Campaign to recall all Red Wing City Councilors proceeds over city hall opposition

It’s not every day the entire city council of a community faces a recall election. But that’s exactly what organizers of the Recall City Hall Committee in Red Wing hope to accomplish through a drive underway to capture enough signatures to go to the polls.

The grassroots campaign revolves around the city council’s handling of the dismissal of former Police Chief Roger Pohlman in February. But just as the effort gains momentum, the Post Bulletin reports a top official in City Hall hopes to pull the rug out from under the citizen activists.

At Monday’s Red Wing City Council meeting, [City Attorney Amy] Mace gave her legal opinion on the validity of the claim of malfeasance, adding that the actions of the City Council members did not rise to the definition of malfeasance in the Minnesota Constitution.

Mace said the definition for malfeasance means actions of a public official are “wholly illegal or wrong conduct,” and cited examples such as commission of a felony, or involvement in bribery or using one’s position for profit as actions that might warrant a recall.

The city attorney also opined that violations of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, which have not been established, fail to meet the definition of malfeasance.

Since it would be wrong to authorize an election based on charges that do not meet legal standards set in statute, Mace said, it would be inappropriate for the City Council to do so even if enough valid signatures are collected.

But the recall group’s attorney challenged the city attorney’s legal claims on several points.

“She’s wrong on a number of levels,” said Greg Joseph, a Waseca-based attorney who is representing the Recall City Hall committee. “The first and most glaring point is that (the City Council has) an option of whether to put it on the ballot, which is not the case. You have to ignore the plain language of the charter to get to that position.”

Joseph said the Red Wing City Charter is the key to the legal argument. For example, he noted that the case cited by Mace is regarding a statutory city, not a charter city, meaning its laws and definitions follow state statute to the letter. A charter city, like Red Wing, sets up its own recall rules.

Joseph knows what he’s talking about. In recent years he’s successfully represented citizens against two of Minnesota’s biggest charter cities, forcing elections in Bloomington and St. Paul. He’s prevailed twice before the Minnesota Supreme Court on behalf of citizens fighting to put a referendum on the ballot in Bloomington, setting case law in the process.

“These rights under city charter really do have teeth,” Joseph said. “A recall election has meaning, and the rights people have under a charter matter.”

One such right, he said, is clearly spelled out in the Red Wing charter, where it says if enough signatures have been certified on a recall petition, the City Council shall put it to a vote. Nowhere, he said, does it allow for the City Council to decide not to do so if the signature requirement is met.

While the charter does say the recall must meet a standard of “malfeasance or nonfeasance in office,” Joseph said the city charter does not define those words, though even if the state’s definition is used, the recall petitions outline instances that do meet that definition.

So the campaign moves forward to garner the signatures of the required 20 percent of the total number of registered voters in the last election in each ward. Organizers claim they’re making steady progress, despite some obstacles.

“We’re nonpartisan,” [recall committee member George] Hintz said, refuting a claim made during the City Council meeting by one public speaker who tried connecting the recall movement with climate change deniers. “We may not agree on certain things, but we agree on this. We’re focused on our City Council and straightening out our city government.” 

Stay tuned for what could be a precedent-setting campaign that could ultimately end up defining the rights and limits on Minnesotans to exercise their ability to recall local elected officials.