Battle over recalling 6 Red Wing City Council members moves to the courts

The powers that be at Red Wing City Hall have already voted on the recall special election aimed at six of seven city council members. But they still don’t think citizens should get the same opportunity.

It didn’t exactly take a political pundit or poll to predict the outcome of their vote. The result was a landslide, with only one city council member voting to hold a recall election and the remaining six councilors, the targets of the recall campaign, voting against a special election.

The council members went ahead despite being put on notice that their decision would be challenged in court by the attorney representing the Recall City Hall citizens group behind the campaign.

“You’re setting a process in motion that will not only cost taxpayer money but public trust,” attorney Greg Joseph told Red Wing City Councilors before their recent vote on the issue. “What’s that worth? I urge you not to do this. Don’t make the terrible and costly mistake you’re about to make.”

Joseph made the case that it’s up to citizens, not the city council, to determine whether they should face a recall election. Grassroots activists spent weeks collecting the signatures of more than 20 percent of the electorate from the last election in each ward in support of holding a recall vote.

“Recall is a power reserved for the voters under the city charter. This power is not to be doled out at the discretion of the city council. If you don’t like the recall provision in the charter, then you can try to amend the charter and delete it. But while it’s there, you’ve got to play by the same rules as everyone else.”

In fact, the Red Wing City Charter stipulates:

If the petition or amended petition is found sufficient, the clerical officer shall transmit it to the Council without delay and shall also officially notify the person sought to be recalled of the sufficiency of the petition and of the pending action. The Council shall, at its next meeting, by resolution provide for filing dates and other provisions necessary for the holding of a special recall election not less than 45 nor more than 60 days after such meeting.

The Red Wing City Council, however, takes the position that residents haven’t established malfeasance on the part of the six elected officials as they believe to be required by the city charter in order to hold a special election, according to the Post Bulletin.

“The (Red Wing City) Charter and the Minnesota Constitution are clear that elected officials can only be recalled for malfeasance or nonfeasance,” [City Council President Becky] Norton wrote in response to questions from the Post Bulletin. Norton went on to cite a case from 1959, Jacobsen v. Nagel. “The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that the same malfeasance and nonfeasance standard that applies to state officials applies to council members of a charter city.”

If the conduct of the council members does not constitute malfeasance or nonfeasance, Norton concluded, there is no obligation to schedule a recall election, which is why the city council was justified in its action.

Attorney Greg Joseph believes a previous case in Minnesota courts sets a precedent for cities to hold a special election without additional requirements on citizens. The court has not set a date yet to hear the case that asks the judge to order Red Wing to put all but one city council member before the voters to decide whether they remain in office.