Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

EDITORIAL: Exercise common sense

Tower Council doesn’t need a lawyer to tell them a grievance can’t overturn the charter

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For months, a much-needed investigation into a lengthy list of infractions and malfeasance by Tower’s city clerk-treasurer has been stuck in neutral over a ridiculous ploy engineered by the city clerk, her union representative, and her chief political ally, Steve Altenburg.

Back in February, Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith filed a grievance under her union contract alleging that Mayor Orlyn Kringstad had improperly conducted an investigation of her apparent law-breaking, dishonesty, and incompetence, and subsequently leaked some of his findings, that he had presented at a closed session of the city council, to this newspaper.

The allegation regarding the leak was completely false, as we have previously addressed. We had been investigating Keith’s systematic falsification of city records for months but had held off on reporting our own findings to give the new council time to address the clerk-treasurer’s apparently criminal action.

Altenburg and former council member Brooke Anderson (another Keith ally), who resigned earlier this month, eventually dropped any discussion of the false leak. Yet they found in favor of Keith on the second issue, ignoring the fact that Kringstad had every right to examine public records, observe Keith’s repeated dishonesty at council meetings, and report to the council, or anyone, on his conclusions. It should be noted that during his investigation into Keith, Kringstad was still a private citizen. He also undertook his actions under the guidance of outside legal counsel, that he obtained at private expense, and followed that guidance every step of the way.

To suggest that he needed council approval to do the due diligence that any responsible citizen is free to undertake in America is ridiculous. We all should be paying attention to the workings of government officials and seeking accountability, particularly when their actions run afoul of the law.

Neither Altenburg nor Anderson could point to any legal authority to support their contention that Kringstad’s actions were inappropriate in any way, or that, as a private citizen, he somehow needed council authority to investigate whatever issue attracts his interest.

But it wasn’t just their finding that was a fraud. The two, without the aid of any legal counsel— which they had previously committed to obtaining— then proceeded to accept a blatantly unconstitutional remedy from the union designed to wipe away any authority of the city council to pursue an investigation against Keith and prohibited Kringstad from exercising any oversight of Keith, permanently. For Keith, it was a nearly perpetual “Get out of jail free” card.

The actions of Keith, Altenburg, and Anderson represent a flagrant violation of the city’s charter, which clearly authorizes the city council to “make investigations into the affairs of the city and the conduct of any city department, office or agency and for this purpose may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, take testimony, and require the production of evidence.” No union grievance decision can overturn the city’s charter, particularly when the finding was so transparently fraudulent. It was the ultimate kangaroo court.

Yet, while Keith and Altenburg’s ploy is based on fiction, it has managed to hold off a city council that is still struggling to find its way in the face of Keith’s constant manipulations and misrepresentations. With the current city attorney inexplicably unwilling to weigh in on the legitimacy of this farce, the council has now spent more than a month seeking legal representation to tell them the obvious— that Altenburg and Anderson had no authority to overturn the city charter by taking away the council’s investigatory and oversight authority.

The council should save the city the money. It doesn’t take an attorney to interpret the clear language of the charter. The council has absolute authority to pursue an investigation of the clerk-treasurer. It’s spelled out in black and white. As their own city attorney told members of the council Monday night, they have the authority to decide the issue for themselves. That’s what voters elected them to do.

The bottom line is that the city council has a legal and ethical obligation to investigate. The council members have been presented with prima facie evidence of potential criminal actions undertaken by the clerk-treasurer in a perversion of her official duties in order to keep her political allies in positions of authority. The council can’t ignore that reality. If council members somehow find themselves constrained from taking action, they have an obligation to report the allegations to the St. Louis County Sheriff for investigation, something that this council has, to date, failed to do. Until it does, this council is, in effect, complicit in the clerk-treasurer’s apparent wrongdoing. And that’s not a good look for this, or any council.

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