Did the St. Francis City Council do right when it promoted Jeff Harapat to police chief last month?

Harapat had been the department's interim chief since September and, in city administrator Matt Hylen's words, had stepped up and shown he can handle the responsibility.

And according to Mayor Randy Dressen, who voted to make Harapat the new chief, he "is qualified to do that job. There is no issue there."

But City Council Member LeRoy Schaffer strongly disagrees, based in large part on a 1995 out-of-court settlement, for $135,000, in a sexual harassment suit against the city that named Harapat and two other male officers.

Schaffer was among the dissenters in a 3-2 vote that promoted Harapat to the new job on Jan. 22, and he signed and distributed a leaflet opposing the appointment around town.

The other council dissenter, Ray Jones, voted so because he wanted to contract with Anoka County for the position, according to meeting minutes.

"He should have been fired before, but that wasn't on my watch," Schaffer said of Harapat. "This time, it was on my watch," he said, referring to his vote.

Schaffer was recently censured by the City Council for "harassing and improper behavior" for telling a young woman at a community fundraiser in November about his sexual relationship with his girlfriend.

Schaffer said what Harapat did years ago was much more egregious.

Harapat, 46, acknowledges he made mistakes when he was an officer in the St. Francis Police Department in the early 1990s.

He said it was the behavior of a single man in his mid-20s, in a small-town police department of only five employees who often socialized at and outside work.

"We were basically friends in addition to co-workers. Unfortunately, looking back at the time, I blurred the line between workplace boundaries and boundaries with friends. I made some comments, told some jokes, took some actions that weren't appropriate for the workplace," said Harapat, who joined the department in 1986.

After the case, the Police Department put a sexual harassment policy in place.

Harapat was not disciplined by the department and was promoted to sergeant within a few months after the settlement. He said he learned then to distinguish workplace and personal boundaries. "It was a hard lesson, but one that was clearly learned and that I've carried with me," he said.

The search process

Schaffer also was critical of the process in which Harapat was promoted, without a search to consider other candidates.

Laura Kushner, the human resources director with the League of Minnesota Cities, advises cities on personnel decisions. She said cities are generally under no legal obligation to advertise or do outside searches to fill openings for police chiefs.

Certainly, she said, cities should "reach out to equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. But there are also good reasons sometimes not to post [an opening]."

For example, she said, if there is a solid internal candidate who already is a good bet to get the job, it might be best to forgo a costly search process. And it's good for morale to promote from within departments, she said.

As for the relevance of a legal settlement that is more than 10 years old, she said, that's a judgment call that depends on a number of factors, including whether the conduct is job-related.

"And, yes, I think sexual harassment is job-related for anybody in management, or anybody, really," she said. "And the other question is: Has the person learned their lesson? How long has it been? Have there been any other incidences?"

Dressen said Harapat's record since the settlement has been clean. "I found absolutely nothing in there that would raise any concerns whatsoever," he said.

Harapat, who is overseeing nine officers, said he wasn't shocked to see the leaflet circulated around town.

"The sad part is, some of the stuff that's going around the city right now that is a little frustrating is, it's a little one-sided."

Eric M. Hanson • 612-673-7517