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City clerk in northwest Minnesota sues town leaders

KENNEDY, Minn.—A northwest Minnesota town clerk and treasurer is suing the town and its leaders claiming they defamed her and violated open meeting laws.

Mary Cooney Of Kennedy said they spread rumors about her and retaliated against her after she attempted to push the City Council into discussing allegations against her in open meetings.

Cooney, who will resign from her city post in mid-February, filed the lawsuit against the City of Kennedy, its City Council members, the mayor and former employee Kevin Balstad on Thursday, Feb. 8, in Kittson County District Court.

Kennedy, a town of about 200 people, is about 60 miles north of Grand Forks.

The case stems from allegations regarding Balstad. The lawsuit claims Mayor Todd Truedson and council member Kevin Hanson told residents that Cooney, a city clerk of seven years, swore at Balstad and belittled him, forcing his resignation. It also alleges Balstad made similar remarks.

Cooney's attorney, Adrianna Shannon of Minneapolis, said on Friday that Balstad never brought up the verbal abuse to Cooney or Shannon, adding the accusations are false.

Truedson asked Cooney to leave a July 10 council meeting because he wanted to close the meeting to discuss "personnel issues" regarding Balstad, according to meeting minutes. Cooney opposed the closed meeting, saying she didn't think it was legal.

After more than an hour of discussion in the closed meeting, the council voted unanimously in public to place Cooney on unpaid leave, according to the minutes.

The council changed her status to paid during a special meeting July 11. The council declined to tell her why she was placed on leave but said it would investigate the matter, according to the lawsuit.

"No such investigation took place," the lawsuit states.

Cooney also claims she was declined access to recordings of the two meetings, which she said were not given proper public notice. She requested to see her personnel file, claiming she never had been disciplined by the city before last summer, according to court documents.

The city said it had lost her file.

The city held a series of special meetings on the matter, but Cooney claims the council tried to close the meetings illegally and dodge questions from the public.

She also claimed the council pressured her into falsifying minutes, Shannon said, adding official minutes conflicted with recordings.

"Cooney refused to change the meeting minutes to reflect false information, noting that the council's demands were unlawful," Shannon said in a statement.

An attorney eventually advised the council not to speak about the case to the public, according to meeting minutes.

Cooney, who eventually was allowed to come back to work, said she never was given the opportunity to clear her name, according to the lawsuit. She alleges five counts against the city: open meeting law violations, Minnesota Whistleblower Act violations, Data Practices Act violations, breach of contract and due process violations. A sixth account accuses Truedson, Hanson and Balstad of defamation.

She is asking for the council members to resign, a correction of public records, compensation in excess of $75,000 and expungement of adverse records about her, among other things, according to court documents.

"Ms. Cooney is merely requesting that council members do the right thing—admit their mistakes, tell the truth and take action to clear her name when they know she has not done anything wrong," Shannon said in her statement. "Instead of taking responsibility for their mistakes, they are now wasting tax dollars on this case."

Council members include Matt Casper, Cindy Urbaniak and Jon Pietruszewski.

City offices were closed Friday. Several messages left for Truedson were not returned by press time.

St. Cloud, Minn., attorney Dyan Ebert is representing the city in the lawsuit. Ebert did not return messages left as of press time.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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