BEMIDJI -- Monday night meant talks on police advisory boards, in-demand ice rinks, public art, library committees and township annexation for the Bemidji City Council.
An ordinance to establish a police advisory board was read for the second time by the council during its Monday, Aug. 2 meeting. Along with this came an opportunity for the public to voice their thoughts during a public hearing -- though none did.
Discussions about a potential police advisory board, and what that committee will be able to do, have been going on for about a year. As a part of its mission the committee, which will be titled the Community and Police Advisory Board, will establish channels of communication between the community, the Bemidji Police Department and the council.
Once formed, the board will be able to review police-related incidents and provide feedback. However, according to Minnesota statutes, the board will not receive complaints initiated against police personnel and have no authority to investigate or participate in personnel matters.
A third and final reading of the ordinance, as well as a final public hearing on the matter, will be held in two weeks at 6 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 16.
Also during Monday’s meeting, the council voted against allocating funds for public art on the new wastewater treatment plant, voted to extend a memorandum of understanding with the BCAC regarding ice for figure skating, open skate and other community needs, discussed the potential to expand city services without annexation and spoke about concerns regarding the creation of a joint city-county library task force.
Though there was no public participation in Monday night’s meeting, the council has heard some community input on the matter. In August 2020, the council held a listening session to hear testimonies and opinions from residents about what a police advisory group should look like.
Many in August 2020 seemed to want an advisory board with teeth, one that could deal out consequences. In an interview posted to his Facebook page in mid-July, Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince explained why that is not possible.
“At the time there was a lot of desire to have a committee that would have oversight over police personnel matters to handle complaints, etc. The challenge with that is that there's actually a state statute, our own city charter and our union contracts with our law enforcement to prohibit that," Prince explained. "The theory behind that is, as an elected group, like the city council is, it shouldn't be something that you turn that power over that you've been given through the election to other citizens and just allow them to adjudicate."
Additionally, the board will not be able to participate in or review civil or criminal litigation. This is based on state law, which prohibits civilian review boards from having the authority to make a finding of fact or determination regarding a complaint against an officer.
The state also prevents boards from imposing discipline on an officer. Minnesota rules do allow boards to make recommendations, but they can only be in an advisory capacity and are non-binding.
The council also “heard” survey responses Monday from 24 Bemidji police officers. These anonymous responses painted a picture of a department generally open to the idea of a police advisory committee, as long as it serves as a communicative liaison between the community and law enforcement and not a burden to the department.
About 65% said they supported the creation of the police advisory board.
One officer wrote, “I do support the implementation of the board. With the current environment and public scrutiny about police, I am concerned and apprehensive. I really hope this becomes a positive experience. The community deserves this board. The Bemidji Police Department deserves this board. We all need to remember that we need to work together and provide solutions to problems within the community.”
Another, who was seemingly against the creation of such a committee, wrote, “Who are the people that regularly engage with the public, receive feedback from citizens, know where the crime is occurring regularly, strategize crime reduction and traffic safety methods, perform awareness outreach, and are trained in law enforcement principles?” the officer wrote. “The officers that already work for the city.
“You can see the results of such oversight and micromanagement in other cities. The officers become burdened with recommended tasks that ultimately result in reduced proactive traffic safety enforcement and reduced proactive crime reduction. I fear that this board would turn into a complaint board and bombard the police department with opinions from, frankly, those not educated and have no experience with law enforcement principles, case law or statute.”
Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin stood before the board Monday night to answer any remaining questions from the council.
“As I read these responses from police officers, I'm really encouraged that they have a lot of positive comments in here about this upcoming advisory committee,” Councilor Nancy Erickson said to Mastin. “It seems like there's great support from your police officers. I appreciate that very much.”
“I had no influence on this. And I hope it's a reflection of truly what our department is and our feelings,” he replied.
What will the advisory board look like?
The new group is set to have 11 members, including the Bemidji Police Chief and one city council member participating as non-voting participants. The remaining nine will be interested residents.
Those looking to join the new board will have to participate in an interview process and a criminal background investigation. Disqualifying items may include charges or convictions related to drug sales or possession, maltreatment of vulnerable adults, assaults, criminal sexual conduct, obstructing the legal process, theft, burglary, robbery or financial crimes.
Members also must complete eight hours of ride-alongs with Bemidji officers within three months of appointment. To determine who makes the board, the applicants will be interviewed by City Manager Nate Mathews, Mayor Jorge Prince and At-Large Councilmember Daniel Jourdain. During the city council's meeting on July 6, staff and elected officials welcomed citizens to enter the application process for the board, which will be open through August.
“If you seriously want change and live in the city of Bemidji please watch for applications from the Bemidji City Clerk after final hearing. Understand without active support on this committee little will change. It's up to community and action to be part of the change. We are all busy with life. Hard to ask for one more thing. Time for you to consider stepping up to volunteer,” wrote Councilor Thayer in a Facebook post after Monday’s meeting.
The council amended a memorandum of understanding to continue the partnership between the city of Bemidji and the Bemidji Community Arena Corporation. The previous memorandum of understanding did not include $10,000 for open skating.
The amended memorandum of understanding will facilitate the sale of Neilson Reise Arena assets.
The board rejected 5-2 a measure to implement public art on the new wastewater treatment plant. Objecting council members appeared to balk at the price tag -- up to $80,000 -- and the location, which can only be publicly viewed via the highway.
Line 3 opponent Nancy Beaulieu from Leech Lake spoke about recent pipeline development and her concerns regarding frac-outs. She invited the city council members to the opposition camp to view for themselves.
After a recent meeting with Northern Township, several council members were asked about the possibility of extending city services to Northern Township residents without annexation.
During the meeting, council members and Nate Mathews indicated that the extension of city services would likely not be possible without annexation into the city of Bemidji, but didn’t want to definitively state this without the council’s vote.
Council members voted to confirm this, with a motion to not allow the extension of city services without some form of annexation.
The council discussed the formation of a joint city and county library task force, due to a surplus within the Kitchigami Regional Library System. This topic was discussed at length during a joint city and county meeting held June 28.
The council also heard a recap of the 18 months of legislative sessions from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota cities.
The Bemidji Parks and Recreation Department was given an award from the state parks and recreation board for their series of videos highlighting Bemidji’s parks and recreation opportunities during the pandemic.