ELY – Concerns of fairness with the process prompted the city council here Tuesday to reverse course and hold in-person interviews for the police chief candidates on Friday.Four finalists, …
ELY – Concerns of fairness with the process prompted the city council here Tuesday to reverse course and hold in-person interviews for the police chief candidates on Friday.
Four finalists, including three members of the Ely Police Department and a member of the Virginia Police Department, will be interviewed before council members in the Ely City Hall council chambers beginning at noon on May 1.
The council agreed last week to conduct the interviews to replace Chief John Lahtonen by video conference due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing protocols. Lahtonen, a member of the EPD for more than 25 years, is set to retire at the end of May.
That action did not sit well with council member Al Forsman.
“Being an open meeting, I was concerned about how we make it fair for the first interviewee or the last one,” he said. “I want to make sure we are all on the same page to create a fair process for our candidates.”
In a pre-emptive move earlier in the day, Mayor Chuck Novak issued a declaration that allows for an in-person meeting by Ely council members in their chambers. He defended his abrupt action by saying that, according to the League of Minnesota Cities, “other cities have always met in person” if the space in their chambers, or other municipal locations, allows for social distancing.
“Several cities have been meeting continuously since this began,” Novak said, referring to the COVID-19 situation. “Social distancing is the rule.”
The Ely city council had been meeting by internet video conference this spring, and canceled most committee meetings.
“In anticipation of Gov. Walz’s modifying his stay-at-home piece later this week, I put out a declaration to allow in-person meetings,” Novak said. “Not only are other councils doing this, but I get a sense from this council that the current process was unfair to the candidates and unfair to the process.”
The interview process to select Ely’s next police chief is now open to the public.
“We can control the public access into the meeting,” Novak said. “We will need to set some guidelines into how individuals may or may not come into the council chambers. The number of people allowed in will be extremely limited.”
EPD sergeant George Burger, EPD officers Adam Borchert and Chad Houde, and Virginia PD sergeant John Swenson are finalists for the chief position.
“My general feel is that if we did the interviews in the chambers, we’d have a better sense of the candidates themselves,” Novak said. “It would most likely eliminate the candidates listening in to answers, not that they would, but there has been a concern raised about that. Doing this in chambers gives us a more fair process for everybody concerned.”
Forsman raised a question about future council meetings going back to the in-person format in lieu of the mayor’s proclamation.
“That would be up to the council,” Novak said. He noted that his action “allows in-person meeting to occur” and will be made on a case-by-case basis. Social distance guidelines will continue according to orders from the governor’s office.
“I feel I came to this stance with the purpose of doing what is in the best interest of the city and giving the taxpayer the biggest bang for their tax dollar,” Novak said. He noted that taxpayers are currently banned from walking into city hall for passport applications, building permits and other services, and instead must utilize the city’s website.
Council member Kess objected to holding any in-chamber meetings until the Governor’s office allows such actions by municipalities, or at least until the council approves and adopts the 11th-hour proclamation.
“I prefer to meet in person, believe me,” he said.
“The governor has not said we cannot meet in person,” Novak replied “He just requires social distancing. Other councils are meeting in person.”
A debate about allowing the candidates to preview interview questions was put to rest by City Attorney Kelly Klun, who said that past practices by the city for in-person interviews did not allow for releasing preview questions.
“Usually questions are answered on the spot,” she said. “You show up for the interview and you answer the questions.”
Last week, Council members agreed to meet 30 minutes prior to the interviews to finalize interview questions and procedures.
Kess pushed for a portion of the interview questions to be released to the candidates.
“That gives candidates a chance to think and respond creatively to questions,” he said. “We could also ask other questions, like in a regular interview, that gives us a chance to gauge their ability to respond impromptu and think on their feet, which we may value in a (police) chief.”
Novak pushed back. “We are dealing with a position that is supposed to function under pressure, aren’t we?”
Klun pushed for not releasing any questions to the candidates before the interviews begin. She suggested allowing the council to review and refine the interview questions just prior to the start of the interview meeting.
“This keeps the process fair.,” she said.