Voters give elected officials their jobs, and — in most cases — they should be the ones to take those jobs away. But what can and should communities do when there is a strong case that officials should be removed from office sooner rather than later?
At least three Minnesota cities are facing that situation now, with officials who have engaged in misconduct but won’t resign and cannot be forced out. These quandaries make a case for the Legislature to revisit state rules governing the removal of elected officials. Here’s why:
On Monday night, the Maple Plain City Council was expected to stop salary payments to Mayor Roger Hackbarth. Earlier this year, the council censured Hackbarth and stripped him of most of his responsibilities over his vulgarity, “extreme anger” and alleged harassment of a female employee. An independent investigation found the mayor guilty of inappropriate actions at work, but no charges were filed. So Hackbarth technically remains on the job.
Meanwhile, last week in Maple Grove, residents understandably protested the return of Council Member LeAnn Sargent, who was recently released from the county workhouse after essentially stealing money from her dying father. The council condemned her behavior by censuring her, but she cannot be removed from office under current state law.
And in the western Minnesota community of Lake Park, 200 people signed a petition asking Mayor Aaron Wittnebel to resign after he was charged with financially exploiting his sister, who has Down syndrome.
The state Constitution includes a process for impeachment, recall or removal from office of legislators; the governor and lieutenant governor; the secretary of state, state auditor and attorney general; Supreme Court justices and other judges, and county officials. But there is no provision for city officials, leaving about 90 percent of the state’s 800-plus municipalities without a path toward removal.
City officials can automatically be disqualified from office if convicted of a felony. And about 100 Minnesota cities that operate under their own charters may include recall provisions in those charters. But the majority of cities can find themselves stuck with an official who deserves to lose his or her job.
City councils can vote to censure, as council members did with Sargent. But that’s nothing more than a no-confidence vote. After being censured, Sargent returned to her council post last week despite calls from her colleagues and constituents to resign.
Sargent could have been sentenced for a felony, but District Court Judge Luis Bartolomei decided on a gross misdemeanor specifically so that Sargent could keep working to pay restitution for financially exploiting her late father for more than $100,000.
Maple Grove residents are not alone in their disgust with Sargent. The Hennepin County attorney’s office has appealed Bartolomei’s decision, arguing that he should not have reduced the charge from a felony to a gross misdemeanor.
Certainly, it’s a serious matter to remove an elected official. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly, and the obvious risk is that less-cumbersome laws would be exploited for political reasons or because of disagreements over policy. We understand the argument that voters need only wait until the next election to send a bad public servant packing.
The automatic dismissal for felonies is reasonable. Those who commit felony-level crimes shouldn’t be setting the laws for the rest of us. But cities should have recourse when officials are guilty of some types of misdemeanors — including those involving financial fraud — that destroy public confidence.
As one Maple Grove resident told the Star Tribune: “I’m against convicted criminals being on the City Council. It begs the question: What types of crimes do people feel are OK for an elected official [to have]? If I speed, that shouldn’t affect it. But something like this … people don’t want that negative publicity attached to our city.”
That’s a good summary of the problems in Maple Grove, Maple Plain and Lake Park, and it poses a question the 2015 Legislature should ask as it looks for ways to help cities hold their elected officials accountable for reasonable standards of conduct.