Archive for the ‘George Hontos’ Category

Unlike the first time the St. Cloud City Council voted to censure George Hontos, this time they had the courage, if you can call it that, to vote in public. Nonetheless, it still was a disappointing display of bruised egos.

The good news is that the Council didn’t hide their vote. Now we know that the “ballots indicated Masters, Goerger, Paul Brandmire and Mike Conway voted ‘yes’ to censure Hontos; Steve Laraway and Lewis voted against censuring Hontos.”

I wish I was surprised that Masters and Goerger voted to censure Councilman Hontos but I’m not. Those 2 are the biggest disappointments on the Council. By far. I’d trade both of them for a bag full of Val’s French Fries and a chocolate shake. I’d consider the Val’s package a significant upgrade.

I’m most disappointed with Councilman Conway’s and Councilman Brandmire’s votes. Voting against the First Amendment is always wrong. A vote to censure Councilman Hontos was a vote against the First Amendment. It isn’t often that I agree with the ACLU but this time, I totally agree. It’s time the Council got back to governing by first principles. This vote was a vote on worst principles.

Rules 6-8 should be abolished ASAP. If the Council doesn’t vote to abolish those rules, then I wouldn’t be surprised if a court struck them down. Silencing the people’s representatives can’t be justified. That’s what the Council did last night. This shouldn’t shame Councilman Hontos. He did the right thing in speaking out. This vote should shame Councilmen Masters, Goerger, Brandmire and Conway.

Speaking of Councilman Hontos, he sent me this statement:

It was very evident this was an orchestrated action. I found it not surprising that some Councilmembers were aided by our City Attorney. I will look forward to the reaction from the ACLU. One important clarification Council member Conway misspoke in describing the open forum process. Here are the actual details, the meeting is adjourned, there are no minutes taken of what is said, there is no camera, and the individuals who speak are not listed in the minutes. That is different than what he stated.

On the deeper issue of turning off the cameras and adjourning the meeting before the public forum, I don’t know who’s hairbrained idea that was but that’s another thing that’s got to stop immediately. If the Council actually listened to the people, then they’d keep the cameras on, extend the speaking time from 3 minutes to 5 minutes and restore the forum to being part of the meeting. Finally, if it’s to have a meaningful impact, councilmembers should be allowed to respond.

At this point, I’m disgusted with the Council. They aren’t listening to their constituents. It’s time they started.

When former St. Cloud City Councilman Jeff Johnson asked if I’d publish his opinions about the current City Council’s censure of George Hontos, I immediately accepted his proposal. Here is Councilman Johnson’s op-ed to LFR:

I find the censorship of St. Cloud City Councilman George Hontos nothing short of a retaliatory witch hunt. In the eight years that I served with Mr. Hontos on the council, he has always been well prepared, extremely knowledgeable, and never afraid to ask the tough questions. I once jokingly said that George probably knows more about city matters than the rest of us councilmembers combined. He has made himself consistently available to the citizens who want to speak to him about various matters. He represents his constituents extremely well which explains why he has been re-elected over and over.

There are certainly times when it is inappropriate for a councilmember to speak out about various matters. This would include personnel matters, any time the council is in closed session to talk about legal issues (like the city getting sued) or when the council is acting as a quasi-judicial body. Mr. Hontos’ letter to the editor clearly falls well outside these parameters and it was appropriate for him to exercise his free speech rights under the 1st Amendment of the Constitution regardless if the reader finds his editorial disagreeable or not. A public official does not check his/her 1st amendment rights “at the door of public service” when taking office by swearing an oath to the Constitution. Doing so would be hypocritical and I dare say, unethical.

Council Rule No. 6, which states council members “respect the majority vote of the council, and do not undermine or sabotage implantation of ordinances, policies and rules passed by the majority.”

City Council rules and Robert’s Rules of Order do not trump state and federal law. Sadly, I personally witnessed council members during my 8 years of service repeatedly violate Council Rules and Robert’s Rules which resulted in absolute chaos. The first time or two appeared accidental however it appeared to become willful. Look no further than my refugee resettlement moratorium proposal when I had approximately 8 minutes (from the council video) to read a Welcoming Resolution that appeared out of nowhere and then vote on it during the ensuing chaos. The welcoming resolution was never scheduled in advance which is an egregious violation of council rules and good etiquette. I felt like the public … both for and against my proposed resolution … were ambushed, which can be seen in this post. It did a great disservice to the public and eroded trust in local government. To be fair to everyone and to follow council rules, I clearly announced my proposed resolution weeks in advance, so everyone had a chance to read it and voice an opinion … for and against.
It appears that history is repeating itself with George Hontos taking the brunt of trying to do the right thing. According to this September 12th article in the St. Cloud Times:

Staehling said Thursday the city did not know the council was going to make a motion to censure Hontos ahead of the meeting — and said that none of the staff can recall the last time the council made a motion to censure a council member. “It was a scramble. It wasn’t expected,” Staehling said.

The city council has unwittingly taken proactive steps to reduce transparency. The article shows that the city council may have violated open meeting laws by having a secret vote on censoring Mr. Hontos. In my mind, it’s clear that open meeting laws were violated in using the secret vote which may be appropriate for Mason membership but not for a local government body. If another councilmember votes to censor another councilmember, should not the accused have the right to know and deal directly with the accuser(s)? Clearly, the public has a right to know how their council representative voted in a highly public meeting.

I am also deeply troubled that the public forum is no longer televised. There are some people in St. Cloud that routinely watch city council meetings on the local government access channel. A good friend of mine who can no longer physically travel to city hall to watch meetings will no longer be able to watch his neighbors address the council on quality of life or other issues of interest. Accessibility has now been diminished for some of our residents.

Perhaps what saddens me the most is WE THE PEOPLE is being replaced with WE THE GOVERNMENT. Local government is supposed to provide the greatest access to WE THE PEOPLE. I served on the St. Cloud City Council because I genuinely wanted my constituents to have a better life. On some occasions, individuals came to the open forum to publicly berate me or other councilmembers. Although it was uncomfortable at times, I want them to have the freedom to do so and the TV cameras is one way to hold government (me at the time I was on the council) accountable to them.

I actively listened and tried to learn from WE THE PEOPLE to educate myself and when appropriate, change my mind to help them with various problems. British economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Councilmembers should listen to learn from WE THE PEOPLE because it’s supposed to be representative government. Sadly, I saw that many councilmembers’ minds were already made up by eye rolling, looking at their watches, or clearly looking disinterested during some open forums when citizens came to address the council.

Clearly, George Hontos listens to learn and does not shy away from tough issues. We clearly need more people like him to serve in government. He should not have been censored. He should have received the coveted “Spine of Titanium” and “Grinding the Axe” awards.

Jeff Johnson
Former St. Cloud City Councilmember, 2010 – 2018

When the St. Cloud City Council voted to censure Councilman George Hontos, it may have violated Minnesota’s Open Meeting Laws. According to the article, “Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said the law is clear that a public body cannot vote by secret ballot.”

Needless to say, the City offered a different perspective:

In an email to the Times on Wednesday, City Administrator Matt Staehling said he, City Attorney Renee Courtney and City Clerk Seth Kauffman consulted Robert’s Rules of Order before the vote on Monday. “We agreed that the guidance recommended (that) the subject of the censure does not participate in the vote but can participate in the discussion and debate (and) the ballot should be by confidential ballot,” Staehling stated.

Robert’s Rules of Order are helpful when the law isn’t clear. In this case, Minnesota’s Open Meeting Laws are quite clear, clear enough for the Minnesota Court of Appeals to render a decision:

Anfinson cites a decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in which the Mankato Free Press sued the city of North Mankato after the city refused to provide the names of job finalists for city administrator, conducted closed interviews with job finalists, and took a written straw vote to narrow the field of candidates; the results of that straw vote were not made public until later.

In its decision, the Court of Appeals wrote: “Secret voting denies the public an opportunity to observe the decision-making process, to know the council members’ stance on issues, and to be fully informed about the council’s actions.”

It’s one thing if the Council was voting to suspend a city employee. There are certainly times when a closed session would be required. Suspending or terminating an employee fits that situation. Telling a councilman that his First Amendment rights can be suspended by the government doesn’t fit that description.

Frankly, I want to know who voted that the City Council has the right to violate a person’s civil rights. Further, I want to know which jackasses voted to censure George Hontos. What Councilman Hontos did was entirely proper. City Council Rule No. 6, at least as much of it that is public, “states council members ‘respect the majority vote of the council, and do not undermine or sabotage implementation of ordinances, policies and rules passed by the majority.'”

That rule isn’t enforceable because it precludes a City Council member from representing his constituents by limiting his speech. How can any representative of the people effectively represent his/her constituents if he can’t voice his/her opinion on matters that’ve come before the board/legislature he/she serves on? That part of Rule No. 6 needs to be abolished because it’s unconstitutional.

Here’s the First Amendment’s text:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

How can the government stifle a person’s right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances”? The idea that the City Council insists that its members “respect the majority vote of the council” sounds nice but it doesn’t respect the rights afforded to the people by the Bill of Rights.

It’s more than a little frightening to think that St. Cloud’s lawmakers are this constitutionally illiterate. What’s encouraging is that Councilman Hontos has stated on the record for LFR that he “will continue to represent the constituents of St. Cloud as [he has] been doing for 18 years.” As long as Councilman Hontos keeps fighting for these principles, I’ll keep voting for him.

For years, conservatives have said that most decisions should be made at the local level. That’s what’s recommended by the men who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That’s because that’s where accountability is theoretically greatest.

That’s increasingly not the case. I don’t know if this is isolated but a prime example of local governments shielding themselves from criticism happens when they shut off the cameras. A prime example of this is the St. Cloud City Council turning off the cameras and officially adjourning the meeting before starting Open Forum. For those not familiar with St. Cloud’s Open Forum, it’s a segment of the meeting when citizens have the opportunity to talk about things that they see happening in their neighborhoods.

Most of these speeches complain about overreaching ordinances, complaints about things not getting done fast enough or criticisms about votes that councilmembers have taken. Suffice it to say, it isn’t fun for the councilmembers to hear these criticisms. Another ‘feature’ of St. Cloud’s Open Forum is that the City Council isn’t allowed to respond in real time to their constituents.

Where’s the accountability if the Council isn’t allowed to respond to their constituents? That’s why I’ve titled this post ‘the accountability dodge”. Based on what I’ve seen firsthand, this segment of the meeting isn’t about listening to the citizens. It’s a segment of the meeting where citizens can vent but where the councilmembers don’t have to respond.

This is just a theory but this feels like a way to avoid accountability. It’s apparent that the City Council, with a couple of exceptions (specifically, George Hontos and Paul Brandmire), would rather just meet, then cast their votes, then go their merry way. The quote from yesterday’s post that Councilman Hontos had violated City Council Rule No. 6 was particularly upsetting.

I don’t have the text of St. Cloud City Council Rule No. 6 in front of me but what I know about the Constitution is that anything that violates the First Amendment is unenforceable. Therefore, Rule No. 6 is unenforceable.

Further, I’d argue that voting on a non-binding censure resolution was a total waste of time, partially because it’s non-binding but also because this vote was taken in private session. That’s the ultimate in not accepting accountability. If City Councilmembers think this is important to vote on, they shouldn’t shut down public debate. They should vote in public, though.

That isn’t accountability. That’s the definition of gutlessness.

It’s apparent that the City Council doesn’t value transparency. They talk a good game but their words are empty at best. First, the City Council changed the rules governing the open forum section of the meeting. Instead of letting a maximum of 5 people speak up to 3 minutes each on the topic of their choosing at the end of the meeting, the City Council changed the rules to adjourn the meeting first, then host the open forum after the cameras have been turned off.

Citizens were told that they wanted to do that to protect people who didn’t want to speak in front of the cameras. That’s total BS. That’s been part of the full meeting for years. Those citizens know that they’re being videotaped. From the times that I’ve spoken during that segment, I’ve never seen anyone who looked uncomfortable. Frankly, there aren’t that many people watching the City Council meetings so it isn’t like these citizens have reason to be frightened. That doesn’t mean that the things discussed during this part of the meeting are insignificant. It’s just that the viewing audience was that big.

Next, censuring a person doesn’t mean a thing. It has the impact of a resolution. It’s totally non-binding. Why should city councilpeople get upset when they’re criticized for the votes they’ve made? If you can’t stand the heat, don’t visit the kitchen.

I contacted Councilman Hontos to see if he’d like to make a statement for this post. He graciously accepted the invitation. Here’s his statement, published verbatim and without editing of any sort:

I pride myself as being a respectful, engaged council member who listens.
I am disappointed at the Council’s decision, which says more about it than me.
Providing factual information to the public about the Council’s decisions to the media is not a violation.
A Council is not a corporate board, America is built on the vigorous debate of ideas.
Our City faces many important issues, jobs, housing, diversity. The Council should stay focused on these issues and not distractions.
Furthermore, the first amendment gives everyone the freedom of speech. Just as our Supreme Court makes a ruling usually a dissenting opinion is written and published.
I will continue to represent the constituents of St. Cloud as I have been doing for 18 years. I want to thank all the positive feedback I have received. The people elected me for almost two decades now to ask the hard questions and to tackle tough issues.
George Hontos

Councilman Hontos is right. The Council’s decision says more about them than it says about him. What it says about them isn’t flattering, in my opinion.

Councilman Hontos is also right in stating that “America is built on the vigorous debate of ideas.” The day our elected people can’t stand transparency and vigorous, substantive debate is the day we’d need a major overhaul of our government. Hopefully, that won’t be required. This paragraph frightens me a little:

Conway cited rule No. 6, which states council members “respect the majority vote of the council, and do not undermine or sabotage implementation of ordinances, policies and rules passed by the majority.”

If that’s the total content of Rule # 6, then that rule needs to be eliminated. That sounds more like a speech code for collegiate snowflakes on campus. If one of the councilmembers disagrees with someone, then that councilmember should have the right to express that disagreement in any forum whatsoever. If the council has made a mistake and the individual highlights that mistake, then the individual councilmember has done the city a favor. (Yes, that means that the majority is sometimes wrong.)

If Councilman Hontos runs for re-election, he’ll have my vote. Councilman Hontos is one of 3 at-large councilmembers that represent the entire city. Now that Councilman Johnson has left the Council, the need for someone that “ask[s] the hard questions and … tackle[s] tough issues” is needed now more than ever.

In conclusion, I’ll simply state that it’s my opinion that the only reason for putting in a rule like that is to protect spineless councilmembers. It isn’t to keep confidential information confidential.