RED WING — With petitions due in City Hall early Monday, George Hintz said the Recall City Hall movement in Red Wing will likely have the signatures needed to bring six of the seven city council members back before the voters.
While the recall, which focuses on meetings the petitioners claim were illegally closed, seems ready for the next step, Red Wing citizens are still focused on the firing of Roger Pohlman.
"The public is extremely upset that Roger Pohlman is no longer police chief," said Thomas Wilder, who is helping with the recall efforts in Ward 2. Wilder said while the firing of Pohlman is not the legal reason behind the recall, it's something the public still wants answers about. "We can’t have a recall on the basis of that. Laws have to have been broken. What we’re hanging our hat on is where the council has broken the law."
Officially, the city council released a statement on Feb. 19 that stated the reasons for firing Pohlman include a loss of trust by some members of the city council, slow responses to emails and phone calls, and a reluctance to make recommended changes.
Email exchanges with Pohlman
However, emails obtained by the Post Bulletin between members of the city council and Pohlman from February 2020 and February 2021 show praise of Pohlman and his prompt attention to matters. For example, on June 26, an email exchange between Pohlman and City Council President Becky Norton concerning a meeting the two were trying to arrange included this statement from Norton: "Roger, Don't know how today has been so messed up. Thanks for getting back to me so promptly tonight."
In 161 pages of emails between Pohlman and members of the city council, Pohlman responded via email in less than a day in nearly every incident, and only a few emails showed any negative comments toward Pohlman. One was when Council Member Evan Brown was upset he was not CC'd on an email about a meeting in his ward.
The only other incident that seemed to draw concern was an August event at Colvill Park where individuals showed up for an impromptu gathering to show off their trucks and cars. Some of the individuals had Trump 2020 flags, and when the group was confronted by anti-Trump protesters, police responded by working to diffuse the situation but cited individuals who committed any vehicle infractions, Pohlman reported to Nelson.
But whether Pohlman was responding to questions about enforcing mask wearing, coordinating efforts on a boaters-for-Trump rally or giving quick updates on the status at polling stations during the Nov. 3 election, the interactions were quick and complete.
Why trust was lost?
According to Mayor Mike Wilson and discussions with two previous city council members, Pohlman had received glowing performance evaluations for several years in a row. But his evaluation for 2020 showed some negative comments, particularly in an anonymous survey of city council members who said they felt Pohlman could be more forthcoming, though they cited no concrete examples. Other comments referred to his tone of voice coming across as frustrated with questions from the city council. Again, none of these came with concrete examples.
The Post Bulletin did request examples of complaints made against Chief Pohlman between the dates of Dec. 1, 2019, and Feb. 20, 2021. According to City Clerk Teri Swanson, other than the complaints made as part of the survey for Pohlman's 2020 evaluation, the only other example came from December 2019 and was a complaint made against Pohlman by Council Member Dean Hove.
While the city would not release any details on that complaint, the Post Bulletin did obtain a copy of the complaint and the subsequent investigation for which the city paid nearly $7,500 for an outside agency to perform.
That complaint centered around a comment made to Hove by Pohlman's wife. Hove, hearing the comment, assumed Pohlman had violated the confidentiality of a juvenile by spreading gossip to his wife. However, the investigation showed no evidence Pohlman had leaked private information to his wife, and instead concluded that knowledge of the arrest record of the juvenile, a minor related to a public figure in Red Wing, was probably spread to Pohlman's wife through unofficial channels such as the "rumor mill."
But the city has so closely guarded this complaint and report that it took the city more than two months to acknowledge its existence at all, and when Pohlman was put on administrative leave on Feb. 8, access to the complaint and investigative report was denied to Mayor Wilson when he requested it at City Hall.
Behind closed doors
In the end, that effort to conduct business behind closed doors – whether justified as the city claims or in violation of state statutes as the recall committee claims – is what has led to the recall effort.
Kent Laugen, an attorney and Red Wing resident, said the city has denied access to meetings conducted by the Policy and Practice Project Advisory Team. Laugen said his request to address an issue under the scope of the team was denied. A review of minutes and videos of the Police Advisory Team meetings shows no public comment has been accepted by the committee working in an advisory capacity to the city council.
Furthermore, the group meets in private for at least half of each meeting, having discussions on policy issues regarding public safety and racial equity behind closed doors then, since January, meeting in public only after the private meetings.
Laugen said the city administration has said because the Policy Advisory Team is an ad-hoc committee it is not subject to the state's open meeting law.
However, City Administrator Kay Kuhlmann admitted the group's members are the only ad-hoc committee in the city of Red Wing where the committee members are paid a stipend for attending meetings. Of the city's 14 other committees, only the Housing and Redevelopment Agency and the Port Authority – both committees with their own levy dollars – pay board members.
Every other advisory committee, from the Airport Board to the Youth Commission, has its members volunteer their time for free. And those committees do not meet in closed session outside of normal statutory reasons such as personnel meetings, purchase agreements or negotiations.
"When we're denied access to the discussion, we're denied a look at who is influencing city council members," Laugen said.
And it's that effort to keep discussions out of the public eye that has individuals signing recall petitions by the hundreds.