The Lake Elmo City Council did not finish its discussion on the possible removal of the censure of Councilmember Justin Bloyer July 19, after a controversial move to adjourn the meeting early. Some residents say that shutting down the meeting in the midst of public comment was a way to stifle free speech, but three council members felt it was necessary to end a meeting that was “out of control.”
Bloyer currently sits under two censures imposed by split council votes. The censures stemmed from a Sept. 16 incident in which Bloyer publicly criticized the city’s finance director, Cathy Bendel. Bendel has since filed a second complaint stating that Bloyer has allegedly continued to harass her and make statements in public about her professional abilities, as well as release private data to the media. Although two city administrators and two city attorneys have stated that the complaints by Bendel do not rise to the level in which discipline is appropriate, the council majority says it has put the two censures and restrictions on Bloyer in an attempt to protect staff. Restrictions include limiting staff interactions with Bloyer during and away from council meetings and call for him to attend a data practices training.
During the July 19 council meeting, city attorney Sarah Sonsalla said that in her opinion the censure is not legally enforceable and the restrictions place on Bloyer violate his rights as an elected official. She said she was unaware of the second censure before it took place and had not reviewed the language used in the resolution before the council voted 3-1 to impose the restrictions.
“The rule is well established that an elected official is entitled to hold that office without any restrictions,” Sonsalla said. “Furthermore, under the First Amendment, a council member’s speech — which is considered highly protected political speech — also may not be restricted.”
It was Sonsalla’s recommendation that the council lift the censure.
“In developing the resolution, I did a lot of research in what other councils do in similar situations,” Councilmember Julie Fliflet said. “I think everyone understands that those restrictions are not legally enforceable.”
For the first time, Bendel spoke out about the censure and the incidents related to her complaints during the meeting’s public forum.
“I want to be clear that the first complaint was made due to the unprofessional tone by Councilmember Bloyer,” Bendel said. “Mentioning an error over and over and over, numerous times at a public meeting is harassing and thus I had to file a second complaint.”
Bloyer’s wife, Dana Bloyer, also spoke for the first time at the city’s public forum in defense of her husband.
“There is not a week that goes by that I don’t beg my husband to abandon his post on the city council,” she said, “The newspaper articles, the stress level, the phone calls, the long meetings — I could not imagine going through it. I have just had to witness it. I have only had to assist to explain to three children under the age of 10 why their dad is in the paper labeled a bully, why he would persevere through another absurd censure.”
Councilmember Anne Smith sympathized with Dana Bloyer because Smith had to explain to her children why she was censured in 2014. Smith argued that the censure imposed on her in 2014 was deemed legal by the city attorney at that time, Dave Snyder. The terms of the censure were less restrictive than the terms of Bloyer’s censure.
“Justin Bloyer and I had discussions this spring on his censure and he indicated to me he did not care about it,” Smith said in a later email. “I have asked him to publicly apologize several times for his rude behavior and inappropriate comments.”
When Mayor Mike Pearson opened the discussion to a number of residents who had come to speak on the agenda item, the tone in the room became hostile between upset residents and some members of the council. All of the residents who spoke voiced concerns about the way in which the censure was brought forward and the legality of restricting Bloyer.
“I talk with a lot of people around Lake Elmo, and they have had it up to here,” said Craig Knoll. “We demand better and we are going to get better.”
Larry Weiss said he has a difficult time listening to the council, and when his comments became directed at Smith some council members said he was violating the decorum policy.
“You are the problem, you center of the dysfunction,” Weiss said. “People need to know that.”
“It’s not true,” said Smith.
“It is true, you have threatened me personally,” Weiss said.
The meeting became loud and contentious, and there were calls by Smith, Fliflet and Councilmember Jill Lundgren to remove Weiss from city hall. Pearson indicated he was unwilling to throw a resident out of city hall.
Next, resident Dale Dorschner came up to the podium to speak and leveled the charges of “disgusting and incompetent” against the council.
This was too much for some members of the council, and Lundgren made a motion to recess the meeting in the middle of Dorschner’s public comments in order to speak with Sonsalla. When the council returned from the recess, Fliflet made a motion to adjourn the meeting. When Pearson said he wanted to finish public comment, Fliflet said the residents could come back to the next meeting to finish their comments.
“I have to favor free speech,” Pearson said, unwilling to adjourn the meeting.
After a turn through Robert’s Rules of Order, the majority of the council ruled against Pearson and voted 3-2 to adjourn the meeting.
“I feel that this was a violation of my First Amendment rights,” Dorschner said after the meeting. “It’s about transparency in government. If you can’t ask legitimate questions, how can you get answers?”
In a later email, Fliflet responded to the decision to end the meeting.
“As we said at the council table when we adjourned, the council meeting had gotten out of control,” she wrote. “Three council members had asked the Mayor to remove an unruly resident who had been out of line several times during the evening, but the Mayor refused because this group of residents are his supporters. So then when the next resident started to speak in a similar manner we thought it best to adjourn as it was evident that the Mayor could not keep the meeting under control and would not take the necessary steps to do that.”
In a later interview, Pearson said he believes the meeting was adjourned improperly by the majority of the council and goes against Robert’s Rules of Order.
“The resident had the floor and was exercising his rights to free speech,” Pearson said. “He offered dissent to the council, and that propelled the majority to object.”
Bloyer echoed Pearson, alleging that the majority of the council doesn’t want to allow dissent.
Contact Alicia Lebens at firstname.lastname@example.org