TOWER— A St. Louis County District Court Judge has dismissed a gross misdemeanor charge against former Tower Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith for lack of probable cause. The ruling, by Judge Michelle Anderson, was issued April 22. In it, the judge found that “while the Tower City Council may have been acting improperly” when it removed Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger in January 2018 from his position on the Tower Economic Development Authority, Keith did not have the authority or a vote on the matter. Instead, the judge determined that the former clerk-treasurer had merely drafted minutes and other city records that accurately reflected the illegal changes in the terms of office of Helmberger and other TEDA members that had been approved by the city council, and may have been unaware that the changes represented an improper alteration of city records.
In fact, as acknowledged by Keith’s attorney in his briefing to the judge, the only explicit action taken by the city council in January 2018 was to remove Helmberger from TEDA, an action taken largely at Keith’s behest. City emails obtained by county investigators confirmed that Keith had sought Helmberger’s removal from TEDA and that Carlson had promised to do so. A month prior to the January 2018 reorganization, Keith had emailed then-council member Kevin Fitton, telling him: “the mayor says for Christmas this year he got me a present which is to take Marshall off of TEDA in January.” Helmberger was removed following critical news reporting on both Keith and the city council in the Timberjay.
Former Mayor Josh Carlson pled guilty to a single gross misdemeanor count earlier this year for his role in Helmberger’s illegal removal.
While the judge contends in her ruling that it was the city council that altered the terms of TEDA members, rather than Keith, the council discussion at the 2018 reorganizational meeting never mentioned nor expressly authorized changes in the term dates for Helmberger or other members of TEDA that subsequently appeared in the official city minutes that Keith produced. Without specific council action authorizing the changes in the TEDA terms, it remains unclear how Keith’s minutes “accurately reflect the actions taken by the Tower City Council,” as the judge concluded. Further, it was Keith who prepared the document with the altered terms that the council adopted. Other than Carlson, it is unclear whether any other councilors were aware that the terms had been altered.
When questioned about the altered city records, Carlson had told Sheriff’s Office investigators at the time that he could not explain the changes and indicated that any changes in the records would had to have been made by Keith.
While the city council would appear to have the authority to remove or alter dates for members of some other city commissions and committees, it does not have a legal right to do so in the case of an economic development authority, which is a semi-autonomous entity under state law. Once appointed, a member of an EDA cannot be removed by the city council during their term except for cause, and the member has due process rights including the right to notice and the opportunity for a hearing. In the case of Tower, city officials never cited a cause at the time of Helmberger’s removal, other than to suggest his term had expired, when it had not.
Former council member Fitton confirmed during public comments in 2019 that Helmberger’s removal was retaliatory in nature, stating his dismissal came “because he wasn’t agreeing with some of the city’s positions… so basically, you burn enough bridges with enough council members, that everyone was, okay, well, enough’s enough of that.”
In a related issue, the judge determined that a roster that Keith had prepared and provided to the new Mayor, Orlyn Kringstad, in advance of the city’s 2019 reorganization, appeared to accurately reflect the term changes approved by the previous city council, whether or not those changes were legal. The judge determined that, in either case, the changes weren’t material since the new mayor was already aware that the terms of office had been altered and so it did not impact the council’s ultimate decisions in reorganization. In fact, the falsified record did prevent Helmberger from being reinstated on TEDA for several months. It was not until after the resignation of Kevin Fitton that the council moved to reinstate Helmberger to his position through the remainder of his term. The TEDA board, this past January, unanimously hired Helmberger as TEDA’s executive director.
Keith still faces a felony charge for her acknowledged destruction of a city laptop that she had in her possession in June 2019, when the city council voted to suspend her. The council later dismissed Keith and her union subsequently dropped her representation. The state of Minnesota’s unemployment division later determined that she had been dismissed with just cause, denying her the unemployment compensation she sought.