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“Our society is getting more uncivil": Elected officials see shift in engagement

Rochester, Olmsted County and school board officials report various levels of threats and harassment amid growing calls for action.

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Wes Lund gestures toward the applauding audience after speaking during a Rochester Public Schools School Board meeting Tuesday, July 13, 2021, at the school district's Edison Administration Building in Rochester. A group of people opposed to critical race theory and masking to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 filled the audience during the public comment portion of the meeting. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
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Rochester School Board members have taken extra caution going to and from meetings. The mayor has started screening social media posts. A council member has installed a security camera at the home she shares with her three children after people started throwing bags of dog waste in her yard.

These are signs of the time, several local elected officials say.

“Our society is getting more uncivil,” Olmsted County Commissioner Matt Flynn said. “That’s our atmosphere now.”

RELATED: Crowd protests 'government speech,' critical race theory at Rochester School Board meeting

Calls to all Rochester City Council, Rochester School Board and Olmsted County Board members reveal that most have experienced exchanges with residents that involved name calling or other hostile statements or actions.

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Such incidents aren’t new.

Sen. Dave Senjem, who served on the council from 1992 to 2002, recalls receiving two anonymous death threats during his decade in city office and none in the nearly two decades he has been a state senator.

“They are rather quick,” the Rochester Republican said of the threats. “They are three- to four-second calls.”

He remembers former city council member Marcia Marcoux’s experience with threats -- some of which went so far as to include nails strewn across her driveway in reaction to support for building a Hy-Vee Food Store near Crossroads Shopping Center in the 1990s.

RELATED: Marcoux concludes 13 years of tough decisions
“It certainly isn’t new, but it may be more prevalent,” Senjem said of the hostile behavior.

More recently, former city council member Michael Wojcik said he felt compelled to get a restraining order against a person who sent threats online in an attempt to remain anonymous.

“He was furious that the council was speaking up for immigrants and refugees,” Wojcik said.

Monitoring the message

Rochester Mayor Kim Norton has started filtering comments on her official Facebook page, rather than letting those deemed troublesome exist in the public realm.

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“For 12 years or so, that was fine,” she said of her social media presence that included her five terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives. “People would sometimes use it for information, but mostly they would look at it. It was my platform for information, and suddenly as I became mayor, it changed to a place where people with an alternate agenda took over the page to share their agenda because they knew I had thousands of followers.”

She said people have used the site to call her names, such as “mayoress, missy, little girl or sorority sister” and others simply opted to change the topic and be critical of council actions.

Othelmo da Silva said he’s been among the latter.

“The reason why I am engaging ‘off topic’ is she never talks about the topics,” the Rochester resident said. “She doesn't talk about crime in Rochester. She doesn’t talk about the decline of downtown in Rochester. She doesn’t talk about employment in Rochester. Everything is rosy, rainbows and unicorns.”

Norton said critical posts, some of which tag to da Silva, frequently go beyond that.

Wes Lund, a recent contributor to Rochester School Board public-comment periods, has been know to post information stating work is being done at her home or outlining her activities -- some true and some false.

“It’s creepy to think that someone was following my life so much that they know if I have a repair person in my house," she said. "It’s disgusting.”

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Lund did not respond to a request for an interview.

Others, Norton said, continue to attempt to use her official Facebook site, which had 4,730 followers this week, to make vague threats or demeaning comments, as well as lash out at her supporters and make personal or false comments about her. Some posters use their real names, and others hide their identities.

“It was intimidating to people who were coming to my site,” she said. “I had people say, ‘Kim, I would love to defend you, but I can’t tolerate the response I get if I ever say anything on your page.’ It’s having a dampening effect on the community at large.”

Da Silva said the mayor needs to be held accountable, even to people who disagree with her.

“She has to develop a thicker skin because she is in the public arena,” he said.

Norton said more than two decades as an elected official has given her thick skin, but she worries about others who read her site, including newly elected officials.

The concern led her to search out technology that allows her to “hide” some of the most egregious comments from public review.

She said the city’s attorneys have told her an elected official cannot block people from an official social media site, but they can control what is seen by most of the public.

“The law says they have to have access to me, and they do,” she said.

Todd Pearson, known as TC Pearson online, said the access is important, even for those aren't constituents.

“I can understand how it can be disconcerting,” the Spring Valley resident said.

He said he engages with public officials throughout the region and encourages others to do the same, but leave out the threats.

“I don’t brook with calls for harassment,” he said. “I have no truck with calls for violence. I am not that person.”

As a non-Rochester resident, he said he conducts the majority of his business in the city. Many people in Southeast Minnesota have livelihoods tied to the third-largest city in the state, he said.

Like da Silva, Pearson said that means Norton needs to expect the criticism.

“In the case of Kim Norton, what I see is Rochester has identified itself as an international city. I think we’ve all heard that language, right?” he said. “And yet oftentimes if somebody comes out and disagrees with Kim she’ll make a comment to them that is quite backhanded or flat-out disparaging. I find that to be an incredibly troublesome, untenable position for public servants, regardless of how you are being spoken to.”

Commenting in public

Not all threats or harassment come online, as the Rochester School Board has seen in recent weeks.

The board’s last three regular meetings have opened with public comments on hot-button issues, including critical race theory and masking.

The July 13 meeting was the most unruly and left some board members worried about the safety of others.

“I do know we had board members -- and just as importantly, students -- who showed up to meetings who were afraid for their physical wellbeing, who were afraid they would get attacked going to and from the board meetings, or even in the boardroom,” Board Chairwoman Jean Marvin said.

Board member Don Barlow, who was singled out by one speaker, said he understands being passionate about an issue, but questions when it turns to hostility or an unwillingness to engage in the issue.

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Audience members cheer and wave signs during a Rochester Public Schools School Board meeting Tuesday, July 13, 2021, at the school district's Edison Administration Building in Rochester. A group of people opposed to critical race theory and masking to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 filled the audience during the public comment portion of the meeting. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

“For some it’s not really to start a dialogue or even really engage in meaningful constructive consideration,” he said of the comment period. “Some are more interested in making a statement of an opinion or a belief they have and they hold dearly.”

He said he understands that the board’s lack of engagement during public comments can be misread as uncaring.

Most government boards and councils abstain from comments directly following open-comment periods, allowing time for a structured response.

Marvin said that is especially needed when misinformation and passion are driving the comments, which she said was the case on July 13.

“I understand their concern, but it’s challenging to have a meaningful dialogue with folks,” she said of engaging with passionate crowds.

While he encourages in-person and online engagement with Norton and others, Pearson said uses his online forums to encourage commenters to go beyond the public statements and listen to what public officials are saying.

“Don’t go up to the microphone and yell derogatory comments to them,” he said. “Point out where you disagree, point out where you see a problem and then sit for the entire meeting and see what they are doing, because by and large, what’s happening during that meeting is going to inform everything else going forward.”

Taking it to the person

Misperceptions and bad information can lead to other forms of harassment.

City council member Molly Dennis, who has had dog waste thrown into her yard and received emails and handwritten notes containing threats, said she was caught off guard during Rochesterfest when a woman mistook her for Linnea Archer, the city’s Park Board president, who was criticized in April for comments about placement of the American flag in parks.

“It was very nerve-racking,” Dennis said of the anger-fueled confrontation. For her part, Archer never opposed having the flag in a planned law enforcement memorial, but suggested the potential impact of future flag placement should be considered.

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Rochester City Council member Molly Dennis speaks at a city council meeting Aug. 2, 2021. John Molseed / Post Bulletin

Archer, an appointed rather than elected representative, faced a protest in front of her house that disturbed neighbors, especially when participants initially turned up at the wrong house.

Similar events have been threatened against school board members, as well as Norton, but not carried out.

Pearson said such actions, especially against Norton, are things he’s argued against on Facebook and his YouTube channel.

“Her neighbors don’t deserve that, and I don’t think she deserves that,” he said, adding that council meetings are the appropriate place for such engagement.

Varied experiences

Not all elected officials are seeing feedback they consider to be harassment.

“I’m not really catching heat from anybody,” council member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick said.

Others say it’s minor.

“There is a small crowd that likes to beat me up and say some things,” council member Mark Bransford said. “The worst thing I’ve seen online is someone who said I’m an elitist who thinks renters are trash, which is funny because just the opposite is true.”

Rochester School Board members said they fielded limited calls and complaints in the past, but that changed when the district temporarily closed schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, they said passions started to flare.

Still, they say some level of discontent is expected.

“There are always members of the public who are unhappy with a decision we have made, or a decision we will be making,” said Julie Workman, the longest-serving board member. “Most emails and phone calls are respectful; some are less so.”

She and others said they’ve been encouraged by emails supporting the board’s efforts, while others were criticizing them.

Marvin said that’s important to understand, since the board represents a large population.

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Jean Marvin, chair of the Rochester Public Schools School Board, speaks during a meeting on Tuesday, August 3, 2021, at the Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

“When there is a group and they demand that the school board listen to the community and listen to the parents, they are speaking about their group of parents and their community,” she said, “One of the things that’s possible people don’t understand is that the school board hears from everybody.”

Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said the nature of the work also tends to determine how people react to public officials.

She said nearly everyone has attended school in some form, so they likely have an opinion on the subject. Meanwhile, some county programs have limited reach.

“We tend not to attract as much criticism,” she said, adding that fewer county officials have a social media presence, which could be a factor.

Considering effects

The elected officials who spoke with the Post Bulletin said the current level and tenor of engagement won’t deter them from running for another term, if they opt to do so, but some said earlier awareness could have changed their campaign efforts.

“It might have made me think twice, but the outcome would have been the same,” said Jess Garcia, who is serving her first year on the school board. “The ‘think twice’ would have been more about strategy than ‘will I or won’t I.’”

City Council President Brooke Carlson, another elected official in her first year, also said the current level of hostility seen in emails and other engagement likely would not have deterred her from seeking office.

“I probably would have run anyway, because I’ve always been committed to engaging in public service,” she said.

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Rochester City Council member Brooke Carlson speaks at a city council meeting Aug. 2, 2021. John Molseed / Post Bulletin

At the same time, she and others said it could have a cooling effect for the future.

Senjem said years of experience in attempting to recruit people into public office has shown him that public attitudes can be a deterrent.

“Many good people, in this community included," he said, "will not step into this arena because they don’t want their lives exposed or be threatened or have their families threatened.”



Is gender a factor?

Jess Garcia knows people judge her based on who she is, whether it’s her ethnic status, gender or sexuality.

At the same time, she said it’s hard to understand why other women criticize her presence on the Rochester School Board.

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From left, Cathy Nathan, Dr. Jessica Garcia and Don Barlow, all Rochester Public Schools School Board members, look on during a meeting Tuesday, July 13, 2021, at the school district's Edison Administration Building in Rochester. A group of people opposed to critical race theory and masking to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 filled the audience during the public comment portion of the meeting. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

“There is a lot of… disdain and sometimes hatred for women kind of ‘acting above their raising,’ I guess would be the phrase. It’s kind of how we should be in our own place, and it’s coming from other women,” she said of Facebook comments that have been shared with her.

She also points to phone calls questioning her lack of a spouse and children.

“I'm used to people making comments about all these other minority statuses I have, but this particular social identity of ‘you don’t matter, you shouldn’t be here because you are not married and you don’t have children’ was sort of a gut punch, especially because it was coming from another woman,” she said.

Garcia is one of six women on the seven-member school board; only one member has children enrolled in the district.

Other local elected officials have said they’ve been criticized based on being women.

“(Comments) were targeted at not being competent as being a woman, so it’s gender-based,” Rochester City Council member Molly Dennis said of online comments she’s seen in her first year in office.

Dennis said she’s also received criticism for how she dresses, her hairstyle and whether she’s smiling, which she sees as gender-specific criticism.

Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said she believes the issue goes well beyond the local conversation, noting she’s part of a group of female mayors who’ve faced a variety of gender-specific criticism throughout the nation.

“I think some of these folks do it because they think we are so weak that we will burst into tears and run from our offices,” she said.

Yet, some of her local counterparts say they don’t hear the gender-based comments or they’ve diminished.

“I noticed the gender issues more when I was campaigning rather than now that I’m in office,” City Council President Brooke Carlson.

The gender-based comments aren’t lost on some of the elected officials’ male counterparts.

“I think there is a gender component,” county commissioner Mark Thein said of online criticism, noting some people see women as an easy target.

That’s not true for everyone who seeks to engage and critique elected officials, said some of their detractors.

“Are you entitled to that view? Yes,” said TC Pearson, a Facebook commenter who frequently challenges Norton. “Are you entitled to express that view? Yes. You are also then entitled to receive the critique that you should receive of being an absolute moron.”

Rochester resident Othelmo da Silva agreed that gender should not be a factor in determining whether someone is effective in office.

“What I care about is policy, what I care about is transparency, what I care about is respect for constituents,” he said.

Some women in elected office, however, noted gender-based critiques can be subtle.

“Someone recently called me belligerent, which I think is a code word for women who speak out,” Olmsted County Commissioner Stephanie Podulke said.

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Rochester Mayor Kim Norton speaks during a groundbreaking event for a $79.2 million runway improvements project Friday, May 7, 2021, at the Rochester International Airport. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

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Rochester Mayor Kim Norton speaks during a groundbreaking event for a $79.2 million runway improvements project Friday, May 7, 2021, at the Rochester International Airport. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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