Public vote to fill seat remains unlikely before next fall
In the immediate aftermath of Forest Lake City Councilman Jeff Klein’s resignation at the Aug. 26 meeting, his four former peers seemed in agreement on waiting until the 2014 city election to put the vacated seat up for public vote.
That consensus quickly eroded, and the council at a workshop last week and its regular meeting on Monday discussed how long the interim tag on the required council appointee should last. After lengthy, convoluted and sometimes contentious debate, the election date appears to be back where it started: Nov. 5, 2014.
Now or later
Klein was elected last November to a term running through 2016. Under Minnesota Statute 412.02, a vacancy occurring before the first day to file for the next regular election and involving a term with more than two years remaining must be filled by a special election. This may take place at or before the next regular city election. An appointee must serve until the qualification of an elected successor.
Councilmen Mike Freer and Ben Winnick on Monday called for the special election to be held as early as this November.
“The people deserve the right to make the choice,” Freer said. “I don’t think we should be – as somebody said earlier – the dictators, versus leaders, letting the people lead.”
Winnick last fall earned the most votes out of four council candidates, securing one of two open seats. He said he has yet to hear from any resident who wants to wait until next fall to vote.
“I know the statute says we have to have an appointment, and I understand that,” Winnick said. “I’d just like to see an election as soon as possible.”
Freer motioned for city staff to bring forward a resolution for a special election to be held this November. Winnick seconded the motion, but it died on a 2-2 vote.
Mayor Chris Johnson and Councilwoman Susan Young both cited voter turnout in general elections as a key reason to wait 14 months for the special election. Young noted that holding it this November would not allow for the normal time for filing and campaigning. Providing congruent windows for those functions would push the special election back at least until January.
“My preference is November of ’14, because what you’ll have then is a very significant amount of the council, and the mayor, all up in one fell swoop,” Young said. “If there is a groundswell one way or the other, that is what it is.”
Johnson will have the power to appoint Klein’s temporary successor should the council fail to reach agreement after upcoming candidate interviews. In that case, the new face on the council may be a familiar one.
“If you want to do what the voters say, we just had an election 10 months ago,” Johnson said. “We had over 8,000 people attend and vote. The next person selected by the voters was Jim Dufour. If the sentiment is truly that we want to follow the sentiment of the voters, I think that’s the closest we can come to doing that.”
Dufour ran as an incumbent seeking a second term. He finished 273 votes behind Klein and 63 ahead of Ed Eigner.
Continuing, Johnson said voter turnout in a separate special election would be a fraction of that in a general one.
“I think it’s more of an effort to manipulate the process to avoid the will of the voters than it is to follow the will of the voters,” he told Freer. “If you really want to push that, I’m happy to move forward with Jim.”
Dufour took to the podium during the open forum on Monday to address Freer, who, at the workshop, had questioned the appropriateness of appointing Dufour back to the council.
“I don’t know what you consider to be qualified,” Dufour said Monday. “I did four years on council. I can count on one hand the meetings or appointments I missed.”
Dufour said Freer has yet to attend an Airport Commission meeting since being appointed a council liaison to it eight months ago. The former councilman added that he had not planned on applying for the vacancy until hearing Freer’s thoughts.
“I wasn’t going to put my name in for an appointment on that, but after that meeting, I thought of two words: Hell, yeah,” he said.
Freer responded by sharing his rationale for speaking out: He said Dufour on two occasions used an expletive during a council meeting.
“I stand for exactly what I said before: I don’t feel you’re fit to serve, sir,” Freer said.
Freer later in the meeting explained that for many months he was not getting notifications of the Airport Commission meetings. He now gets notice but the meetings conflict with his schedule. He said he has been trying to make the meetings.
Later, when Johnson mentioned Dufour as a preferred appointee, Freer questioned the mayor’s potential choice.
“Let me see if I heard you correct, Mr. Mayor,” Freer said. “If we continue with this, you’re going to move forward with a person who swears at people on camera.”
“I don’t have a major problem with that,” Johnson responded. “I know you and I might disagree, but I don’t feel it’s my job to police other council members.”
City Administrator Aaron Parrish laid out a schedule for filling the council vacancy.
The city will accept letters of interest until Friday, Sept. 20. Candidates will be interviewed at 5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 30. The new council member could be appointed at the regular council meeting that night or a special meeting could be set for Tuesday, Oct. 1.
Without a council majority voting to hold the special election earlier, it will be required to take place along with the 2014 general election. Two other council positions and the mayoral post will be on that city ballot.