CHISHOLM — The Chisholm City Council, in an online meeting on Wednesday, reaffirmed the city council’s position as a neutral body concerning the 2020 election.
Chisholm City Council President Tracy Campbell introduced a resolution of neutrality in response to what she said is “confusion” in the community about an endorsement letter in support of President Donald J. Trump, signed by Chisholm Mayor John Champa and six other Iron Range mayors, dated Aug. 28. In that letter, Champa’s signature is followed by his title as Mayor of Chisholm.
“I think it’s important that we address this so that the City of Chisholm as employees and elected officials are neutral,” Campbell said at the council meeting on Wednesday.
Champa, last week and again on Wednesday, said the Aug. 28 letter he and the other mayors signed in support of Trump reflects his personal views, and not that of the council or city. As Champa explained it, when asked to sign a letter of support for a certain project or endorsement, he signs his name to a blank piece of paper and faxes it. His signature and title are then added electronically. The mayor said he always makes it a practice to read a letter he’s asked to sign, to make sure it in no way represents the views of the city.
Champa added that on at least three occasions he brought the matter up to the city’s legal counsel and was assured he didn’t break any laws.
The mayor did offer an apology Wednesday to city councilors for the calls they’ve fielded since the letter was published.
At Champa’s request, City Attorney Bryan Lindsay on Wednesday provided a legal opinion on the matter at the council meeting on Wednesday.
“The way the letter is signed and the way the signature blocks are put in is not the best practice, but does not violate any laws,” Lindsay told the city council.
The purpose of the ordinance approved by the council on Wednesday is to remind city employees and public elected officials that they have to be careful that they are expressing personal views, according to Lindsay.
At the same time, the ordinance does not restrict the rights of employees or city officials from engaging in political action outside of their formal positions with the city.
A motion by Campbell to adopt the resolution of neutrality, supported by Councilor April Fountain, ultimately passed in a 5-1 vote. Included in the motion was a direction for Lindsay to review a code of conduct passed earlier by the city council, and to provide councilors with possible revisions.
Councilor Adam Lantz said he didn’t feel as if the mayor was speaking on his behalf when he signed the letter. Regardless of who the mayor was endorsing, Lantz said he supports his right to use the title of mayor.
“I have a hard time taking away that title when a group has a problem with it,” Lantz said.
Champa speculated that, while drawing a line for the council with his recommendations to revise the code of conduct, Lindsay will stop short of preventing him from using the title of mayor.
Lindsay referenced Minnesota Statute 211.B.09 at the council meeting on Wednesday.
It reads, “An employee or official of the state or of a political subdivision may not use official authority or influence to compel a person to apply for membership in or become a member of a political organization, to pay or promise to pay a political contribution, or to take part in a political activity. A political subdivision may not impose or enforce additional limitations on the political activities of its employees.”
The resolution states the City of Chisholm, when acting through its elected officials and employees as a government unit, has and always will be a neutral body that shall set aside partisan politics and political position taking to objectively and effectively deliver services and promote the best interests of its residents; and the City acknowledges that each city employee and elected official has a personal life and personal views that are separate from their participation in the leadership and operation of the city.”
To clear up any “gray area,” Lindsay said it’s important to make sure it is clear that personal views are not attributed to other council members or the city as a whole.
Another point Lindsay brought up was that the letter Champa and the other mayors signed did not have a “call to action” and did not ask for political activity, or membership to a political party that would have violated state statute.
“I believe this letter walks close to a line, but doesn’t cross over it,” Lindsay opined.
Lindsay said it’s a fact that Champa is the mayor of Chisholm — a title he holds 24/7.
If the letter were signed differently to indicate it was on behalf of the city, it would have been a problem, Lindsay added.
Champa made a point of telling the council that since the controversy arose over the letter, he removed the title of mayor from his personal Facebook page where he is known to share his political views.
“I actually removed it this week, because I thought that could be construed as a problem as well,” Champa said.
Lindsay, when asked for his opinion on the matter, said although Champa is not required to remove the mayoral title from his Facebook page, it aligns with best practices.
“I think if you’re going to be engaging in political activity, the best practice would be to remove it,” Lindsay concurred.
Later in the council meeting, the council accepted the resignation of Lou Cianni from the Chisholm Economic Development Authority (EDA).
“As a result of the endorsement of Donald Trump by the mayor of Chisholm and the adoption of the content of the letter of the six, I am unable to serve in my position on the EDA and hereby resign effective immediately,” wrote Cianni in a letter contained in the council packet.
Champa thanked Cianni for his years of service most recently as EDA director and as a former city attorney. In recent months, Champa said Cianni provided valuable insight on how to help businesses affected by the coronavirus crisis.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Cianni and I do not agree politically, as the letter states, at this point there’s nothing I can do about that,” Champa said.
During the Public Comment portion of the council meeting Wednesday, Melissa Scaia, a citizen of Chisholm, questioned the mayor’s decision to include his title with his signature.
“I ask you, how should the mayor of Chisholm represent the citizens of this city, other council members, and the city more broadly?” Petrangelo Scaia asked.
Citing data from the Minnesota Secretary of State, Petrangelo Scaia said the majority of persons in Chisholm supported the Democratic candidate for office in the last presidential election. Petrangelo Scaia also made a point of saying that the United Steelworkers union is “vehemently opposed” to the content of the letter Champa endorsed.
“This is one of the most divisive in the history of the United States,” said Petrangelo Scaia. “This in part is because of the current president of the United States. “By making this endorsement, I believe that youtube now contributed to the divisiveness in this city. The president of the uNited states has shown little regard or care for the LGBTQ community, persons of color, women, and immigrants, to name a few. By your endorsement, you have sent the same message to these groups of people in Chisholm. How will you work to assure that these groups of people are of concern to you?
Petrangelo Scaia concluded that she was related to former mayor Todd Scaia and said she didn’t limit her criticism to Chisholm’s current mayor, and was known to criticize Todd Scaia and Mike Jugovich when they were in office.
Councilor Travis Vake said on Wednesday, “it’s been an interesting couple of weeks since the letter came out.”
Vake said he doesn’t personally post political information, and he hopes the progress the council has made the past couple of years doesn’t get lost in the controversy.
“Please do not forget how much we have done for this city and how far the city has come, because that’s the momentum we need to keep riding.”
“This council has done a lot of good things and we can’t lose sight of that,” she said.