City of Fairmont moves toward investigation

FAIRMONT — A council member called for the mayor to relinquish her gavel at the Fairmont City Council meeting Monday, after Mayor Debbie Foster questioned Councilman Tom Hawkins’ decision to contact an investigative firm without council approval.

Hawkins had requested a motion to hire the Twin Cities firm of Madden Galanter Hansen to investigate why the council was never made aware of aging criminal cases handled by former City Attorney Elizabeth Bloomquist, specifically those that expired due to the statute of limitations, and also to investigate who at City Hall knew about the cases.

“Councilor Hawkins, you didn’t have any authority to go asking another company to do services for the city without getting City Council approval to go seeking those services,” Foster said.

“Point of order. You need to vacate the chair and hand your gavel over if you’re going to talk like that,” said Councilwoman Ruth Cyphers.

“I was just making a comment that no council member has the authority to do that,” Foster said.

Councilman Randy Lubenow asked the mayor if she was “scared they’re going to find something,” adding that city staff has a responsibility to report any issues to the council.

“I’m not disputing that,” Foster said.

Erik Ordahl, an attorney with Flaherty and Hood, the city’s interim civil legal counsel, offered his opinion.

“The request to seek this type of work is not the issue. It’s the fact that Councilman Hawkins apparently spoke with a firm and determined they would do this work on behalf of the city without getting council approval,” Ordahl said.

“Is there something illegal about doing it the way I’m doing it?” Hawkins asked.

“Council members on their own don’t have authority to take action for cities, regardless of what that action is,” Ordahl said. “An individual council member does not have the authority to seek out services.”

He noted that individual council members can take such action only if authorized by the whole body.

“Without that authority, council members don’t have power to act on their own,” he said.

Hawkins then suggested voting on a motion to give him that authority, then voting on the motion to hire the investigative firm.

“Going forward, this should not be a practice this council takes,” said Ordahl, offering “strong advice” that the council should not act as individuals to avoid potential liability down the road.

Hawkins called for a vote on his original motion.

“He’s an attorney. You asked if this was illegal, and he essentially said yes,” said Councilman Bruce Peters.

“What motion are we voting for?” Lubenow asked.

After the mayor read Hawkins’ original motion, Lubenow commented, “I don’t feel comfortable voting on that if he (attorney) says it’s illegal.”

The motion failed with only Hawkins and Cyphers supporting it, but Lubenow suggested a subsequent motion. After some discussion, the council unanimously approved a motion requesting Flaherty and Hood to work with the council and city staff to determine the scope of an investigation and facilitate the recommendation of a qualified firm.

During the discussion of Hawkins’ original motion, Peters suggested that council members look at themselves to find out who was responsible for unresolved legal cases, referring to the fact that the council has sole supervisory authority over the City Attorney.

“It was our fault. We don’t need an investigation. We better buck up to this and shoulder the responsibility,” he said.

“I said publicly that I think it’s unreasonable that nobody in City Hall knew,” Hawkins said. “We don’t work in the building. I believe there are people in City Hall that know and should have told us.”

In another matter that drew a split vote, the council discussed another motion from Hawkins to direct the City Attorney to provide legal advice and guidance to a council member or mayor upon their individual request, not as a request from the entire council as is the current practice. The requests would be limited to three times per month, with a maximum of five billable hours per request, but no more than 10 cumulative billable hours per individual.

Peters noted that the potential cost to this city for just this one portion of legal services could be more than $100,000 per year.

The motion passed, with Councilman Wayne Hasek dissenting, after council members implemented changes to require the attorney to share the advice and guidance requested with the rest of the council and that billing should include the name of the individual requesting legal services.

Council members also discussed steps that have been taken to avoid any future possibility of any criminal cases not being prosecuted promptly. Police Chief Mike Hunter said he has created a system in which he personally tracks and audits each case and will run a quarterly report on the system with the department captain or administrative sergeant. The process was begun in June, and currently there are 129 active cases in Martin County.