A much-needed civics lesson

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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