Animosity at the New Council's First Meeting

There were tense moments during the nomination process for mayor pro tem, as council members continued arguments about the dismissal of the Human Rights Commission last month.

Tuesday night's first meeting of the new Golden Valley City Council began with the swearing in of Mayor Shep Harris and council members Mike Freiberg and Joanie Clausen. They posed for pictures and took a break for a reception with cake and coffee across the hall from .

But the pleasant mood changed sharply when the council reconvened to discuss nominating one of the council members to the position of mayor pro tem, which led to a discussion about the dismissal of the members of the Human Rights Commission during the Dec. 20 meeting.

The mayor pro tem would fill in for Harris if he could not act as mayor for some reason. Over the past decade, the mayor pro tem has only run council meetings on a few occasions when former Mayor Linda Loomis was unavailable.

Harris asked for nominations, and Clausen nominated Freiberg. DeDe Scanlon nominated Paula Pentel, but she then expressed concern about "a flurry of conversations behind the scenes" lobbying for the mayor pro tem position.

"To me, this is the first time we’ve ever been in that situation—where people are lobbying for a seat," she told the council. "I’m a bit uncomfortable with it."

She also said she was nominating Pentel for her experience, not "looking at someone for friendships," implying that Clausen was nominating Freiberg because they are friends outside council chambers.

Clausen then defended her nomination of Freiberg: "Yes, I am Mike (Freiberg)’s friend, but I have, over the years, been impressed with how he’s handled himself. I know he works hard, and I know he would do an exceptionally wonderful job. And he does have the most experience on the council."

Pentel pointed out that she actually has more experience with city government, as she has been on the City Council for seven years—this is Freiberg's eighth—and she also has been with the planning commission for 12 years. She then urged Harris, who would cast the deciding vote, to consider her gender when making the decision.

"Historically in the city of Golden Valley we’ve had a gender balance, where for every male mayor, the mayor pro tem has been female. Going back to Mary Anderson, it was Larry Bakken; Blaire Tremere, it was Gloria Johnson; Linda Loomis, Bob Shaffer. And I think that it is important to consider a gender balance when we’re thinking about leadership positions on the council.”

While Freiberg agreed gender balance is important, he noted that Pentel already holds a powerful position as the chair of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority and suggested she continue in that role.

Harris then explained that considering gender was "not necessary" and he would be supporting Freiberg.

That's when Pentel brought up the . During that meeting, the council voted 4-1 to dismiss the members of the Human Rights Commission.

At a city council work session in November, the creation of a special task force to look into police behavior amidst recent high-profile incidents including the city settling a lawsuit filed against the police for excessive force. The suggestion of a task force also stemmed from in which a Golden Valley police officer shot and killed a woman brandishing a gun.

In a public memo following that work session, City Manager Thomas Burt said the Human Rights commissioners "made false statements that defamed police officers involved in previously settled civil lawsuits and violated the Data Privacy Act by publicly discussing the shooting of September 22, which is still under investigation."

Burt said the city attorney recommended disciplinary actions which would include censure, public repudiation of the statements, or removal from the commission.

During the Dec. 20 meeting, Freiberg said the council should consider all the options, but not the removal from the commission. In a strongly worded statement before the vote, Freiberg said:

"So here we are at the last meeting of the council as it’s currently comprised. Our last action will be this act of pettiness, the stench of which will waft into the next council. I’ve spoken to residents who think a majority of council members have wanted for years to get rid of the Human Rights Commission, and that they are not supporters of human rights. I don’t know whether or not that’s true. Only the other council members can answer that for themselves. But with this action, they’re certainly not doing much to convince those residents that they are wrong. I wish I didn’t have to talk about this at the last meeting of Mayor Loomis and Council Member Shaffer, both of whom I’ve enjoyed serving with over the last eight years. But this is something I feel strongly about."

That statement, Pentel argued in Tuesday night's meeting, showed a lack of leadership by Freiberg. "(It) had inflammatory terminology directed at council members, of which I was one. I don’t think that that shows a great leadership and tends to cause strife and needn’t be that way."

Freiberg said he was sorry Pentel felt that way, and pointed out that minutes after his statement, he was offering supportive words to Bob Shaffer and Linda Loomis, whose last meeting was that night.

Mayor Harris then said he wanted to be fair and make sure everyone got a chance to speak, but said the council should move forward. As he was telling Pentel she could have the last word, she interrupted the mayor.

"Mayor Harris, we’ve been at this all of five minutes," she said. "I think that we could probably indulge a few comments. Council Member Freiberg ... using terms like spite, pettiness, stench are pretty rough language, and I stand by my comments."

Pentel then made the argument for gender balance in the mayor pro tem position again, while echoing Scanlon's sentiments. "I , too, was not happy with the behind-the-scenes work. I’m a team player. The game is played here in front of you, not in the locker room."

Harris then said they could continue the conversation at next week's work session by "talking about 'council etiquette or conduct.' Not sure if those are the right terms, but basically how we can work better together as a team. And so I’m hoping we’ll be able to discuss some of these items more openly, in a less formal environment."

He then called for a vote. Freiberg was elected to the position of mayor pro tem by a vote of 3-2.

Elaine Wynne January 05, 2012 at 05:10 PM
Thanks to Mayor Harris for moving the Council forward. I had been waiting for the Council to schedule a meeting to discuss the future of the HR Commission but from the Patch & Star Trib articles it seemed at the Dec. 20 mtg. there were very negative attitudes expressed by some of the Council. I don't agree that the commissioners should have been dismissed. I found myself wondering if Commmision members had been previously informed about restraints on their freedom of speech or Data Privacy requirements prior to that meeting. I trust the Council will move forward to build a strong Human Rights Commission. We need one in Golden Valley.
Laura Kueny January 05, 2012 at 07:23 PM
We do need a Human Rights Commission, but it needs to have a clear mission and bylaws under which it conducts its business. I have faith that the past council would have and this council will move forward to accomplish this. Having attended the council meetings in person, I did not see one council member take any joy in dealing with the dismissal of the Human Rights Commissioners. What you describe as negative attitudes was true grief in having to deal with an issue that was sure to stir up controversy, because not all information could or should be publicly disclosed, due to an ongoing legal issue and the simple fact that there could be true human rights violations. While the Patch and the Star Tribune can be good sources for information, you will get the authentic information by attending the meetings in person or watching them on TV or online.
Bob Mattison January 07, 2012 at 04:12 PM
Too bad Mike Freiberg was elected mayor pro tem. Paula Pentel is by far the most qualified, having chaired the Planning Commission for 7 years; she also chairs the Housing and Redevelopment Authority. She has been running public meetings for many years. Freiberg has never run a public meeting. Also, the mayor and mayor pro tem have traditionally been different genders, an important precedent. Even more important is Freiberg’s execrable conduct at the Dec. 20 council meeting. He insulted his colleagues, saying that he is not sure if they support human rights, accusing them of pettiness, and attributing their actions to “spite.” The HRC issue had been debated in public for over two months; everyone knew Freiberg’s position. He has strongly held views, but so do the other council members. He could have just voted no and left it at that. Instead he went off on a screed, displaying all the pettiness and spite he attributed to others, and ruining the last meeting for Linda Loomis and Bob Shaffer, who deserved much better. Shep Harris, the swing vote, missed a chance to help heal the wounds, instead making the chasm forming on the council wider. He inexplicably discounted Pentel’s greater experience and dismissed the gender issue. Worse, he ignored Freiberg’s conduct, sending a signal that it did not warrant disapproval, and indeed deserved to be rewarded. Let’s hope this was just a rookie mistake. We deserve better, and I hope he does better in the future.


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