Cites state constitution as saying misconduct must be related to public office activity
By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
At its Sept. 6 meeting, the Little Falls Council asked one of its own, Brian-Paul Crowder, to resign immediately or a recall would be initiated the following day.
The reason? Crowder’s involvement in a physical confrontation with his 74-year-old aunt, Aug. 10.
Crowder, who was not at the Sept. 6 meeting, said later he had no intention of resigning, calling the Council’s demand a political ploy because of his voting record.
Without Crowder’s resignation, according to the letter signed by the rest of the Council, a recall would be initiated.
However, an attorney in Northfield hired by Crowder, notified the city, its Council and its administrators, that such a reason was not acceptable for recalling an elected official under the Minnesota’s Constitution.
Maren Swanson of Lampe Law Group LLP, after reviewing the incident between Crowder and his aunt, determined that, “Crowder was convicted of no crime, and even if he had been, the incident involved a private family matter and did not involve the performance of his official duties for the city of Little Falls.”
Swanson’s letter cautioned the city, that although the city’s charter provides for a recall, it does not address what constitutes adequate grounds for the removal of an elected official.
“But the Minnesota Constitution does,” the letter said.
It says, “The legislature of this state may provide for the removal of inferior officers for ‘malfeasance or nonfeasance’ in the performance of their duties.”
Malfeasance means wrongdoing or misconduct, especially by a public official. Nonfeasance means a failure to act.
The letter cites a Minnesota Supreme Court decision which upholds that portion of the State Constitution, adding, “To constitute malfeasance or nonfeasance the conduct must be such as affects the performance of official duties rather than conduct which affects the official’s personal character as a private individual.”
In addition, the Supreme Court said, “… The conduct must relate to something of a substantial nature directly affecting the rights and interests of the public …. the performance of an act by an officer in his official capacity that is wholly illegal and wrongful.”
If a recall petition had been submitted to the city in regard to the incident between Crowder and his aunt, Swanson’s letter indicated, “Even if there had been a criminal charge and conviction, the conduct would not constitute malfeasance in the performance of his official duties and would not be legally sufficient grounds for recall under the Minnesota Constitution.”
The attorney indicated that it was doubtful a reasonable person or judge would say the rudeness city staff said they experienced from Crowder, “rises to the level of ‘evil conduct or an illegal deed’ or constitutes an act that is ‘wholly illegal and wrongful.’”
Swanson urged the acting city administrators to examine any recall petition filed carefully, and to consult with the city’s attorney before certifying such a document.
Toni Wetzel, the Little Falls city attorney said the findings in the letter from Swanson are accurate.
But the city hasn’t had to consult with her about the matter.
As of Friday, Lori Kasella, the city’s finance officer who, along with Jerry Lochner, is the city’s acting co-administrator, said no person or group had come forth with a recall petition.
“There’s no recall pending, so there’s nothing to take action on,” Wetzel said.
Crowder said he would like to move on and said the city had bigger issues to deal with.
“I am sorry that this private family matter has been such a focus in our community,” he said. “We have bigger issues in our town that we need to concentrate on.”
Crowder said the city’s focus should be on unemployment, trying to get businesses into Little Falls and working on what he called “the huge debt in our city.”
Council President Urban Otremba said he couldn’t speak for anyone else, but he felt Crowder should have resigned when asked, and that public officials should be held to a higher standard.
“We’re always on duty,” he said of a council member’s job. “We’re on call 24/7.”
He said, “The bottom line is damage has been done to a female by a male, and you have to be accountable for that.”
“What a group decides to do, or whether it goes to court, I’d like to see a recall on him, because the damage is there,” said Otremba. “That’s my gut feeling.”