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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Where Was the MFA?

One prominent player from the previous two city election cycles was notable for its absence from the campaign this year — the Maplewood Firefighters Association, Inc.

The MFA appeared in 2005, campaigning on behalf of candidates Hjelle, Cave, and Longrie, and got right down to the business of flouting the rules. During that election, Hjelle, a city employee as a pay-per-call firefighter, ran afoul of the city's personnel policies by using the Londin Lane fire station to put together a mailing from the MFA on behalf of himself, Cave, and Longrie. An independent investigation concluded that Hjelle had knowingly violated city policy against using city buildings for campaigning. Hjelle told the investigator that he had every right to use the fire station for his election campaign, because "It's not the city's fire station. It's my fire station. The City technically owns it, but it's my fire station and my fire truck.” The MFA was also entangled in one of the 2005 campaign practices complaints against Erik Hjelle. The Office of Administrative Hearings determined that the MFA had made illegal campaign contributions to Hjelle ($2,228.84 versus the $300 allowed by law).

In 2007, the MFA was active again, producing lawnsigns in support of Rebecca Cave. Once again the group prompted a campaign practices complaint, and the OAH determined that the MFA had knowingly and falsely implied the Maplewood Fire Department had endorsed Cave, then fined them $1000 for breaking the law.

What was interesting in 2007 was that, apart from an attorney, the only person who appeared before the Office of Administrative Hearings to speak on behalf of the MFA was Erik Hjelle -- though he was not, apparently, an officer or board member at that time. From listening to his testimony (42 megabyte MP3, about 46 minutes long, archived for posterity), I'm convinced that he personally torpedoed any chance they might have had at a successful defense. (As the judges put it: "He testified repeatedly that by using the phrase 'Maplewood Police and Fire Endorse Rebecca Cave,' he intended to communicate that Ms. Cave had the support of all Maplewood firefighters. Neither Hjelle nor the MFA have the authority to speak for the Department or the MPFA [the full-time firefighters' union], and the evidence is undisputed that neither of these organizations has agreed to endorse Ms. Cave.")

After two election cycles of active involvement, why was the MFA conspicuously absent in 2009? Was it a victim of the falling out between Hjelle's faction and the supporters of Longrie and Cave, as seen during and after the election? Was the MFA ever more than the "Erik Hjelle Political Action Committee" — just a means for Hjelle to claim falsely to speak for all firefighters as he pursued his own political agenda? Maybe in 2009, he realized that his public support was more likely to hurt than to help the candidates he favored. To the extent that Hjelle was visible in the campaign season, it was in launching attacks on Rossbach and Llanas, rather than openly campaigning for candidates as he had in the past.

In any case, if you search for the Maplewood Firefighters Association in the Minnesota Secretary of State's website today, you'll find that it says "Entity Status: Inactive." And if you're wondering about the trademark "Maplewood Fire" and its logo, the subject of contention in 2007, you'll see that it's now registered to the City of Maplewood, as it should be.

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