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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Erik's Conflicts of Interest

At last night's meeting, Erik Hjelle suggested that councilmembers should abstain from voting on matters affecting individuals who had given them political support (for example, by allowing lawn signs on their property) or legal campaign contributions. Obviously he was riding his favorite hobby horse, which is retaliating against people for political differences. (It seemed that his only reason for voting against the renewal of one Conditional Use Permit was that he disapproved of the applicant's political donations.)

I suggested last night that the city attorney should send the council a copy of the League of Minnesota Cities' guide on the topic of conflicts of interest. This morning Mr. Kantrud e-mailed that document to the council. I replied with a couple of follow-up questions. Below is the text of my e-mail.

Hi, Alan. Thanks for sending that. I think we may need a clearer answer, however.

As I understood his remarks, Erik was asking about two things that he thought would be conflicts of interest that should require a councilmember to abstain from voting.

The first was campaign contributions. So, for example, because Erik received campaign contributions from the Maplewood Firefighters Association (setting aside the detail that the OAH determined them to be illegal excess contributions beyond the $300 limit), the question would be: Should Erik abstain from participating in discussions and votes on any and all matters pertaining to Maplewood pay-per-call firefighters?

(Similarly, given that Frederica Musgrave was the largest individual campaign donor to Mayor Longrie's failed run in last year's 55A DFL primary, should the mayor abstain from any discussions or votes relating to Ms. Musgrave? Did she violate conflict of interest rules by participating in closed meetings related to legal strategy in Ms. Musgrave's short-lived suit against the city?)

The second was the question of political support in a more general way. For example, if an individual or organization has publicly supported a councilmember in non-financial political ways. Again to use Erik himself as an example -- since he was formally endorsed by AFSCME in 2005, should he have abstained from participation or votes on any and all matters having to do with AFSCME members, such as the reorganization in late 2006 or discussions about and votes on AFSCME contracts?

Obviously these are not the examples that Erik brought up when he was looking for ways to punish Mr. Brandt and Mr. Schreier for exercising their First Amendment rights. But I think it's important to realize that if Erik's absurdly expansive notion of "conflict of interest" has any validity, it would apply equally to Erik and his own political supporters (such as people who hosted his lawn signs) and contributors. At least, that's what I would suppose, assuming the courts do not share Mr. Hjelle's pathological conviction that rules apply only to other people and not to him.

I would be grateful if you could provide a clear answer to the council on whether (1) legal campaign contributions and (2) expressions of political support, endorsement, etc., create a conflict of interest for the elected official who received them. I'm pretty sure the answer is "no," but Erik seems to have a lot of ongoing confusion about these issues.

Finally, reading that document raised a question to me about Erik's status as both a firefighter and as a councilmember. The relevant passage (page 37) reads:

The statute remains unclear on several points, however. It does not address council positions other than the mayor. It also appears to be limited to independent, nonprofit fire departments, so city departments (whether volunteer or salaried) are not addressed. And although it outlines general criteria under which there will not be incompatibilities, there is still some vagueness regarding what functions between the two offices would be considered inconsistent.

Because each city may have a different relationship with its fire department, a city may want to get a legal opinion from its attorney or from the attorney general before allowing a councilmember to serve as a volunteer firefighter with any sort of supervisory powers.

Obviously Mr. Hjelle was on the city council before me, so perhaps this was already addressed (besides that point where he resigned the department in order to fire Mr. Fursman and then rejoined). Is there a formal opinion on the record as to whether or not Mr. Hjelle holds incompatible offices? On p. 36, the LMC document states, "However, when an official qualifies for a second and incompatible position (by taking an oath and filing a bond, if necessary), he or she automatically resigns from the first position, which then becomes vacant." If the offices are found to be incompatible, wouldn't that mean that by reapplying and being hired back as a firefighter back in 2006, Mr. Hjelle actually created a council vacancy due to automatic resignation?

Thanks for your help in understanding these issues, and I'm sure the entire council will be interested in the response.

-John Nephew, Councilmember


I would find it extremely funny if Erik turned out to have resigned from the council back in 2006.

John says ~Should Erik abstain from participating in discussions and votes on any and all matters pertaining to Maplewood pay-per-call firefighters?~

I think this is too restrictive. Erik should abstain from participating in discussions and votes on any and all matters pertaining to Maplewood city employees.

Better yet, Maplewood residents, since at least one resident suppported him. Okay, at least one non-profit.


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