Crystal settles with community group over First Amendment violation allegations

City will pay $20,000 to police brutality watchdog group

By LACI GAGLIANO
[email protected]

Years after controversy in the community, the City of Crystal will pay a $20,000 settlement to Communities United Against Police Brutality and receive annual Open Meeting Law and First Amendment training, according to court orders stemming from a lawsuit filed by the organzation in May 2016.
The organization sued the city after allegations that members’ First Amendment rights were stifled by city leaders at council meetings, and that the council illegally conducted closed-door sessions and engaged in a closed meeting via email, both of which actions were in violation of Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law.
The allegations occurred during a period spanning from December 2012 through December 2014, when CUAPB members said they were silenced or denied the ability to freely participate in open forums during council meetings, primarily to voice opposition to the termination of two whistle-blowing Crystal police officers.
According to allegations, officers Alan Watt and Robin Erkenbrack were fired in retaliation for speaking out against misconduct in the city’s investigation of a 2008 incident, during which the now-disbanded West Metro Gang Strike Force confiscated the belongings of the Ramirez family of Crystal, who later filed a theft report. The city maintained that both Watt and Erkenbrack were terminated with just cause and that an investigation had proceeded, although Erkenbrack later settled with the city for $160,000 and was reinstated as a sergeant.
Rallies were organized by CUAPB in response to both the terminations, as well as the initial incident involving the Ramirez family, and members of the organization attempted to use the public forum portion of several council meetings to speak out. Court documents list a sequence of council meetings during which CUAPB members were told they could not speak on the matter and were prevented from continuing, sometimes in contradiction with what was evidently permissible at other council meetings, according to the documents.
The documents also described incidents where council conducted meetings were closed without public notice and were used to discuss officers Watt and Erkenbrack in violation of the open meeting law, and that in other instances, members of CUAPB were denied entry into public meetings.
Mayor Jim Adams told attendees the city was no longer taking comments about the Ramirez family or officer termination incidents, explaining a decision to call a recess and prevent one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, David Bicking, from speaking during a particularly tense council meeting on Sept. 3, 2013.
“The council has been well-informed on this issue … It’s not like we haven’t been listening. What we don’t want is the council to become a circus,” Adams told the meeting’s attendees after the council returned from its sudden recess. A recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” had been loudly piped into the room during that time, and CUAPB members who had stepped outside were prevented from returning by Crystal police officers.
Regarding the settlement, Adams said the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust handled the case, and that attorneys for the organization said settling a case can often be less costly than continuing with litigation.
“Note that the city did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of the settlement, and I think the outcome of this case would have been different if it had been fully litigated,” the mayor added.
Adams said he values transparency, and that he is responsible for implementing efforts toward transparency, including recording and posting work sessions online.
“I take the open meeting law very seriously, and always have,” he said. “Transparency in the people’s business is very important to me.”
City Manager Anne Norris agreed with Adams’ sentiment in an email stating that the city settled not as an admission of guilt, but rather to put an end to what she referred to as a “meritless lawsuit.”
“The settlement is not an admission of any wrongdoing. The City of Crystal denies that the City, its elected officials, employees, agents or representatives engaged in any of the alleged wrongdoing,” Norris wrote. “It certainly was not a victory for Communities United Against Police Brutality. Instead, it was a victory for the taxpayers and the City who will no longer be burdened with the expenses of defending against the meritless lawsuit and who will benefit from the City being able to spend staff time and resources on the more important current matters at hand.”
The Open Meeting Law and First Amendment training addresses issues commonly faced by municipalities, according to Norris. City officials will learn best practices and sharpen their knowledge and understanding of the statutes governing open meetings and data practices within the state.
The city will pay the settlement through its coverage with the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. Training will be conducted by either the Insurance Trust or the city’s attorney, Norris said.