Should Councilor Denison have abstained from voting on the Rental Board appointments?

Jon Dennison Northfield 4th Ward City Councilor Jon Denison voted against the appointment of Andrew Berglund and David Geist to the Rental Board at last Monday’s Council meeting, even though he abstained on a similar vote last September. According to Jane McWilliams’ LWV Observer report:

Councilor Jon Denison had requested that the second reading amending the Rental Housing ordinance be removed from the consent agenda, and placed on the regular one. At a previous meeting he had opposed the first reading, and now said the membership should be increased to 7, rather than reduced to recommended 5 (in order to avoid potential tie votes). His concern at this meeting was there were not sufficient stakeholders, specifically tenant’s represented. He later requested that the council take action separately on the mayor’s nominees for membership on the board (Andrew Berglund, landlord and David Geist, contractor) because they were not tenants. Councilors Denison and Zweifel voted against the appointments of those candidates.

In an article in the Sept 16, 2008 issue of the Northfield News titled Appointments to boards are made:

The council also OK’d five appointments — Andrew Berglund, David Geist, Don McGee, Kenneth Malecha and Bill Simonet Jr. — to the new Rental Code Board of Appeal 5-1. Davis voted no. Denison abstained due to a legal issue with one nominee.

The legal issues mentioned  in that article were evidently with Denison’s landlord Andrew Berglund. Other Northfield News articles:

A comment on the article titled Council OKS board appointments on the Northfield New website by someone name Pietro says:

Online district court records reveal that on October 24, 2008 Berglund, once a Denison landlord, was awarded a judgement of $1,471.25 stemming from Councilor Denison having been substantially arrear in his rent. The same records indicate that an order to show cause hearing is currently on the calendar of Judge Thomas M. Neuville for next Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 1:30pm, apparently in the matter of Councilor Denison’s refusal to comply with the court ordered award.

There is also a comment there by reporter Suzy Rook that includes an email from City Attorney Maren Swanson.

Here’s the video from the Council meeting.


Rental Board discussion at Northfield City Council from Griff Wigley on Vimeo.

0-13 minutes: discussion of 5 vs 7 members on the Rental Board

13-25 minutes: discussion of Rental Board appointments.

16 thoughts on “Should Councilor Denison have abstained from voting on the Rental Board appointments?”

  1. I first started looking into this after the article appeared in the Northfield News. I emailed Joel Walinski, interim city administrator about it. Below is what he wrote to me:

    Hello Bonnie –

    Council Member Denison had informed me there was some past legal dispute between himself and Andrew Berglund, I did not know the extent nor conclusion of the actions taken.

    If there is a personal interest which is incompatible with the proper discharge of a public official’s duties in the public interest, or that would tend to impair his independence of judgment or action in the performance of his official duties, then under the city’s ethics ordinance the public official is required to disclose the personal interest and disqualify himself from discussion and voting, except he may participate in discussion as a member of the public.

    It is up to the public official to decide whether he or she has such a conflict of interest and if so, to disclose it and abstain from discussion and voting as a member of the council. It is not up to the mayor or city attorney or anyone else to make this determination or disclosure. Mr. Denison apparently determined that he did not have a personal interest in the appointment of Mr. Berglund to the rental board of appeals which required him to disclose the interest and abstain from discussion and voting. Someone else might have made a different decision, but it is up to the officer to make the decision.

    If I recall correctly, Council Member Denison’s reasoning for not voting in favor of either appointment to the Rental Board had more to do with the appointment of a renter being appointed, hence Mr. Denison’s request for a seven member board on as earlier item that evening.
    I would also suggest that a conflict of interest typically revolves around a personal financial interest in or benefit from a sale, lease or contract the official is authorized to participate in making on behalf of the city. If Mr. Denison had a conflict of interest on the matter of the appointment of Mr. Berglund, it does not appear that it was one of those contractual conflicts which could have such dire consequences.

    Hope this helps, let me know if you need anything further from me on this item.

    Joel

    Joel Walinski
    Interim City Administrator
    City of Northfield
    801 Washington
    507 645-3009

    At first, I hesitated to go further with this story, since Denison apparently broke no rule. However, the issue inspires some larger questions I want to explore further with the Representative Journalism Project. As Ross Currier put it in one of our discussions on this matter “In a town this size, are we going to undermine economic development and political leadership because everyone has some kind of potential conflict?”

  2. Here’s the text of the conflict of interest section that Tracy referenced above:

    Sec. 2-127.  Conflict of interest.

    (a)   Personal financial interest in sale, lease or contract with city.  Any public official who has a personal financial interest in any sale, lease, or contract with the city shall make such interest known to the city council and shall be bound by state law in determining how to resolve such a conflict of interest.

    (b)   Other conflicts.  Any public official who engages in any business or transaction or has a financial or other personal interest, direct or indirect, including an interest arising from blood, adoptive, or marriage relationships or close business or personal associations, which interest is incompatible with the proper discharge of his/her official duties in the public interest or would tend to impair his/her independence of judgment or action in the performance of official duties, shall disclose the nature of such activity or interest and shall disqualify himself/herself from discussion and voting, provided that such member shall be allowed to participate in discussion as a member of the public. Disqualification is not called for, however, if discussion and action by a public official will not affect him/her more than any other member of the same group, neighborhood, business classification, profession, or occupation.

    (c)   Disclosure of confidential information.  Public officials shall observe the dictates of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (Minn. Stat. ch. 13) and related laws with reference to confidentiality of information. No public official shall use any “not public data” to advance the financial or other private interest of himself/herself or others.

    (d)   Gifts and favors.  Public officials shall comply with Minn. Stat. § 471.895, which prohibits gifts to local officials. This section shall not make unlawful or unethical any practice allowed under Minn. Stat. ch. 211B or related laws.

    (e)   Political activity.  No public official, whether elected or appointed, shall promise an appointment to any municipal position as a reward for any political activity.

  3. It seems to me that, before he voted, Jon should have:

    • reminded people that he abstained from a similar vote last fall and reiterated his rationale then;
    • revealed that he still had a current legal situation with Andrew Berglund that was not yet resolved
    • given his rationale for why he’d decided that was appropriate for him to vote on Berglund’s appointment to the Rental Board;
    • explain why the code of ethics wording of the Charter re: ‘personal interest’ and ‘impair his/her independence of judgment or action in the performance of official duties’ didn’t apply in this case.

    Without adequate explanation, the public is left to wonder.

  4. I think Denison is in the right to vote on the matter.

    If the requirement was for a councilperson to abstain or recuse if they’re being sued, a nefarious citizen could force an abstention by suing. For example, if I wanted to prevent Denison from voting against my bid to build a glass dome over Northfield (like in “The Simpson’s Movie”), I could file a lawsuit alleging that he hit me even though there are no witnesses. I could sue several councilpeople for a conspiracy to violate my civil rights and force them to abstain. So, just because there is a legal dispute is no reason to expect an abstention.

    We must not expect that his being part of a legal dispute should force him to abstain or recuse himself.

    Whether Denison voted one way or another, his financial or other obligations to Berglund would not change. Therefore he has no “interest” in the vote. If Denison does not like Berglund for any number of reasons, he can still vote impartially. It’s wrong to assume that people, even civil servants, can’t distinguish between their feelings and their duty. When I have been on nonprofit boards, I did not always vote for my friends or against people I didn’t like. I voted in the organization’s interest. So can Denison.

    It would be good public relations to disclose his rationale if there is an appearance of conflict. So if Denison has made any error, I think it’s only in the public relations arena. Personally, I don’t think that he erred. He was elected to represent his Ward, so he should vote in accordance with his Ward’s interests. If a councilperson abstained every time an apparent or potential conflict of interest came up, the councilperson would be failing their duty to represent.

  5. Are there any tenants among the people appointed to this board? I do recall that we (tenants) were supposed to be represented.

  6. I would think the conflict of interest would have to be weighed out against Dennison’s obligation to his ward. After all they are expecting representation.

  7. Mr. Denison has been completely consistent for a year, saying that he would not vote for a landlord until there was a tenant on the board. Mr. Berglund’s nomination came up first, so he was following his stated position in opposing a landlord appointment.
    One could argue that he was acting against his own best interests in doing so. Voting for Mr. Berglund might have helped him win a more favorable settlement of his legal case. A critic might say the motive was retaliation, but with another court date pending, a move against Mr. Berglund would be a risky one for Mr. Denison.
    Since the critics of Mr. Denison have made it their mission to spread word of his legal problems to all who would listen, I am not clear that a ‘public disclosure’ would have accomplished anything, other than another supposed public embarrassment.
    Those who are concerned about Mr. Denison paying his judgment might consider that their constant harrassment makes it all but impossible for him to find work in an already tough economy. Is the point better government, payment of a personal debt or simple cruelty against a person who has dared try to build a life and set an example of service for those who live in the margins of this community?

  8. Instead of publicly trouncing the man, why don’t we find a way to get 75 folks together to give $20 each, and pool that resource so he can clear himself of this financial issue.

    Seriously, we can all spare a cost of a decent meal, even in this tough economy to help out our fellow man.

    I have met Jon, and I believe he is a good man. I am sure if he had the means to pay this, it would have been taken care of by now.

    There are folks struggling all over this community… Open your eyes, and your hearts, show some compassion, and help if you can.

    With this economy, you could be next.

  9. In the context of the last 2 years debate, often rancorous, on the subject of conflict of interest, Bonnie makes a valid observation and raises an interesting point. Jerold, you provide a very well reasoned argument in defense of Jon’s position. As expected, Anne and John, you only seem interested in raising the temperature – providing no light only heat.

  10. Norm,

    I have absolutely NO interest in raising the temprature on this. I only comment because, frankly, I am tired of hearing about city hall, and have been for a very long time.

    What do you want me to say, or how do you want me to comment?
    (not meant to be an argumentative or combative, just a question on how to respond by NOT raising the temprature)

    Let me state my position, maybe that will help.

    * I do believe that there should be a code of conduct, and that it should be followed.
    * I do believe that folks should recuse themselves from known or percieved conflicts of interest.
    * I do believe that another persons finances are none of my business.
    * I do believe that even public officials should have some rights of privacy.
    * I do believe that it is up to each individual to police themselves.
    * I do believe that even if an elected offical does what they percieve is the right thing, there will always be someone else in Northfield that will have an alternate view point.

    I also believe that:

    * I am in no position to judge Mr. Dennison. (Judge not, Lest you be judged…)
    * I do not have all the facts.
    * I do not have the time, or the want to obtain all the facts.
    * Much of the “facts” presented here may or may not be facts.
    * Much of what is presented here may or may not be hear say.
    * Some of the people that post here may or may not have alternate personal agendas on some of these topics.

    Frankly, I didn’t want to comment on the situation at all. The only point I wanted to make is that it would be nice to try to help people instead of looking at them through a microscope.

    It would just be nice if we could hear about something good, something positive, and take some positive action on something for once. It just always feel like we are always looking for a negative.

    Bonnie does make an valid observation, and an interesting point, and it is probably worthy of discussion. My comment is more of a general statement, about how it would be nice to help out our fellow man, as it may soon be one of us.

    I really do not want to enter the discussion of the right and wrong of Mr. Dennison’s actions, as I do not have an opinion at this time, nor enough facts to make a judgement.

    I just think that Jon would like to get this behind him, but more than likely there is much more to it, that makes it difficult for a quick fix.

    So, hopefully, that explains where I am trying to come from. This was one area where I really didnt want to stir the pot, and turn up the heat.

    Peace, Love, Recycle, and help your fellow man. I’m going back to work now, and will look for more comments this evening.

    Note: This would be so much easier to have some of these discussions face to face, so maybe I will have to stop down for a pint. It is very hard sometimes to state ones position, and percieve other’s positions through only the text on a page. I know I do not understand it all. I will just continue to interact. 😎

  11. John T.

    According to the N’field News Jon D. has had three landlord disputes that have resulted in legal action for back rent and/or damages. I haven’t rented in quite a while, but when I was younger I rented around twenty apartments or houses over the course of fifteen years. I never had a legal problem with a landlord. My guess is that mine was a fairly typical tenant experience in terms of legal actions.

    Given that, I will abstain from donating to the Dennison back rent fund.

  12. William,

    That information would definitely come under the “I do not have all the facts”.

    I did not know that there was more than one issue. I was actually trying to make a generalization about kindness and compassion rather than start an actual back rent fund.

    I really do believe that one should help their fellow man, but this does paint a different picture.

    I will just have to continue to stand on the sidelines and learn more about this. Thanks for enlightening me.

  13. John T…

    From the Northfield News website:

    “After Denison was evicted from an apartment on Third Street in January and found liable for back rent to a third former landlord, questions about his living arrangements have plagued the councilor.”

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