Hensel refuses repeated requests to move to audience seats
Little Falls Police Officers escorted Little Falls city resident Robin Hensel out of Friday’s specially-called City Council meeting. Hensel chose to move an audience chair to the middle of the floor closer to the Council and refused to move it back to the audience section of the Chambers when asked repeatedly to do so. She was issued a citation for disorderly conduct.
Hensel had moved the chair to an area where the work session tables and chairs had been set up during Monday’s meeting.
Hensel was asked several times by city staff, the Council and Little Falls Police Chief Greg Schirmers to move her seat to the audience.
She refused, saying she wanted to sit where other audience members were invited to sit during Monday’s meeting. Members of the audience complained Monday that they couldn’t see because Hensel was sitting in the front row wearing a large hat.
The tables and chairs had been removed before Friday’s meeting.
Attorney Toni Wetzel contacted Attorney Paul Reuvers, who represents the city in the lawsuit Hensel has against the city. Reuvers indicated the Council could ask Hensel to move her chair to the audience portion of the Chambers.
Wetzel asked Hensel to move her chair back to the audience portion of the room, or face being escorted out of the building and a possible ticket for disorderly conduct.
After Hensel refused yet again to leave when asked by the police chief, Schirmers and Police Captain Mike Casillas escorted Hensel out of Council Chambers.
“It was a very unfortunate event, and we tried our hardest to resolve this without charges and amicably, but we weren’t able to do that,” said Schirmers.
Hensel was issued a citation for disorderly conduct.
Once Hensel was escorted out, the Council called the meeting to order at 9:38 a.m., eight minutes later than scheduled. The Council approved paying the bills, the consent agenda and the hanging of signs for the Pine Grove Zoo’s 100th anniversary celebration and a sign for a tournament at the Little Falls Golf Course.
The meeting lasted for just under five minutes.
Friday’s meeting was called because the Little Falls City Council opened its regular meeting and adjourned it within one minute, following a scene that took place between the work session and the regular meeting.
During Monday’s meeting, Hensel, who is currently suing the city for prohibiting her right to free speech in making her remove signs in her yard, had placed two signs in the Council Chambers. After the work session and before the regular meeting began, she also put on an outfit she said she had from the 1970s. She wore a hat with a sign on it as well.
Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem said she did not see what the signs said, but noticed a “ruckus” before the Council’s regular meeting began.
“I just kind of watched the interaction in the room — I couldn’t see anything — I did see the pictures of the naked babies and first thought it was an abortion issue,” said the mayor.
Hensel’s signs, while stating “Free Speech Restricted Here” on the side facing the audience, had photos of babies with birth defects on the side facing the Council and city staff.
“I heard people in the crowd saying this was offensive and a citizen (George VanRisseghem) raised their hand and said they couldn’t see,” said the mayor.
The Council invited citizens to come forward and sit at tables set up for the work session, closer to the Council.
“A citizen touched the sign and moved it and Robin (Hensel) got upset and I thought this was getting out of control,” the mayor said.
Linda Burggraff, one of those in attendance, said she bumped one of the signs with her chair and attempted to move the sign.
Hensel objected to moving the sign, which was her property.
Hensel has her rights, said Burggraff. “But she thinks she’s the only one who has rights.”
“I saw things could very easily get bad — and so I made the motion to adjourn the meeting to another date,” VanRisseghem said.
“We needed to take the responsibility of at least making sure things were being done correctly. I knew legally we had the right to open and close the meeting.”
VanRisseghem made the motion to close the meeting and move it to another time.Council Member Jeremy Hanfler seconded the motion. Council President Don Klinker called for discussion on the motion and there was none. He called again for discussion on the motion to close the meeting and set it for another time and hearing none, he asked for those in favor to say “aye.”
When he asked whether anyone was opposed, no one spoke, and the vote was viewed as unanimous.
Council Member Brian-Paul Crowder said later he didn’t say anything because he was confused and baffled at what was going on.
He indicated Hensel was a friend of his and his mother’s and had been since she had a business downtown.
“She did dress up quite a bit,” he said. “We represent everybody, and there are a lot of different personalities. It could have been handled differently.”
Other council members indicated they had no idea that the vote would be called for.
“The motion to adjourn Monday, relative to that meeting the other night was a complete surprise to me,” said Council Member Loren Boyum. “It was not premeditated by anybody, but was based upon activity going on. It was best to not let it continue.”
Council Member Frank Gosiak said he felt the whole incident was staged “to get a reaction,” he said. “This isn’t the first time someone has done this in a City Council meeting somewhere in Minnesota.
“I think we’d get further ahead in life if we worked together,” he said.
Should the meeting have been closed? “Absolutely not,” said Hensel. “I don’t understand why it was adjourned.”
She did not plan to talk about the babies with the birth defects on her sign.
“I would not have been allowed to speak at the meeting except for the issue of mine that was on the agenda,” she said. “The only way anyone can get on the agenda is to write a note.”
She said she wasn’t planning to speak at all during the meeting, except to ask for a campground for overnight stays for visitors who come through town, such as bicyclists, etc.
“I didn’t disrupt the council meeting,” said Hensel. She said the reason she put the signs up in the Council Chamber was because the Council had taken away her rights to be heard, namely moving the citizens appeals and petitions to the beginning of the untelevised work session.
“They moved the comment session to another time so I couldn’t be seen on TV,” she said. “They don’t want my ideas to be heard by the people of the city.
“I’m diligent,” said Hensel. “I get the information because I go to all the meetings and I find things that aren’t kosher … and find creative ways to get that out to the public.”
Hensel said the Council were paid professionals that acted like eighth-graders.
Hensel does attend many of the city committee meetings.
“I have heard people when I go out,” said VanRisseghem. “They’re tired of it and they really feel it is affecting the community in a negative way.”
The mayor said she did not feel frustrated.
“I guess, and I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t feel a lot of anger — like other issues have caused — I truly am sad, because I don’t know what to do.
“There are so many people dropping out of (city) committees and people that won’t join committees,” she said.
“They’re afraid to do anything, because they’re afraid they’re going to be the focus of attention and their name will be on TV, and they’re scared,” she said. “I’m watching our community go backward — my frustration is that I don’t want to see that.”
VanRisseghem said the Council is working on situations brought forth by Hensel each week “and not getting to things like business development, business retention, housing, streets, parks and other issues.”
“I know she has the right to do that, but so do other citizens — there are 8,000 citizens in this community and we need to address all of them,” she said.
Jerry Chandler, a city resident who was present at the meeting, said at the end of the brief meeting, “I am offended by this display of arrogance.
“No one person should have the right to disturb the conduct of a public business. Obviously this was an intentional act,” said Chandler. “I believe that the law was violated, as well as my personal rights to participate in public discussions. Hopefully city officials will act promptly to ensure that city business is conducted in a timely manner.”
Reuvers, who is representing the city in Hensel’s lawsuit, said there was nothing wrong with what the Council did in closing the Monday meeting.
“People can’t disrupt meetings; the public can attend, but they can’t disrupt meetings,” said Reuvers. “The Council made a determination that it was not productive for the meeting to move forward. If you think a situation is unproductive, that is certainly a reasonable way to diffuse the situation.”
By Terry Lehrke, News Editor