The newest member of the Orono City Council said it's time to bring a halt to the chaos that has plagued council meetings for nearly a year.
Alisa Benson, elected to the council in November, said her first few months in office have been troubling and disheartening, as angry exchanges between residents and Mayor Dennis Walsh have been a regular occurrence at council meetings.
"This is something that has been an ongoing issue and has escalated over time," Benson said. "I do know that there are individuals in the community who are concerned about coming to public comment because of these exchanges. We're reaching a point of needing this to be addressed.
"I have people calling me, saying, 'What are you going to do about this?' "
Benson said it might be time for the city to consider hiring a mediator to resolve the conflicts that erupt at virtually every meeting.
In recent council meetings, Walsh cursed at a member of the public and referred to former city officials as "clowns." He often bangs his gavel furiously when a speaker runs over the allotted three minutes during public comment sessions.
At one meeting, Walsh buried his nose in a newspaper as a critic addressed the council. At another, a city police officer had to break up a confrontation at the meeting between a speaker and members of the audience.
The angriest exchanges have been between Walsh and Brad Erickson, an Orono business owner. Last year, Walsh sent Erickson an anti-masking video that links mask mandates with the Holocaust.
In the video, a narrator dressed as the Joker from the movie of the same name says, "Six million Jewish people were exterminated in Nazi Germany because 97% of the population cowered to populist control. Nobody wanted to think about it. It was easier just to ignore it. But that couldn't happen here in America, right? They got you. Without a thought; without a fight."
The video infuriated Erickson, whose father was born in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation during World War II. He called it anti-Semitic and began challenging Walsh during the public comment portion of each meeting, seeking an apology.
Walsh says the video isn't anti-Semitic and has not apologized. Asked for comment, he declined an interview but sent a text saying the video "is absolutely not anti-Semitic and absolutely does not minimize the holocaust. False information."
Council member is election denier
In his emotional council appearances, Erickson also has criticized Council Member Richard Crosby II, an election denier who has attended protests at the Minnesota Capitol and the governor's mansion.
"They have the evidence, they have the affidavits. This election was stolen. … Trump is the man," Crosby said in a video interview at a protest outside the governor's mansion.
On social media, Crosby has supported a fundraising effort for Corey Nielsen, a Minnesotan affiliated with the extremist group Proud Boys. Nielsen was stabbed during a fight in Washington, D.C., that began when Proud Boys and others attacked a Black man, who fought back with a knife. Nielsen was charged with assault.
Without offering proof, Erickson has repeatedly accused Crosby in public meetings of being present at the U.S. Capitol for the riot of Jan. 6, 2021, when an armed mob tried to stop Congress from certifying Biden's election.
Crosby did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails seeking comment.
At the council's most recent meeting Monday a member of the public sat in the audience holding a sign reading "Got Ethics?" Crosby was present for the first portion of the meeting. The council took a five-minute recess before public comments; when the meeting came back into session, Crosby was gone. It's a familiar scenario at the council meetings.
For the past three months, Crosby has repeatedly exited the council chambers before public comments, absenting himself from Erickson's attacks.
Orono's move to end a cooperative fire service agreement with neighboring Long Lake also has led to contentious exchanges. Last year, Walsh referred to several former mayors of Orono and Long Lake as "clowns" after they questioned the fire department situation, drawing a strong rebuke from Barbara Peterson, a former Orono mayor who hadn't questioned the deal.
"I'm only referring to you as 'Mr. Mayor' because I respect the office, not you," Peterson said to Walsh. "I was thoroughly embarrassed to witness and watch the video of the last City Council meeting."
Other bitter exchanges have occurred between Walsh and residents seeking more information on controversial land deals that have ceded or proposed to cede city-owned land to private citizens and groups.
Benson said the ongoing battles have created "a chronic loss of confidence" in the council among Orono residents.
"It matters how we as elected officials treat everybody, and we need to hold ourselves to a high standard," she said. "Our community needs this to be addressed."