Rigged? Planned obsolescence? Negative maintenance for an end result? Tapping the never empty pockets of the tax payer? Questionable demographics as to need? Sound familiar? School bonding levy vote is rigged

By Gary Gross

Last week, the St. Cloud Times wrote an ‘Our View Editorial‘ lamenting the fact that there didn’t seem to be much of an effort highlighting the need for these construction projects. They noted that “there are no yard signs, no visible campaigning, and really not much buzz about the plan”, though they highlighted the fact that “the group has experienced leaders.”

The school board is indeed an experienced group of leaders. They’ve been education advocates seemingly forever. In past years, when levy referenda have come up for a vote, people can’t stand the sight of these “experienced” group of leaders because they’re everywhere. Literature extolling the virtues of voting to raise taxes on yourself are everywhere. Most people in the district get 7-9 pieces of literature in the last month alone. Doors get knocked on. Calls get made. It’s literally an all-hands-on-deck operation. In the years when voter turnout is important, Education Minnesota pitches in on the Get Out The Vote, aka GOTV, operation.

That doesn’t appear to be the case this year. The vote is scheduled for Nov. 3, 2015. The bonding referendum is literally the only thing that’s getting voted on. Even then, the school board has limited voters’, aka taxpayers’, options. This year, the school board is hoping for low voter turnout because they know their people will show up. If few of the taxpayers show up, the school board wins and the taxpayers get hit with another property tax increase.

Here’s how they’re doing that:

The referendum will pose one question on the ballot that would fund:

·        acquisition of land and construction of a new Technical High School on 33rd Street South in St. Cloud; (113,800,000)

·        renovation of Apollo High School and site upgrades; (46,500,000)

·        safe entrances and enhanced security at all schools in the district; (2,500,000)

·        technology infrastructure and devices for anytime/anywhere access to learning (4,200,000.)

That’s a rigged vote. Parents with students at Apollo HS might want to vote only for the proposed renovation at Apollo without voting for building new building to house Tech students. Taxpayers that are worried that enrollment at Tech will continue declining will want to know how big of a school the school board is planning on building. (The truth is that student flight from Tech is the worst-kept secret in St. Cloud.) There was even talk about a year ago of building one new school, combining Tech and Apollo, then selling the old Tech and Apollo schools.

The “experienced leaders” didn’t want to hear that, though. That talk from the taxpayers was quickly displaced by talk from the school board of the need to build a new Tech HS and to renovate Apollo.

Thought that this might be of interest…….

RONALD P. NIEMALA, LUTCF

An Active Voice for Itasca County Residents

By: Grand Rapids Voice

When a public official, elected to office or otherwise, is involved in a conflict of interest, is always bad for the community. Any such conflict violates the trust put into the public official by the public. Minnesota Statute § 471.87 defines conflicts of interest and makes the violation of the statute a gross misdemeanor.

Minnesota Statute § 471.87 states: “Except as authorized in section 471.88, a public officer who is authorized to take part in any manner in making any sale, lease, or contract in official capacity shall not voluntarily have a personal financial interest in that sale, lease, or contract or personally benefit financially therefrom.”

It appears that we, in Itasca County, have two on-going conflicts of interest. One conflict occurring in the City of Grand Rapids and the other in Itasca County.

In Grand Rapids, sitting City Councilman Ed Zabinski has presented a proposal to the city council wherein the City of Grand Rapids would spend taxpayer funds to modify Central School to permit Mr. Zabinski and partners to open a micro-brewery and restaurant which would directly benefit them financially. This proposal calls for significant modification of Central School and may require an addition to the building and possibly jeopardizing its Historic Building status. Not only has Mr. Zabinski presented this proposal to the city council, he is in a position to vote on the approval of the funding for his proposal. Even if Mr. Zabinski were to recuse himself from voting on the proposal, he would be able to use his position as a city councilman to influence the vote. The residents of Grand Rapids gain nothing on the success of the business and can lose their investment should the business fail.

Grand Rapids Voice believes that mr. Zabinski’s proposal far exceeds merely renting space from the city in which to operate a business. It is the position of Grand Rapids Voice that the proposal by Councilman Zabinski constitutes a conflict of interest contemplated by Minnesota Statute § 471.87 and 382.18 and must not be permitted.

In 2009, Mr. Rusty Eichorn served as County Commissioner and was on the board of the Itasca Economic Development Commission (IEDC). A question as to a conflict of interest was presented to the County Attorney’s office for a legal opinion. In response, Ms. Heidi Chandler, Assistant County Attorney, wrote a legal opinion and presented her opinion to the County Coordinator. In her opinion, Ms. Chandler stated that it was a conflict of interest for a sitting County Commissioner to also be on the board of the IEDC violating Minnesota Statute § 471.87 and 382.18. Thus, Mr. Eichorn could serve in one capacity but not both. This opinion was well known to County Attorney Jack Muhar as Ms. Chandler’s supervisor.

Now, six years later, Mr. Davin Tinquist is sitting as an elected County Commissioner and is also seated on the Board of the IEDC. Grand Rapids Voice does not believe that the law has changed and that Ms. Chandler’s opinion given in 2009 is still valid. Further, Mr. Tinquist, as with Mr. Eichorn, may be a County Commissioner or on the Board of the IEDC but not both.

How, then, has the County Attorney’s office permitted this obvious conflict of interest. This leads to other questions as to what else might be condoned or overlooked by the County Attorney that is adverse to the residents and taxpayers of Itasca County.

It is the position that both these instances constitute conflicts o interest and must not be permitted. These conflicts of interest are detrimental to the City of Grand Rapids, Itasca County and the wider community. We encourage you to visit our website to review the communications with the Grand Rapids City Attorney, the opinion written by Ms. Heidi Chandler and the text of the Minnesota Statutes and make your own determination as to whether or not there are conflicts of interest.

Letter to City Attorney Regarding Records of City Council Proceedings

August 1, 2015

Mr. Chad Sterle, Attorney at Law
Grand Rapids City Attorney
502 NW 5th Ave.
Grand Rapids, MN 55744

Re: Legal Opinion Dated May 14, 2015

Dear Mr. Sterle:

Grand Rapids Voice is in receipt of your letter and legal opinion dated May 14, 2015, in response to our letter of request dated May 11, 2015. Grand Rapids Voice appreciates your prompt response to our letter and inquiry.

Upon reading your letter and legal opinion, it would appear that you and the City Council missed the point or our inquiry. Our inquiry provided information based upon the City Council Meeting held on March 9, 2015. In this meeting, certain queries were presented to the Council by Messrs. Ward and Niemala. The questions prompting our inquiry were not based upon the actual content of the concerns presented by Messrs. Ward and Niemala but to the general questions regarding the keeping of official records of official proceedings of the Grand Rapids City Council. These questions regarding the official record of official proceedings were prompted by the lack of detail in the treatment of the concerns presented by Messrs. Ward and Niemala. This lack of detail in the minutes prompted the correspondence between Mr. Niemala and the City Clerk, Ms. Johnson-Gibeau. Ms. Johnson-Gibeau informed Mr. Niemala that the minutes were a summary of the proceedings only but an audio recording was available and an ICTV video recording could be viewed at the ICTV web site. The correspondence between Mr. Niemala and Ms. Johnson-Gibeau prompted our inquiry regarding the existence of a full, complete, accurate and permanent record of official proceedings of the Grand Rapids City Council and the inquiry was not limited to the meeting on March 9, 2015.

We have read and reviewed your legal opinion and it is the position of Grand Rapids Voice that there are errors in your analysis of the issue. The following is a discussion of the issues we have taken with your legal opinion.

Minnesota Statute § 15.17 Subd. 1 states that full, accurate, complete and permanent records of official proceedings must be made and that the records be made on a physical medium of such quality to insure the permanence of the official record. Further, the full, complete and accurate record may be reproduced by defined methods that clearly and accurately reproduce such records and that the copies thus made may be substituted for the original. The original record may then be destroyed or otherwise disposed of in accordance with Minnesota Statute § 138.17. Copies of the original record are thus available for public review and scrutiny. The statutory language is clear that a full, complete, accurate and permanent record of official proceedings must be made and maintained.

Minnesota Statute § 365.55 directs the Clerk to keep full minutes of official proceedings. While Minnesota Statute § 365.55 mandates the preparation and maintenance of minutes of official proceedings, there is no language to state that the minutes satisfy or replace the requirement of a full, complete, accurate and permanent record in accordance with Minnesota Statute § 15.17. Minnesota Statute § 412.151 states that the minutes of official proceedings may be a summary of the official record if the proceeding summarized appears in the permanent record of the proceedings and that the portions of the record summarized in the minutes can accurately be identified from the description given in the minutes. Additionally, Minnesota Statute § 331A.01 Subd. 10 states that, when permitted, a summary of official proceedings, i.e. minutes, must clearly state that the material maintained and published is a summary only and that the full text is available for inspection.

In your legal opinion, you detailed at length the requirement of the preparation of minutes of official proceedings and the minimum requirements of the minutes prepared as presented by the State Auditor. We do not dispute the requirements of the preparation and maintenance of minutes of official proceedings. However, the minutes of official proceedings are summaries only and not a full, complete, accurate and permanent record of official proceedings as required by Minnesota Statute § 15.17 Subd. 1.

With respect to the audio recordings maintained by the Clerk and the video recordings made and maintained by ICTV, it is the position of Grand Rapids Voice that neither form of recording constitutes a full, complete, accurate and permanent record of official proceedings. As the audio and video recordings are made and maintained by separate entities, each type is discussed below.

Audio

Per the legal opinion you submitted to us, audio recordings are neither minutes nor substitutes for minutes. In addition, audio recordings do not satisfy the requirements of official records as set forth in Minnesota Statute § 15.17. Thus, even though made and maintained by the Clerk, audio recordings are not a permitted official record of official proceedings nor are they a substitute for official records of official proceedings.

ICTV Video

As with the audio recordings, your legal opinion stated that these video recordings are neither minutes nor substitutes for minutes. Additionally, Minnesota Statute § 15.17 Subd. 1 states that a public officer must make and preserve records of official proceedings. This statute does not authorize the delegation of the making of and maintenance of the permanent record of official proceedings to third parties by agreement, contract or otherwise. The copy of the agreement between ICTV and the City of Grand Rapids submitted with your legal opinion does not confer upon ICTV or attempt to confer upon ICTV any statutorily supported authority to prepare or maintain official records of official proceedings. Further, Minnesota Statute § 15.17 Subd. 1 does not permit video recordings as means of making or maintaining an official record of official proceedings.

It is the position of Grand Rapids Voice that the City of Grand Rapids does not meet the statutory requirements of maintaining a full, complete, accurate and permanent record of official proceedings. Further, it is the position of Grand Rapids Voice that in the interests of transparency and for the public good and benefit, that the only full, complete, accurate and permanent record of official proceedings is a full, complete and accurate written transcribed record of official proceedings. Grand Rapids Voice submits that all official records of official proceedings be fully, completely, accurately and permanently transcribed and be available for public review and scrutiny.

As stated hereinabove, the actual concerns presented by Messrs. Ward and Niemala were not critical to our position regarding the preparation and maintenance of a full, complete, accurate and permanent record of official proceedings. These concerns were used as illustrative only. However, as you responded to the content of their concerns, we offer our reply to your response hereinbelow. For clarity, each will be presented separately.

Conflict of Interest

Grand Rapids Voice does not have an issue with any sitting City Council Member renting space in a City owned property in which to operate a business pursuant to Minnesota Statute § 471.88 Subd. 13. However, Minnesota Statute § 471.88 Subd. 13 is an exception to Minnesota Statute § 471.87 which states:

“Except as authorized in section 471.88, a public officer who is authorized to take part in any manner in making any sale, lease, or contract in official capacity shall not voluntarily have a personal financial interest in that sale, lease, or contract or personally benefit financially therefrom.”

In the matter involving Councilman Zabinski, the Councilman presented to the City Council a proposal whereby the City authorize the expenditure of taxpayer funds to materially alter public owned property to suit his specific business requirements in order to open a micro-brewery and restaurant from which he and others with an ownership interest would benefit financially. Any expenditure of taxpayer funds for the maintenance, modification, renovation or repair of City owned property must be approved by the City Council. Councilman Zabinski would be in a position to vote upon the proposal he presented to the City council. Even if Councilman Zabinski were to recues himself from voting on this proposal, he would be able to use his position to influence the vote of the remaining Council members. Further, the modifications proposed may, in fact, jeopardize the historical designation of the property in question said property being Central School. It is the position of Grand Rapids Voice that the proposal presented by Councilman Zabinski is far more than renting space in a City owned property and that this proposal violates Minnesota Statute § 471.87 and is not in the public interest. Grand Rapids Voice requests that any and all discussions regarding Councilman Zabinski’s proposal regarding modifying Central School to accommodate a specific business interest of his cease and that no further action on this matter be taken by the City Council.

SEC Investigation

Messrs. Ward and Niemala requested the status of the investigation of the City of Grand Rapids by the SEC for the possible misrepresentation of the City’s credit rating for a bond issue. To their concern, no response was given neither by Mayor Adams nor the City Council. It is the position of Grand Rapids Voice that any investigation by the SEC is a very serious matter and substantial penalties can be directed against the City, thereby the taxpayers of the City of Grand Rapids, should the SEC find against the City.

Mayor Adam’s belief and statement that no action by the SEC is anticipated is not a response to the question presented. Merely because the City has conducted an internal audit of the matter and has responded to the inquiries posed by the SEC along with Mayor Adam’s belief does not mean that the investigation has been terminated. Any formal investigation initiated by a Federal Agency remains open and active until such time as that Federal Agency formally terminates the investigation and informs all parties of its termination.

The belief and conclusion of the Mayor is immaterial and may well be viewed as misleading. If the Mayor does not have current information regarding the status of the investigation, a proper response would be that he had no new information. This would be an accurate response to the question. Grand Rapids Voice therefore, continues to request and answer to the queries posed by Messrs. Ward and Niemala on this subject.

Secretary of State Report

The Secretary of States annual report shows that the City of Grand Rapids has the sixth highest cost of government per capita of all cities in Minnesota with a population greater than 2,500. Messrs. Ward and Niemala asked Mayor Adams why the cost of Grand Rapids City Government is so high relative to other communities and for justification for such excess costs of government. Mayor Adams responded by saying, “We look at the numbers differently.” His response could be understood to mean that the numbers presented by the Secretary of State are false, inaccurate or misleading. No information or data to support the notion that the information in the Secretary of State’s report is incorrect has been proposed, presented or published by Mayor Adams or the City Council.

In your letter and legal opinion on this matter, referred to an article published by City Administrator, Tom Pagel, entitled “Local Units of Government are not Apples”. This article gives Mr. Pagel’s, Mayor Adam’s and the City Council spin on the cost of government in the City of Grand Rapids. His presentation did not address the question as to why the cost of government is sixth highest in the state in a community with falling per capita income, unemployment among the highest in the State, declining property values, a high City debt (reported to be in excess of $ 65 million) and numerous unnecessary expenditures of taxpayer monies.

The questions posed by Messrs. Ward and Niemala remain and it is the position of Grand Rapids Voice that a coherent, considered, accurate, detailed and forthright response be given. Spin and justifications for questionable expenditures is immaterial and misleading.

Mr. Sterle, please consider this communication in response to your letter and legal opinion dated May 14, 2015. We respectfully request that you review the legal opinion given in your communication and respond to this communication and our continuing position regarding full, complete, accurate and permanent records of official proceedings. We respectfully request your response on or before September 10, 2015.

Sincerely,
Grand Rapids Voice
By: John Nelson

CC: City Council, Kim Johnson-Gibeau,

Exhibit B: Questions Regarding Transparency and Permanent Record of the City of Grand Rapids City Council Proceedings Presented to the City Council on May 11th, 2015

On April 10, 2015, Ron Niemala of Grand Rapids requested a response from the City Clerk regarding the incompleteness or the Minutes of the City Council meeting on March 9, 2015. In his letter, he questioned why the Minutes did not reflect comments and statements made to the Council regarding three (3) topics which impact the City’s SEC investigation status, the State of Minnesota Auditor’s Report regarding the City of Grand Rapids and the apparent conflict of interest of a sitting City Council member completely and accurately. The content of his request to the Clerk is as follows:
“This email is being sent to verify that the original email sent on the City of Grand Rapids server was received. The email sent regarded corrected minutes of the March 9th meeting in which I appeared before the council to share concerns and asked questions involving Central School, Councilman Zabinski’s conflict of interest and who would fund [city or brew pub] the necessary upgrades to the building should the project proceed, especially since the city is bonded to the max with over $62 million in indebtedness. Also brought up was the concern about the SEC investigation involving the misinformation given to bond purchasers about the credit worthiness of the city and the potential for liability to the local taxpayer for this error. Finally the State Auditor’s report showing that Grand Rapids is now #6th highest of 227 municipalities with annual expenditures exceeding $22 million on a population of 10,300, versus Bemidji, population of 13,500 and expenditures of $14 million and Cloquet with a population of 12,200 and annual expenditures of $7 million. Mayor Adam’s comment was “We interpret this information differently than the State Auditor.””*

Please make the necessary corrections to the minutes to reflect the true nature of the comments and the Mayors comments. Thank you.”

The clerk responded to my inquiry as Follows:

Good Morning,

Thank you for your email. Please be advised that City Council minutes are not transcribed, but summarized, with the exception of specific action taken on items presented. For those who wish to have a full accounting of the meeting and its contents, an audio recording is kept in the Administration Department and is available for the public to listen to. Also, ICTV keeps video recordings that the public can request copies of directly from ICTV. I hope this information was helpful.

As always, let me know if you need further assistance. “*

The Clerks response did not provide answers to the questions relating to the complete and accurate Official Record of City Council meetings. Rather, the Clerk merely stated that the Minutes are a summary of the proceeding only and that no transcribed record is made. In addition, the Clerk stated that an audio recording of the proceeding is kept by the Administration Department and is available to be listened to by the public. Furthermore, ICTV keeps video recordings available to the public.

This response poses several crucial questions regarding the required permanent, official record of official City Council meetings. Unless these questions can be answered, it would appear that the City Council is less than transparent and that the public is not privy to City Council proceedings during Regular or Special City Council meetings.
For convenience, we have divided the questions prompted by the Clerk’s response into three (3) categories. It is to be noted that these categories are for convenience only and do not limit or restrict any line of inquiry. Due to the subject matter, there are certain redundancies but each question addresses the specific topic in the category. The categories used are:

• Statutory
• Audio Record
• Video Record

1.0 Statutory

  • 1.1 As to the Minutes of the City Council meetings, Minnesota Statute Sec. 412.151 states that the complete record of City Council meetings may be summarized in the Minutes only if the record summarized is in the Permanent Record of the proceedings and can be accurately identified from the description in the Minutes. The permitted summary in the Official Minutes is only permitted if the Clerk has a complete, accurate and permanent record of the entire meeting.
  • This leads to several questions regarding the City’s maintenance of a complete, accurate and permanent record of all City Council meetings. While the record may be summarized in the Minutes per Statute, a complete, accurate and permanent record must be made.
  • 1.2 How does the public know that the Minutes available through the Clerk are summaries only and not a full and complete record of a City Council meeting?
  • 1.3 Even if the Minutes of the subject City Council meeting is only a summary of the proceeding, why were questions that have serious financial and ethical implications given only a cursory, abbreviated treatment?

2.0 Audio Record

  • 2.1 How does the public know that an audio recording has been made of the entire City Council meeting?
    2.2 The Clerk stated that the audio record is available to be heard by the public in the Administration Department. Are copies of the audio record available to be obtained by the public for an appropriate fee?
    2.3 How can a member of the public obtain a copy of the audio record that is certified by the Clerk as a true, complete and accurate copy of the original audio record?
    2.4 How long are the audio records kept in the Administration Department and how are they kept?
    2.5 Who owns the Copyright of the audio recordings?
    2.6 What is the format used for making the audio record? i.e., is the audio record in the format of audio tape, audio cassette, CD, mp3, mp4, etc.?
    2.7 Given that all forms and formats of producing an audio record have definable life spans (due to construction, technology, etc.), how can it be stated and guaranteed that such audio recordings are permanent and can be maintained and accessed in perpetuity?
    2.8 How can the Clerk certify that the audio record available to the public is the original record and not a copy or a copy of a copy? Regardless of the technology used, each time a copy of an audio file is made, there is some degradation in the copy.
    2.9 Who is responsible for making the audio record of City Council meetings?
    2.10 Who is in control of the actual recording process?
    2.11 Can the audio recording device be turned off intentionally, inadvertently or accidentally during a City Council meeting?
    2.12 Can the Mayor, a City Councilperson or other City Official or Employee pause or halt the audio recording process at any time?
    2.13 Can any microphone used in the audio recording process be turned off or muted during the audio recording process?
    2.14 Historically, it has been shown that audio records can be and have been tampered with, altered or erased in whole or in part, i.e., the “Nixon Tapes”. How can the Mayor, City Council, Clerk or other City Official certify that the audio record is a complete and accurate record and that it has not been tampered with, altered, edited or erased wholly or in part?
    2.15 Historically, audio records supplement the complete and accurate transcribed record of a proceeding but the audio record does not replace full, original transcribed records of Official Proceedings. Under the Original Evidence Rule, how can the City purport that an audio recording meets the Original Evidence standard as a complete, accurate and permanent record of City Council meetings?

3.0 ICTV Video Record

  • 3.1 Does the City own ICTV?
    3.2 If the City does not own ICTV, what fiduciary relationship exists between the City and ICTV?
    3.3 Is ICTV an Agent of the City and subject to direction and control of the City?
    3.4 Who owns the Copyright on the ICTV video recordings?
    3.5 Does the City own, all or in part, the ICTV video recordings of City Council meetings and/or all rights to the ICTV video recordings?
    3.6 If ICTV owns all rights to the video recordings of City Council meetings, said recordings may be destroyed, altered, erased, removed from availability to the public, etc., at the will of ICTV. How can the City certify that an ICTV video can be used as an official record that may be maintained in perpetuity?
    3.7 How long and in what manner are the ICTV videos of City Council meetings maintained and stored and in what manner are such videos stored?
    3.8 How can a member of the public obtain a copy of the ICTV record that is certified by the Clerk as a true, complete and accurate copy of the original ICTV video record?
    3.9 Who is responsible for making the ICTV video recordings of City Council Meetings?
    3.10 Who is in control of the actual recording process?
    3.11 Can the video recording device be turned off intentionally, inadvertently or accidently at any time during the recording process?
    3.12 Can the Mayor, a City Councilperson or other City Official or employee pause or halt the video recording process?
    3.13 Can any microphone used in the video recording process be turned off or muted at any time during the recording process?
    3.14 What is the technology used in making the ICTV video recording and in what format are the ICTV video recordings made, i.e., .mwv, mp4, etc.? With changes in technology, the format used may become obsolete rendering the data stored as a video recording unavailable to current playback devices.
    3.15 As with audio recordings, video recordings can be and have been tampered with, altered or edited. How can the Mayor, City Council, Clerk or other City Official certify that the video record has not been and cannot be tampered with, altered or edited?
    3.16 Who receives the monies for obtaining a copy of the ICTV video record of City Council meetings? If paid to ICTV, the monies paid are not a legitimate fee but a purchase price paid as a “for profit transaction” which indicates that the ICTV video recording is not maintained and controlled as a permanent, complete and accurate record by the City, or agents of the City.
    3.17 As with audio recording, video recordings supplement a transcribed record but do not replace such complete, accurate and official transcribed record of official proceedings. Under the Original Evidence Rule, how can the City purport and certify that the ICTV video meets the Original Evidence standard?

Your response to all of the above questions is respectfully requested, in writing, on or before June 10, 2015. These questions are crucial to the transparency of City Government and official records made, maintained and preserved. Without a valid complete, accurate, original and permanent record, the City gives, at the least, the appearance of non-transparency and secrecy.

It is the position of many that, due to the concerns and queries above, it is apparent that neither the audio recordings nor ICTV video recordings qualify as a legitimate complete, accurate and permanent record of City Council meetings and proceedings. In addition, as neither of these purported “Official Records” can be viewed as such, the Clerk and the City have not provided a complete, accurate and permanent record for public review and scrutiny. In view of the fact that the City does not provide a legitimate Official Record, the Minutes of all City Council meetings and proceedings must be complete, accurate and permanent records of such meetings and proceedings per Minnesota Statutes Sec. 412.151.

The issues presented are somewhat complex and, presumably, unusual. However, it is believed that a formal response can provide the necessary mechanism to present the transparency that appears to be lacking.

Respectfully yours,

Grand Rapids Voice

* Italics added