Fairmont mayor: City needs more facts

FAIRMONT — Fairmont Mayor Debbie Foster says she was surprised and upset by a report this week about former City Attorney Elizabeth Bloomquist’s actions or inaction.

She also believes the city’s residents need to keep an open mind about the situation, saying there are always two sides to every story.

Foster made her comments in the wake of revelations about criminal cases under Bloomquist’s watch that expired under the state’s statute of limitations. The cases have come up for discussion twice at City Council meetings, but gained a notoriety this week through a report by Twin Cities-based television station KSTP. It said there are 36 cases in all, dating back to 2012.

Bloomquist told the Sentinel this week that she could not comment, because she had not seen the files in question and also agreed not to talk about the city in a separation agreement she signed earlier this year.

Bloomquist served as City Attorney for 30 years prior to her departure in mid-May. The expired cases were not a factor in that event. They were not revealed until after she ended her tenure and her duties were turned over the County Attorney’s office.

Foster says the city does not have the needed facts to make an evaluation of what happened in the cases. She agrees that even one case that hits the statute of limitations without some resolution (filing of charges, closing the case) is too many, but also says there are a lot of assumptions tied to the reaction she has been hearing. Assumptions do not constitute information, she says.

While she and other members of the council have considered or suggested opening an investigation, the city’s new interim City Attorney has advised against it. Foster says she will ask a representative of Flaherty & Hood of St. Paul to explain at Monday’s council meeting. The agenda for the meeting also includes an item titled “KSTP Report” under new business.

Foster believes oversight of the city’s prosecutor, whoever that ends up being, must change. She hopes the prosecutor will remain the Martin County Attorney’s Office, but the council has not finalized that decision. The County Attorney is working under a six-month interim contract.

Foster says she was involved with three evaluations of Bloomquist, and it became clear to her right away that judging the City Attorney’s work on civil cases was easier than for criminal cases. She said the city can see results from litigation as wins or losses in court. And when the city has been in court while she has served as mayor, it has always won.

But on criminal cases, council members — who are the only direct supervisors of the City Attorney — are not there to see what happens. Council members do not observe the City Attorney in court or review the cases.

“We do not have access to any of the files that go from the Fairmont Police Department to the City Attorney,” Foster said. “Zero. We don’t know how many, we don’t know what the cases are, we don’t know who is involved. It’s not our business to know that [because the cases are confidential].”

Foster said the City Attorney, on her own, determined whether there was enough evidence to charge people with misdemeanor offenses. Gross misdemeanor charges and felonies were not handled by the City Attorney, but transferred to the County Attorney’s Office.

Foster said that in the three years she has been mayor, she has had one person come to her to ask how long it takes the City Attorney to look at a case. She said the person had no specifics and no information, and was making assumptions based on what someone else had told them. Foster said she went to Bloomquist and asked her if she was behind in her work. She said Bloomquist responded, “No.” Foster says she returned to the person who had asked about the matter and told them she was taking Bloomquist at her word. The issue never came up again.

Foster said the first the council heard of the expired cases was at a council meeting, when Councilman Randy Lubenow brought them up. It is not clear how he learned about them, although KSTP reported that County Attorney Terry Viesselman alerted city officials.

The Sentinel left a phone message with Viesselman on Friday. It was not immediately returned.

It is also not clear if Viesselman’s office or anyone at City Hall has ever contacted Bloomquist to ask for clarification about the cases. Foster says she has not talked to Bloomquist, who, as noted earlier, said she does not know which cases are involved.

Foster said it is a good thing that people, in general, do not know what is happening in prosecutors’ offices, because criminal cases should be kept confidential until a prosecutor decides to file charges. But she said every person in city government — elected officials and staff — must be accountable.

“There needs to be a check and balance … when it comes to the criminal cases, but we need to come up with something,” she said.

She said City Council members do not need to know what cases the County Attorney is handling for the city, but they do need to know whether those cases are on track. She suggests a twice yearly update.

Foster also re-emphasized that only the City Council supervises the City Attorney. She made clear that city administrator Mike Humpal has not been involved in any oversight or evaluations of Bloomquist, because it is not his job. Humpal has said publicly and in front of the council that he had no knowledge of the expired cases.

“Why would he?” Foster asks.

Finally, she said the question she gets most from citizens is whether any of the cases that ran past their statute of limitations involved past or present elected officials, or any employees of the city, county or Fairmont school district. She said she has confirmed with the help of the police chief that the cases do not involve any of those people.