Minnesota local public officials who are criminally charged with anything from a DWI to financially exploiting a vulnerable adult can keep their jobs at City Hall, but increasingly face pressure from residents to resign.
That’s because, unlike with state officials, there’s not much else most cities in Minnesota can do when local elected officials are charged with a crime that’s not a felony or aren’t charged at all for acting inappropriately — leaving it up to residents to demand a resignation or take their dismay to the polls.
“There’s got to be a way when someone does something wrong … you should be able to remove that person from office,” said Jerry Young, acting mayor of Maple Plain, where the mayor recently was censured. “That’s a loophole in the system that really needs to be fixed.”
In Maple Grove, residents plan to pack a City Council meeting on Monday to protest the return of Council Member LeAnn Sargent, who was recently released from the county workhouse after financially exploiting her dying father. The council approved a censure, condemning her behavior, but says there’s nothing else it can do.
The same happened in Maple Plain earlier this year, when the City Council censured Mayor Roger Hackbarth and stripped him of his duties over what they called his vulgarity, “extreme anger” and inappropriate actions toward a female employee. However, no civil or criminal charges were filed.
And in western Minnesota, a similar scene is playing out in Lake Park, where 200 people have signed a petition asking Mayor Aaron Wittnebel to resign after he was charged with financially exploiting his sister, who has Down syndrome.
Wittnebel said this week that opposition against him is based on opinions, not facts. “Elected officials aren’t perfect, just as the voters aren’t perfect,” he said. “People want to get their digs in while you’re down.”
Laws vary by state
Recall laws vary by state. Minnesota’s Constitution includes a process for impeachment, recall or removal of legislators, the governor and lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state auditor, attorney general, Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals judges and district judges.
The ability to remove county officials was added in a statute in 1986. And in 1995, two Republicans proposed adding local city officials to recalls, but bills in both the House and Senate didn’t pass.
“The obvious remedy is to deal with it at the next election,” said Tom Grundhoefer, an attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities.
City officials can be automatically disqualified from office if convicted of a felony. And in Minnesota, cities that operate under a local charter can include the recall of officials in the charter. But most are statutory cities, which operate primarily under state statutes.
That’s why city councils upset with a council member or mayor’s behavior have instead taken the rare step of approving a censure.
In the west metro
In Maple Plain, 20 miles west of Minneapolis, council members did just that last March, citing Hackbarth, 71, for creating an “unsafe and unfriendly” atmosphere, and stripping him of most duties. The mayor told the local newspaper that a small group has been determined to “get rid of” him since he was elected in 2012.
In Maple Grove, Council Member Sargent, 63, also has no plans to step down despite public pressure, repeatedly saying she’s committed to finish her term until it ends in 2016. “I’m going to go and do my job,” she said recently.
She was sentenced in April on a gross misdemeanor for financially exploiting her father, accused of using her power of attorney to raid a trust fund for her own benefit.
Residents have since questioned whether Sargent can continue to be in a position to oversee city finances. More than 20 residents have said they’ll be at Monday’s council meeting, urging her to step down.
“I’m against convicted criminals being on the City Council,” resident David Bourn said. “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.”
An Alford plea
In Lake Park, a town of 800 people about 30 miles east of Fargo, N.D., a similar situation is playing out.
Wittnebel was charged last year with spending money that was to be spent on room and board for his sister with Down syndrome. According to the complaint, he admitted he “co-mingled” his money with funds he was supposed to oversee as his sister’s guardian. Investigators determined that more than $5,400 of her Social Security checks were “unaccounted for,” while receipts show he bought a laptop computer, a wireless router and groceries.
Wittnebel denied doing anything wrong, took an Alford plea and received a stay of adjudication, which means that the felony conviction will stay off his record if he completes probation and other conditions. He served 30 days and paid $5,400 in restitution.
That might have been the end of the story, but in June, Dave O’Connell and 200 residents — a fourth of Lake Park’s population — signed a petition asking Wittnebel to resign. “I want someone who does the right thing for the population,” O’Connell said.
The city and police department gave a “vote of no confidence” for the mayor a couple of weeks later. But Wittnebel said he wasn’t convicted of a crime and will stay until his term ends in 2016.
“I think a lot of the opinions they’ve formed is largely due to selective reports in the media,” his attorney, Joe Irby, said of public criticism, adding that his client spent money on groceries and clothing to care for his sister. “If they knew all the facts, they wouldn’t think he was such a bad guy.”
In July, Wittnebel was cited for driving after his license was revoked in 2010 after a DWI in Clay County. If a judge finds he violated his probation, the felony conviction could go on his record, disqualifying him from public office. But Irby said he thinks that’s unlikely.
But Wittnebel said he wants to move forward.
“I was elected to four years, not two, when the wind changes,” he said. “But it can change back if you keep at it. But if you give in, you haven’t accomplished anything.”