City attorney’s resignation letters to be made public

When it was announced during a special North Branch City Council meeting on July 6 that Patrick Doran had resigned from his position as city attorney, it was done so without the inclusion of the letter of resignation in the meeting packet, leaving the reasons for this change to speculation. Following the July 28 City Council meeting, however, those reasons - along with perhaps other “behind-the-scenes” information - will be made open to the public.

On a 3-2 split vote, the council approved waiving their attorney-client privilege, thus instructing acting City Attorney Dave Anderson to present a redacted version of two letters from Doran to the city council regarding his resignation as city attorney on June 25, 2020, along with his resignation as attorney for the Water & Light Commission on June 26, 2019.

Council Member Brian Voss, who placed this item on the agenda, said he felt this information needed to be made public.

“It is believed that the public interest demands release of certain portions of these letters, especially if the matters involve elected or appointed public officials, which may or may not be the case,” Voss wrote in his introduction of the agenda item.

While the exact reasons why these letters are more than simple “I resign my position...” in nature won’t be revealed until the release of said letters, the council’s discussion implied Doran reveals alleged actions taken by council members, city staff, and/or Water & Light Commissioners or employees.

“I have read these two letters quite frequently,” said Council Member Kelly Neider while indicating her opposition to the motion. “It is simply a document of opinions. There is nothing substantial written in here. The letters are strictly a list of somebody’s perspective or their ideas of what has happened.”

Neider indicated there is an ongoing investigation initiated by herself and now-former W&L Commission Chair Peter Schaps that would shed some additional light on the situation.

“I would ask the council to reconsider this as an issue of privacy until the existing investigation is completed,” Neider said. “Then we can appropriately address the residents of North Branch with the full agenda and full findings of what is going on.

“I served (on the W&L Commission) for just over a year,” she continued, “and I have thousands of documents indicating these items in these letters are untrue.”

Anderson told the council while he typically advises against the waiving of attorney-client privilege, if the council were to do so, the letters would definitely have to redacted by him, which he estimated could take anywhere between three to six hours.

“These documents, in my legal opinion, do contain data that certainly is not public,” Anderson said. “Not withstanding any waiver of attorney-client privilege, if those letters were to be disseminated, they would certainly need to be redacted significantly in order to protect that non-public data from being seen by others.”

He also told the council if they didn’t waive the privilege, the letters could not be provided to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

Council Member Joel McPherson said he thought the council should waive their privilege in this case.

“We hear from the public they want honesty and transparency,” McPherson said. “I think for the attorney to go through and redact anything that is potential harm to an employee is appropriate, but seeing that we are public officials, I think they should know.”

Mayor Jim Swenson asked Voss why the resignation letter from a year ago needed to be included in his motion?

“The explanation I can offer you is the June 26, 2019 letter was specifically referenced in at least one occasion, and as such, that would be appropriate and desirable to be included should a member of the public want to review the documents,” Voss explained.

Via a roll-call vote, Voss, McPherson and Kathy Blomquist voted in favor of waiving the privilege, with Neider and Swenson voting against.

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