Council member Gary Scheeler's legal fees accrued in his filing of a restraining order will be paid by the city.
The Brainerd City Council Monday, in a 4-2 vote, approved a claim for reimbursement from Scheeler in the amount of $4,275. Voting to pay Scheeler's fees were council members Kelly Bevans, Anne Nelson Fisher, Lucy Nesheim and Council President Jim Dehen. Voting against paying the fees were council members Mary Koep and Bob Olson. Scheeler abstained from voting.
The request for reimbursement of legal fees stems from Scheeler's filing of a restraining order against Jeff Czeczok, a former Brainerd Transportation Committee member and a vocal critic of Scheeler and city council, following phone conversations on Sept. 4 in which Scheeler said Czeczok threatened to kill him.
In February, Crow Wing County District Court Judge Richard Zimmerman upheld the restraining order, which will remain in effect until Sept. 5, 2005. Czeczok faces criminal charges, including felony terroristic threats, stemming from the incident.
Scheeler's claim was that the Sept. 4 incident, the restraining order and the fees associated with it were a direct result of his employment as a city council member.
Scheeler had earlier made a claim for reimbursement of legal fees with the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, which provides insurance for public officials, but the LMCIT declined to pay Scheeler because it was the council member's decision to pursue the restraining order.
Olson, who testified in court on Czeczok's behalf and loaned him money to retain an attorney, which Czeczok repaid, questioned if the decision to pay Scheeler's fees had been discussed outside the council meeting. He read from a memo from Scheeler's attorney, Ron Walsh, to the Crow Wing County attorney's office, in which he said Walsh had written that he expected Czeczok to pay restitution to the city.
"He wants Czeczok to pay the city of Brainerd, he's ordering the courts to do that and out of the blue we get a motion and a second to pay these fees. This is so wrong," said Olson, who several times was ruled out of order and asked to discuss the motion on the floor by Dehen. Olson continued, however, stating it was Scheeler who called Czeczok on Sept. 4 and that it was his belief that Scheeler had lied.
In reply to Olson's accusation, Walsh said the correspondence from his office to the county attorney's office concerned the rights of the victim to weigh in for restitution in the criminal charges against Czeczok.
"Maybe I put the cart before the horse," said Walsh. "I felt confident that the city would reimburse Scheeler."
In discussion whether Scheeler's abstention vote would be counted toward the affirmative vote, as City Attorney Tom Fitzpatrick said is typically done, or not counted at all, Walsh asked Dehen if there were other council members who might have a conflict in voting, referring to but not naming Olson and his support of Czeczok in court hearings and in hiring an attorney.
Olson said he didn't think he had a conflict. Dehen said he would not allow Scheeler's abstention vote to count toward the affirmative.
Bevans, who made the motion to approve reimbursing Scheeler's fees, said he did so for the sake of argument. He said he hadn't decided how he was going to vote until Olson had spoke. Bevans noted the city council paid for legal fees stemming from Olson's request from the city's bond counsel concerning information about Missota Paper Co., even though the city council hadn't approved the request and in fact had approved a motion to stop asking the bond counsel to work on the paper company issue unless notified by the council.
Bevans said there was no doubt in his mind that Scheeler played a part in the antagonism with Czeczok, but the council had witnessed Czeczok's demeanor in the past, alluding to a July 22 city council meeting in which Czeczok scathingly took to task several council members who had approved a parking ticket appeal for the son of a former city council member.
Bevans said death threats against city officials and employees, no matter how they were meant, must always be taken seriously.
"If any employee in this city received a threat from anyone, Zimmerman's ruling says we have to take it seriously," said Bevans. "A lot can be said about what led up to this, but that was line drawn in the sand. I for one, with three children, do not expect to have my life threatened in this job."
Before the vote, Koep asked Fitzpatrick if the council had authority to reimburse the fees when Scheeler was the plaintiff in the case and not the defendant. Fitzpatrick said there are two state statutes that cover public officials when threats are made against them.
He said in discussing the issue with several other attorneys, it was his opinion that if the council makes a connection that the incident occurred while Scheeler was acting in his capacity as a city council member, the council has the legal right to make the reimbursement.
"The city has legal authority to do so, coming under general guise of providing security for its officers," said Fitzpatrick.
Koep said while any death threat is a serious matter, the council had to recognize the fact that Czeczok is blind, having lost his sight to diabetes in 1990. She also felt the council should follow the lead of the LMCIT and not honor Scheeler's request.
"I don't think we should ask the citizens of Brainerd to pay for it," said Koep.
Fisher said she came into Monday's council meeting not having made up her mind. She said Scheeler's phone calls with Czeczok and the resulting restraining order does qualify as a public purpose.
Nesheim said the council should appeal to the LMCIT to see if it would reconsider covering the legal fees.
Fitzpatrick said the council may want to consider a policy that would deal with such requests in the future.
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