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.