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Editorial: Red Wing City Hall doesn't 'get' representative government

Red Wing City Hall seems to be on the brink of falling into a dysfunctional dictatorship. There are only four of seven council members left and word on the street is that one of those has had enough but will stick it out.

Obviously, city administrators had wanted Council member Peggy Rehder gone for some time. She foiled the first thrust by making public the April 23, 2018, hearing into Finance Director Marshall Hallock's allegations that she threatened him — some would call it taking him to task for refusing to answer questions about public data. Had Rehder not exercised her right to an open hearing on the allegations, there's little doubt the uncomfortable tonguelashing would have been a severe private grilling and even a vote of unwarranted removal.

Round 2 went to City Council Administrator Kay Kuhlmann, however, who called an emergency meeting of department heads to try another approach. The crafting of a letter — ostensibly about "modeling, upholding and, when necessary" enforcing the city's Respectful Workplace Policy — took not one but two such meetings with the goal of shutting Rehder down.

Within days of that document being sent to council members, Rehder resigned rather than enter Round 3 on May 14. That is when the council would have considered acting on the letter's requests.

Nice words such as "teamwork," "collaborative," "initiative" and "support" aside, the letter had a key phrase that reveals Red Wing City Hall's true state: "Managers are directing employees not to have one-on-one conversations with elected leaders, during work hours, without first seeking approval of the Department Head."

In signing the letter, nearly every department head agreed to a dangerous course of action, namely the gagging of city employees and the limiting of citizens' rights.

If you doubt it, consider that this policy:

• Threatens freedom of speech.

Government employees not only are allowed to speak with the citizens, we need them to do so. And last we checked, elected officials are citizens — they have to be by the very nature of representative democracy.

• Stymies access to public information.

Government employees provide us with public data. Everyday citizens often turn to elected officials to get that data because

a) people don't know how to navigate the system or

b) they've met with resistance from some office.

• Stifles potential whistleblowers.

Prohibiting elected officials from talking with frontline workers begs the question: What are department heads trying to hide? Even if no whistle needs blowing now, there surely will come a day there is.

• Insulates departments heads.

In certain circumstances, council members may need the administrator's approval to talk with department heads — including those designated as officers of the council, which means the council can fire them. That's a tremendous amount of power for one person to hold.

• Undermines council members' authority.

In simple words, employees now can tell them, "Sorry, I can't talk to you during the day and I refuse to talk with you when I'm off the clock."

Only two department heads did not sign the letter: the chief of police and public library director. Even had they been inclined to do so, they clearly knew better than to strip any citizen — elected ones included — of the right to speak to a police officer or ask a reference librarian a question. Doing so would have violated state and federal laws and policies.

We do not dispute the value of respect in the workplace. We do, however, take exception to the lack of respect for representative government.

There is so much wrong with what has transpired at Red Wing City Hall. Apparently a good number of department heads and staff don't understand our democratic process. Ward 4 voters under the City Charter have the right to determine who represents them, and twice they chose Rehder. Barring some crime or some egregious act — a petite, older woman wagging a finger at a man double her size doesn't qualify — a council member by right should hold her seat until the term ends.

"We don't care how it was done; we're glad Peggy is gone," at least one City Hall staff member has intimated. That sentiment is indicative of a local government that has forgotten that process is a foundation of democracy. The end does not justify the means.

But City Hall got its way and as a result the letter was nowhere to be found on the May 14, 2018, City Council agenda. Where did it go?

The reply leaking from City Hall is, "We don't need it now that Peggy Rehder is gone."

Right. Until the next council member dares to stand up to City Hall.