by April Scheinoha
Josh Hagen has resigned from the Thief River Falls City Council. He announced his resignation within the first five minutes of the council meeting Tuesday, July 17. Hagen’s resignation comes after an altercation between him and Council Member Jerald Brown during an Administrative Services Committee meeting a week earlier. Hagen had represented Ward 3.
“I will be stepping down immediately,” Hagen said.
That announcement came after a three-minute statement in which he accused Mayor Brian Holmer of allowing personal attacks to happen. “These attacks have been allowed and nothing has been done – not until an attack is finished or an argument breaks out. You do not need to believe me. You can go look at the videos on the city website,” Hagen said.
Hagen also accused Holmer and Council Member Curt Howe of bullying him on Facebook. He said Holmer had written and endorsed a letter, noting Hagen was taking a leave for health issues. That letter was then shared with the council and city staff. A few weeks later, Hagen said, Holmer and Howe attacked him on Facebook for missing meetings. Hagen said Howe has since deleted what he had written.
Hagen noted the bullying led to additional panic attacks, causing him to miss meetings. “My health came first. Maybe I should have stepped down. I hoped that it would get better. None of that matters now, does it?” asked Hagen, who also suffers from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
Hagen added that off-camera public committee meetings were worse. He noted others have commented that he has been able to work part-time at Thief River Falls Radio during this time frame. Hagen indicated that environment is more welcoming and respectful.
“I would like to apologize to the people of Thief River Falls for my part in any arguing that has happened over the years. I could have done better,” said Hagen. “I will not apologize for defending myself against personal attacks, public attacks or physical attacks. In the end, my health comes first.”
Hagen left the council chambers after making his comments. Neither Holmer nor Howe addressed Hagen’s comments during the council meeting.
Immediately after Hagen’s departure, the remaining council members unanimously approved a Council Member Code of Conduct. In part, it said, “Council members shall refrain from abusive conduct, personal charges or verbal attacks upon the character or motives of other members of the City Council, boards, commissions, committees, staff or the public.”
It also read that council members should police themselves, notifying the committee chairperson or the mayor if inappropriate behavior were observed. It further noted that the council has two options if the behavior weren’t immediately remedied. Those options include:
• “A letter is sent to the offending council member stating that they have been found operating outside the established code of conduct and requesting them to correct the behavior identified as inappropriate; or
• “The council member is formally sanctioned by resolution at a council meeting.”
The remaining seven council members also unanimously accepted Hagen’s resignation at the end of the council meeting. Hagen’s term was set to expire Dec. 31.
“We will have a chance to review our options,” Holmer said in reference as to how or if the council seat will be filled before that time.
Hagen’s resignation stemmed from a July 10 incident at City Hall. The sheriff’s office investigated the matter due to a conflict of interest. Holmer, who reported the incident later that evening, and Sheriff Ray Kuznia have both declined to provide specifics about the incident.
As of late Monday afternoon, the Pennington County Attorney’s Office hadn’t yet made a decision as to whether anyone would be charged. Hagen spoke to the media after the incident. Brown and Howe have declined comment.
A week ago, the Administrative Services Committee discussed using Swimming Pool Fund money for a splash park. Hagen has advocated using that money for such a purpose. At a past council meeting, Brown opposed such a move. Hagen was a committee member, and Brown chairs the committee. Other committee members include Howe and Council Member Jason Aarestad, who both attended the committee meeting.
Hagen accused Howe of taking personal shots at him during the committee meeting, making comments about him stepping down from another committee looking into building a splash park. Hagen stepped down from the committee due to health issues. Hagen said he verbally snapped back at Howe, who threatened to take the situation outside. The situation calmed down, but it boiled over again.
The topics apparently changed. Hagen said he had made a comment to Arena Manager Missy Sletten while Brown was speaking. He said Brown then told him that he was sick of Hagen’s mouth and he should take Hagen outside and teach him a lesson. Hagen said Brown pushed him and he pushed back. He said Brown fell, got back up and swung a chair at him. Hagen said he sprained his finger trying to block the chair from hitting him.
At some point, according to Hagen, Brown wrapped his hands around Hagen’s legs, which are affected by CRPS. He said Howe was swinging at him and City Administrator Rod Otterness was trying to separate them.
Finance Director Angie Philipp was also present at the meeting. No members of the public were in attendance at the time. Committee meetings are open to the public. Unlike council meetings, they aren’t taped.
Tuesday’s council meeting was the first time that all of the involved parties were in the same room at the same time.
During the council meeting, council members approved seeking a grant for a splash pad at Bill LaFave Park. It is seeking a $222,750 grant for the $297,000 project. If the grant were approved, the city would be required to provide a $74,250 local share that would come from private donations.