Could Council have Avoided Lansing Lawsuit?

600Block.jpgCouncil Member Scott Davis’ comments on the Locally Grown Radio Show were thought-provoking, at least for me. In particular, his discussion of the 14 issues, the Select 6 and Leftover 8, raised a big question in my mind:

Could the Council have avoided the Lansing lawsuit?

If I understood Scott correctly, he suggested that when the controversy over the consideration of the 600 Block site for the proposed new municipal liquor store exploded (and he raised another question for me, “Was the first blast in Council Chambers or the Northfield News?”…I’m not clear) the Mayor asked that questions directly or indirectly related to this matter be brought before the State Auditor. Apparently, the Council thought that this was a good idea and a related process (yet another question, “…initiated by whom?”) was begun to identify any other issues that should be included in the Auditor’s review.

The result was the list of 14 issues. They included such things as “Were proper municipal contracting laws followed?”, “Has there been a misuse of public funds?”, “Have the City’s purchasing practices conformed to state and federal requirements?”, and “Has the City’s pay plan been implemented and followed and have any deviations from the plan been reported to the Council?” (all ending up in the Leftover 8).

Scott told us that when these 14 issues were discussed by the Council, no one took ownership of any of them besides those that were investigating the Mayor and the City Administrator, apparently concerning matters directly or indirectly related to the liquor store site issue (the Select 6). He said that without someone taking responsibility for raising an issue, there was little the Council could do about it.

I would agree with Scott that having some take ownership, and explain the details, of an issue would make follow-up quicker and easier. However, I’m not sure that I agree that it’s necessary to have a name next to the issue of, let’s say, municipal contracting laws to make it valid or justify an independent investigation.

I happened to be in attendance at three Council meetings where these 14 issues were discussed. The first was the meeting where the Select 6 were sent off to the Auditor, the second was when the Auditor sent them back with the suggestion of an independent investigator, and the third was when the independent investigator was sharing his cost estimate. At each of these meetings it was clear to me that a majority of the City Council wanted to limit the work of the independent investigator to the Select 6 and that the Mayor wished for a more inclusive investigation.

The day after this third meeting, Mayor Lansing and his son filed their lawsuit. Based on what those that have read the lawsuit have told me, it would appear that items numbered 7 and 12, “Has there been a violation of the Minnesota government data practices act or a breach of computer security by or among City officials or employees?” and “Have there been violations of the open meeting law?”, were issues of interest to the Mayor.

From my reading of the Northfield News and what I’ve heard about the lawsuit, I’ve tried to reconstruct what has happened over the past few months. It would appear that the City Administrator was feeling pressured by the Mayor on the liquor store process and took it to a Council Member…or three. One of the Council Members allegedly asked the City Administrator to provide documentation on the matter. Again, if I understood Scott correctly, the City Administrator provided one side of the documentation (communication from the Mayor to him and not his responses back to the Mayor), to the Council. Then somebody, allegedly another Council Member, provided this material to the Northfield News.

To summarize my understanding of and/or speculating about the current situation (one more time based at least in part on what I heard Scott say): in response to the City Administrator’s allegations, the Mayor suggested and the Council supported an independent investigation of the Mayor’s actions, and some of the City Administrator’s actions, in the liquor store matter. The Mayor also wanted additional actions by the City Administrator and actions by some of the Council Members included in this independent investigation, and indicated this by voting for it but not putting his name next to specific items, but the Council Members voted against it.

So, my question would be, “If items 7 and 12 had been included with 1, 2, 3, 4, 10 and 11, would we all have avoided the Lansing lawsuit?”

28 thoughts on “Could Council have Avoided Lansing Lawsuit?”

  1. Ross, I left a message on your NDDC phone number. Please call me as there are numerous inaccuracies and misquotes in your summary above. We could discuss it in this blogosphere, but I would much rather do in in the old fashioned faceophere (where a person actually talks to another person face-to-face).

    Scott

  2. Scott: Face-to-face conversaton is great, but as this was posted on a blogosphere, it would be nice if all could hear what you consider “inaccuracies and misquotes” in Ross’s intro..

  3. Hi Christine, don’t worry I will share all my concerns, but to be perfectly honest, there is so much either outright wrong our horribly misquoted that I will need a day to put it all together.

    So as to not keep you in suspense, here is an easy one –

    “Scott told us that when these 14 issues were discussed by the Council, no one took ownership of any of them besides those that were investigating the Mayor and the City Administrator, apparently concerning matters directly or indirectly related to the liquor store site issue…”

    First – I never said this. Let me repeat this again, I never said this. We (the council) have never gone through the list of 14 items one by one, much less talked about who was responsible for bringing the topic up to Maren Swanson for possible review by the State Auditor.

    Second – I have ever included the City Administrator in the concerns regarding the liquor store. Nor have I ever publicly or privately included the City Administrator with the Mayor as part of my concern about the Mayor’s involvment with the liquor store process.

    I won’t speak for the other council members, but I would bet that they wanted an independent investigation of the liquor store issues for the same reasons the Northfield News wrote about a few months ago, and they never mentioned the City Administrator as being a part of the problem.

    In my opinion, much of Ross’ comments appear to be written from the perspective of Mayor Lansings views and has nothing to do with what I have ever said.

  4. Scott –

    I will relisten to the radio show before I meet with you. At this point, I repeat that my summary reflects what I heard.

    However, it would be more interesting to hear what others (besides you and me) heard you say on the radio show.

    – Ross

  5. Okay Scott,

    I relistened to the radio show. I direct your attention to time mark 36:06.

    In response to Tracy’s question to you: “What’s in the record?”, you say that as a result of questions raised about “the whole 600 and 618, and, from my perspective, the Gary Smith and Al Roder issues…Mr. Lansing suggested that we have a State Auditor look at these issues”. Tracy clarifies that, at least some, of these important issues relate to the liquor store, you agree, and then moments later you again mention the liquor store before referencing what you call “bizarre” additional issues added to the list.

    Based I what I have heard from those that have read’s the Lansing lawsuit and what I have read in the Northfield News regarding the Lansing lawsuit, it would appear to me that the Lansings are contending that item #7, “Has there been a violation of the Minnesota government data practices act or a breach of computer security by or among City officials or employees?” and item #12, “Has there been violations of the open meeting law?” are related to the liquor store and thus deserved to be included with the Select 6 instead of the Leftovers. I have personally speculated, without consultation or discussion with anyone, that perhaps the Lansing lawsuit could have been avoided if all the issues related to the liquor store were investigated in the same process.

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply in anyway that you had personally “included” the City Administrator into the investigation of issues surrounding the liquor store. I think it is quite clear that you would never do such a thing.

    It was my recollection (and perhaps it was in our face-to-face discussion in the coffee shop, because I will admit, I didn’t hear it on the radio show), that you stated that there had been two sides to the communication between the Mayor and the City Administrator regarding the liquor store and that only the documents produced by the Mayor had been gathered by the City Administrator for presentation to the Council and then passed by the unknown person to the Northfield News. It was in regard to this missing half of the communication that I “included” the City Administrator in the discussion of the investigation of the liquor store site selection process. If you did not suggest the existence of the two sides of the communication between the Mayor and City Administrator, I apologize for attributing it to you and will claim it as my own recognition of the probable reality.

    Frankly, after spending all this time reviewing and repeating this discussion, I return to David Ludescher’s comment #78 in “Nfld News: Mayor Lansing sues Roder, Cashman, Denison and Pokorney”: “Scott – Is there any reason that you and the Council cannot have the same kind of open discussion on the 14 issues? Why the secrecy and private investigator? I don’t get it, and I don’t think the rest of the town understands either.” I would add to his question the phrase “independent investigation”.

    – Ross

  6. Victor and I were both big advocates of getting Scott (now Counselor ) Davis to run for office; I believe Victor lobbied long and hard for that to happen.

    I must say, Scott, that HONESTLY, I was very disappointed in your replies regarding some of the situations discussed on the radio show.

    We cannot all agree all the time; I am just saying that your answers on several subjects smacked of what I call “the room with the electrodes”. Others may have been 100% in agreement with all that you said.

    I was very disappointed with your answers on the “Judy Dirks issue”; there was no apology there, and I think one is warranted. I have similar dissatisfaction with the way you reacted to D. deLong at a council meeting; you know that because I said it publicly before my agenda comment.

    I am glad you opened a blog; but so far it has not opened things up; the vote was always in the public record …people can and will make of it what they may, until further explanation is given.

    If such open adversity had not been exhibited, in the council chambers, maybe each and every person would have been more willing to “own up” to their issue(s).

    IMHO, you guys (council) have lost your way … is it such a big deal that you will never be able to handle it? Of course, at this point you don’t see it as I do.
    But if you only look at the majority of comments on these various discussions, and the letters in the paper, and the meetings in peoples houses, at some point you have got to realize that this is a very big deal which the council’s lack of recognizing in a publicly informative manner, hurts us all.

    No one even expects anything PUBLICLY meaningful to come of the special investigator’s work.

    The council seems paralyzed; example: where’s a report on Chief Smith and his health? The lack of responsibility to that employee, much less just the absolute absence of common courtesy is appalling.

    So back to the main question: I have been, and am, a supporter of Counselor Davis …but I was not happy with his answers on the radio show.

  7. Many people are very, very happy that Scott and the other councilors are attempting to deal with these issues, despite the constant criticism from some people.
    Phrases such as the “room with the electrodes” just aren’t helpful or civil. And while some are disappointed with Scott’s comments on the prayer issue, many agree with him. And many of us are willing to let the investigator do his work and we are hopeful that something meaningful will come out of the report. Let’s face it, if the staff did the report, people would blast it. If the councilors gave up their day jobs and tried to do the investigation themselves, they’d be blasted.
    Maybe the council isn’t so much paralyzed but hog-tied by rumors and complaints. Perhaps the elected officials should be allowed to do their jobs without all the constant second-guessing and speculation. Just because a decision doesn’t go your way, it doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision.
    If you believe you speak for the majority, run for office. Scott did, and it would seem that he’s been speaking with his constituents as he decides what to do next.
    We all have a right to speak, but let’s remember that the only people we represent are ourselves.

  8. Let’s also remember that we have elected people to represent us, and they have an obligation to listen.
    Let’s also remember that not being able to follow a clear course of action could be termed “paralyzed”.
    Let’s also remember that when a person runs for office, with a lot of complaints about the city/staff process, and the lack of its inclusiveness of public opinion, i.e. as exemplified by not listening to its citizen boards and commissions, and then seems to be willing to criticize the citizens, that switch in perspective may be questioned with a descriptive phrase (i.e. the room with the electrodes). That could be a querying way of asking an elected official why their perspective is so different now, after being elected.
    And finally, let us TRY to remember that most of what is expressed here is opinion, and to call each other’s opinions uncivil, is both demeaning and UNCIVIL; whereas disagreeing with another’s opinion is not .

  9. Hey, you in comment #14 – who are you really, and what have you done with Anne Bretts? 🙂

    (I’m scanning comments and was surprised by the unexpectedly conciliatory nature of the second and third paragraphs vis-a-vis City leadership.)

  10. I agree about the armchair quarterbacking, but isn’t this the nature of government “of the people, by the people, for the people”?

    When you say, “Maybe the council isn’t so much paralyzed but hog-tied by rumors and complaints. Perhaps the elected officials should be allowed to do their jobs without all the constant second-guessing and speculation”, it points to the tension inherent in trying to get things done while being accountable in the process.

    For the record, I like the councillors too. Some might be a bit wooden-headed at times, and others might not get something until the second or third time an idea is explained, but I’ll try not to hold that against them. And I’ll save my rant about The Vision Thing for some other time.

  11. OK, Tracy, here’s an example:
    There was one very public complaint about the prayer ladies…the ladies were moved that night, the room policy was adopted later…but the method of the complaint and the arm-chair quarterbacking ended up with a news story, gobs of jabbering on this site and the item being considered for submission to the State Auditor, who doesn’t even deal with these issues.
    Now I’m not minimizing the importance of the separation of church and state, but reasonable people received the complaint, dealt with the problem and solved it, and would have if the complaint had been made to the mayor or a council person or the city clerk or the city attorney or the city administrator. I am going to assume that the person making the complaint was trying to solve a problem and not just cause a controversy. But the process just didn’t foster reasonable behavior. The person making the complaint could have been more civil. Councilors and the administrator never should have responded to the complaint. They should have thanked the person and referred the issue to the city attorney for review.
    All I’m saying is that we need a reasonable process for civil complaining and civil and public accountability. There are more than 18,000 people in town and we can’t have the entire council debating individuals at every council meeting, and we can’t call in inestigators every time someone has heard someone did something wrong.

  12. Anne, you’ve put your finger on another one of the core challenges we face in Northfield, and I’ve noticed it in one form or another almost as long as I’ve lived here (15+ years). That is, Northfield feels and acts like a small town– in both good and bad ways, e.g. multiple spheres of influence and interaction, living in a fishbowl in terms of gossip– yet the community has grown so much and so quickly that it simply isn’t reasonable for our elected officials to continue in the direct, hands-on, often micromanaging ways of handling the issues of governance. It’s not reasonable, it’s not working well…. yet if we try to give it up and move to something less personal and more process-oriented, there’s an outcry about that too.

    I think it’s just growing pains, and I’m confident that it’ll be worked out. Eventually. After a lot of angst and pain for both elected officials and the citizens. For years and years. Until many give up and go away.

    But maybe our kids will have it figured out by the time they inherit it all.

  13. Thanks for the edit, Griff. I meant to do that myself before I sent it.
    It’s the curse of blogging…A good line isn’t the same as a fair one — and fair beats entertaining every time. Sometimes it take an editor to catch the difference. Good call!

  14. Lansing’s have agreed to dismiss the matter, with prejudice.

    “Attorneys for the City of Northfield have been informed that the lawsuit brought by David and Heidi Lansing and DHJJ, Inc. has been resolved. The Plaintiffs have agreed to dismiss the matter, with prejudice. This dismissal includes all claims in the lawsuit against the City of Northfield, City Administrator Al Roder, and Councilmembers Cashman, Denison, and Pokorney.

    The City of Northfield and its attorneys believe the dismissal at this stage demonstrates the baseless nature of the allegations against the City and the individual defendants. Councilmen Cashman, Denison and Pokorney hope that the conclusion of the lawsuit will also pave the way for the release of the tapes of the closed meeting as well.”

  15. As many of you know, I have been in favor of a recall election. To my mind, the Lansings’ withdrawal of the lawsuit looks like a white flag, even though Mayor Lansing was not described as being involved in the resolution by the Northfield News account. I think this constitutes a big step forward toward resolving this matter.

    The other piece of the puzzle would be for Mr. Lansing to publicly acknowledge and apologize for his behind-the-scenes use of the office of mayor in this manner. He certainly apologized once already, at the infamous Saturday morning special council meeting, but it didn’t sound like he understood what he had done wrong and therefore could be trusted not to repeat the same mistakes. Instead, he used generic phrases such as

    I never intended to abuse my power of office in any way…. I’m sorry…. Where I have fallen short, I ask for your forgiveness.

    I hope that Mayor Lansing can offer a more concrete apology in the near future. In the meantime, I do hope that he will turn in his grand master key (if he has one) and relinquish his private office space. The charter doesn’t speak directly to the matter of keys or office space, so I think the best guide there is what has been done with previous mayors. I understand that no prior mayor has had a private office in city hall.

    I feel that we’re suddenly much closer to a resolution with which I for one could be satisfied. Mr. Lansing, thanks for any behind-the-scenes work you did to help bring this lawsuit to a resolution.

  16. Scott: re your post # 22, and the release of the tapes…
    Since the council refused to let the tapes be public from the time of the May/June meetings until voting to do so on November 19, and the lawsuit was not filed until October, could you explain the council’s reasoning for not letting the tapes out initially?

  17. Before everyone thinks the dismissal was from the kindness of their hearts, get the facts. The Lansings had a deadline of 12/31/07 to state their case & they couldn’t do it. The city could now take them to court and ask for all their attorney fees to be paid & for a dismissal. There will be a article in the paper with complete details.

  18. Come on, Lisa..How does this attitude fit with other, more humane, attitudes you’ve expressed? The worst has been done, that they can legally do to the Mayor… censure him. He has been humiliated by the council’s actions towards him when there is nothing he did re: the liquor store site that the council didn’t approve with their own “preferred” site selection vote.

    This man has been humiliated and now you call for him to further aggressed against; I guess he could ask for his legal fees to be paid, at least up to the level of Mr. Roders.

    NO ONE will speak to that issue… the council’s vote as to their preferred site… or who it was (council) who kept the tapes from the public, until they decided it was to their strategic advantage to act the “injured party” and then call for the release of the tapes … and then blame the mayor for taking the exact same action re the tapes (witholding them) that they took from May until November.

    We are NOT dealing with a criminal, at least in the Mayor’s seat.

    If people continue to ignore the other parts of this “equation” they are going to feel so remorseful, when all is said and done.

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