a personally derogatory email that was sent to her by fellow council member Jed Meyer after Smith was the only member to vote “no” on the city’s new solar-garden ordinance at the Oct. 3 council meeting. Smith said Meyer then forwarded that email and two others he wrote to the other council members.
Meyer acknowledged he wrote that email when he was emotionally upset about Smith’s comments in a story in the Newsleaders. In a Nov. 3 Newsleaders story about the approval of the solar ordinance, Smith explained to the Newsleaders a day or two after the meeting why she decided to vote “no” on that proposal. Her comments were added to the Nov. 3 story written by a new reporter, Conner Sura, after Smith was interviewed, at her request, by reporter Dennis Dalman. Smith’s comments were added to the conclusion of Sura’s story.
Smith said she wanted the public to know why she voted against the ordinance – not that she is against solar energy, but because she thought the ordinance should be revisited to take into account the citywide survey results of a survey about solar power. That public input should have been considered, she said, before passage of the ordinance.
Her comments in the Newsleaders, she said, were about her and her opinions only.
“They were not about you,” she added, meaning the other council members.
That discussion at the special meeting led to other communication problems council members have been having.
In a two-hour-plus meeting, members discussed at length a growing lack of trust, some personal antagonisms, the need to work together for the betterment of the city and – especially – the need for every council member to seek and receive accurate facts and background about every issue or project that comes before them. Often, council members will ask questions of city staff to obtain information on topics they will vote on. And they will even call or email one another to be up-to-date on proposed projects or issues.
Throughout the meeting Sartell City Attorney Riddle gently advised the council that seeking information and giving advice to more than one fellow council member can be dangerously close to a violation of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law that mandates council members cannot meet or otherwise communicate with one another on issues they will deliberate about at future meetings. They must do their official communications only in a “public quorum” – that is, a public meeting when a majority of members are present (in the Sartell City Council case, three of five members).
Attorney Riddle said it’s fine to communicate one to one, but that council members who discuss city-council issues with two or more fellow members can be in some cases hard to defend under the Open-Meeting Law.
All council members at the Nov. 21 special meeting said it is very difficult to obtain facts and information before voting on a proposal. Member Alex Lewandowski, to name one, said he sometimes feels other members have more complete information and background details than he does. At times, he has felt out of the loop, as if other members have more complete, detailed information than he does. His opinion was echoed by other members at the meeting. They did not say they get conflicting information from city staff but that if information comes from different sources, that can cause disinformation problems.
All members at the meeting agreed totally that every council member, before they make decisions, must receive the same accurate information and backgrounding about the issues at hand.
Personal backbiting is a bad outcome, said several members.
“Serving our community is more important than the five of us,” said Mayor Ryan Fitzthum.
Council member Tim Elness agreed with the need for more focused communication, including all members having the same information from staff, public and elsewhere about city issues. But then he proceeded to largely blame the Newsleaders for the ruckus caused by the dissenting comments made by Jill Smith. He also accused the newspaper of stating the council has “backroom conversations.”
Among his accusations, in direct quotes:
“They (the Press) want the controversy. They sell papers for a reason.”
“They (the Newsleaders) want to know why someone (in this case Jill Smith) disagreed with everybody.”
“We’re talking about the Newsleaders here, which isn’t as solid reporting as it gets.”
Despite their seeming disagreements, the five council members agreed they must work to re-establish trust, personal integrity, mutual respect, tolerance for dissent, the seeking out of accurate information and to do always what they were elected to do – represent the residents of Sartell.
Attorney Ripple suggested the council might consider scheduling some workshops put on by the Minnesota League of Cities.
The recording of the Nov. 21 meeting can be seen and heard on the Sartell city website. Go to www.sartellmn.com. Then on the top bar click on Government. In the pull-down menu option, click on “City Council Meetings.” Click on “2023.” Then scroll down to “11/21/23 Special City Council Meeting” and to the right of that click on “Video.”