Ever since a state of emergency was declared due to the COVID-19 pandemic, local governments have enacted their own emergency declarations allowing for, among other things, city staff or council members to participate in meetings remotely from home without violating the open meeting laws. The city of North Branch, however, never did make such a declaration.
Despite that, North Branch Council Member Kathy Blomquist, who is in the high-risk category for contracting COVID, has been attending meetings via video from her home since March, in addition to doing so from public locations while vacationing down south over the winter before the pandemic struck, which had been considered an acceptable practice.
Last month, however, a North Branch resident questioned the validity of this practice, prompting acting City Attorney David Anderson to do some research that resulted in his opinion that without a doctor’s note or a formal declaration by the mayor, Blomquist should have only been allowed to participate in this manner three times.
At first, during the Aug. 25 meeting, Mayor Jim Swenson refused to make the declaration, stating he felt city staff could make arrangements to keep Blomquist - or anyone else concerned about contracting COVID - safe during meetings. During the Sept. 8 meeting, Swenson changed his mind and agreed to sign the emergency declaration, thus allowing Blomquist to participate from her home.
“Council Member Blomquist, you are the only elected or appointed official who has requested this emergency order for yourself,” Swenson said. “I firmly believe that you could come to the chambers via the side door, distance yourself at the side table and wear a mask and still be safe. With that being said, I do recognize how terrified you are of contracting the virus. So I am going to sign the emergency proclamation papers based solely on your request.”
Complaints against council members
During the Aug. 25 meeting, Swenson and Council Member Kelly Neider issued formal complaints against Blomquist for actions she took a year ago both while and immediately following she was on the Water and Light Commission. The most egregious of which was her conducting an illegal closed-door meeting. Swenson and Neider was asking the council to approve holding a hearing in order for Blomquist to address those allegations. That motion, however, failed on a 2-2 vote.
During the Sept. 8 meeting, it was Swenson and Neider who were accused of wrong-doing, this time by Council Member Brian Voss and Blomquist.
The allegations against Swenson stemmed from his outburst during the June 23, 2020 council meeting. Voss’ motion to hold a hearing to address those allegations failed due to a lack of a second.
The complaints against Neider were based on her time serving as a Water and Light Commission member, and included numerous times of holding illegal non-noticed quorums of the commission.
Voss again made a motion to hold a hearing at the Sept. 22 council meeting for Neider to address these allegations, with Council Member Joel McPherson seconding it. That motion was approved 3-0, with Blomquist abstaining and Neider unable to vote due to the obvious conflict of interest.
Upon being able to rejoin the discussion, Neider proclaimed her eagerness to address these allegations.
“I do believe in total transparency to the constituents and the residents of North Branch,” Neider said. “So I welcome the opportunity to share my side of these allegations.”
Even if she is found guilty of these allegations, City Attorney Anderson told the council they have few recourses. Essentially, the only thing the council could do would be to censure Neider, according to Anderson.