The Tower City Council voted 2-1-2 on Monday to undertake an ill-defined and open-ended investigation of a sitting mayor for an opinion he expressed as a private citizen. If the very idea leaves you confused and alarmed, you’re not alone. As citizens of the United States, we have a right to express our opinions. That’s guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution, and those rights apply even in Tower.
According to a complaint filed by Ambulance Director Steve Altenburg, Mayor Orlyn Kringstad called him “sexist” and suggested he should be dismissed, in a private conversation Kringstad had with two women at his Main Street business prior to taking office. One of the women was on the city council at the time and the other had been elected but had not yet assumed office.
Obviously, we don’t know if Mr. Kringstad actually made those comments or not. But if he did, so what?
Since when is there a city role in policing the comments of private citizens? Even as a sitting mayor, Kringstad has the right to express his opinions and the council has no authority to do anything about it.
But let’s be clear. This isn’t about a comment made by Mr. Kringstad. It’s about four people, including Mr. Altenburg, Councilors Kevin Fitton and Brooke Anderson, and City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith who refuse to accept the results of an election in which the people of the city of Tower demanded an end to the dysfunction and dishonesty at city hall.
Kringstad easily won the race for mayor in a three-way contest, running on getting city government functioning again and working in the long-term interests of the community. Another candidate, Jeff Hill, ran promising to seek an FBI investigation into city hall before he would even take the oath of office. Combined, Kringstad and Hill received 70 percent of the vote. In other words, the people of Tower spoke loudly for change.
Since then, Altenburg, Fitton, and Keith, in particular, have gone out of their way to hobble Kringstad in his efforts to bring the change to city hall that the community so desperately desires.
In comments on Monday, while arguing for an investigation into Kringstad, Fitton accused him of “pushing an agenda” and addressing things “that people are unhappy about and trying to make a cause of them.” In other words, Fitton sees Kringstad as guilty of responding to public concerns. Imagine that. A political leader who listens to the public?
The hypocrisy of Altenburg and Fitton is simply stunning. Altenburg spent the first few weeks after the election writing and reading bizarre rants at council meetings, accusing Kringstad and Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger of “corruption,” among other things, comments that Clerk-Treasurer Keith somehow felt it appropriate to include in the city council’s packets. And Altenburg, without the council’s knowledge or permission, installed a video camera to record his defamatory comments and posted them on the city’s website.
Just two weeks ago, Fitton defamed Helmberger in a council meeting by accusing him of violating state law by using his business email while he was TEDA president. Yet there is no law or city policy against using personal or business email for city-related business and doing so is routine.
Both Altenburg and Fitton believe they are free as city officials to make whatever reckless allegations they want against anyone, with no consequence. But woe to the private citizen who suggests Altenburg might be “sexist.” That two sitting councilors would approve hiring an investigator over such a thing is probably unprecedented in Minnesota and is deeply Orwellian, suggesting that the council has now assumed the role of “thought police.”
Rather than investigating Kringstad’s comments, a council working in the public interest would investigate the underlying concerns that Kringstad allegedly expressed. Kringstad isn’t the only one in the community to have heard concerns about Altenburg’s inappropriate behavior as fire chief and ambulance director. More than once, we’ve had women who have worked under Altenburg in our office complaining about his treatment of some female employees. None have wanted to go on the record for fear of retaliation.
Filing a grievance is out of the question, of course, since Altenburg sits on the grievance committee.
It takes little imagination to recognize the true desire of this dishonest cabal. Altenburg has already told people in the community that they’re “going to run Kringstad out of town,” which would leave Fitton as mayor. The only question is, whether folks in Tower are willing to stand up and say “No!”