By Patrick Slack, Staff Writer
With no admission of liability by any party, the city of Little Falls approved a settlement with Robin Hensel in the Hensel v. City of Little Falls lawsuit Monday.
The settlement resolved the claim that the city restricted Hensel’s free speech with its old bench ordinance.
The city declined Hensel’s request to place a bench for advertising near City Hall property. That bench ordinance has since been revised.
The original lawsuit also challenged the city’s sign ordinance, a claim that was later dismissed.
As part of the settlement, the city will pay $39,500 to the Paladin Law Trust account, the account of Hensel’s attorney Larry Frost, to cover attorney’s fees and any damages that could have been claimed.
“Importantly for the city, there is no admission of any liability,” said Jason Kuboushek, a lawyer representing the city on the case. “It covers all claims, including attorney’s fees and potential appeals. With respect to the amount being paid to the Paladin Law Trust account, this amount really is a cost-saving mechanism.”
One claim against the city’s old bench ordinance survived the motion for summary judgment and would have gone to trial without the settlement.
“From attorney’s fees and defense cost standpoint, the amount of the settlement is less than what it would have cost the city to go through the trial in defense of that claim,” Kuboushek said.
Also as part of the agreement, Hensel will receive the right to rent a bench on Little Falls City Hall property, with the city working with the bench contractor to ensure a bench is placed in an agreed upon location.
Hensel will enter into a contract for the bench advertising and will be able to renew the contract as often as she likes under the settlement, provided she fulfills her contractual and monetary duties.
Should Hensel stop advertising on the bench at any point, someone else could rent it. Hensel would then be treated like anyone else if she wished to resume advertising, being able to if it was available.
Hensel will also indemnify the city of Little Falls and the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust against tax liability for the monetary settlement.
The terms of the settlement were discussed during an all-day conference with representatives from both sides, March 21.
The vote passed 6-1, with Council Member Frank Gosiak casting the lone no vote.
“I was aware, as was the rest of the Council, that financially it was probably better to just OK the plan that was before us. It saves the city money, I agree,” Gosiak said.
“But I do not believe she deserves a nickel on that one,” he said. “I had to vote with my conscience. I’m not going to say anything bad about the lady. I’m just saying I don’t think the city owed her anything and that’s my view.”
Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem abstained after having a medical procedure earlier in the day in which she received a mild sedative.
She personally chose to not sign anything for 12 hours to ensure her judgment hadn’t been impaired.
Despite the settlement, there was evidently little love lost between the Council and Hensel.
During her three minutes of public forum time, Hensel argued that the ensuing presentation at the council meeting by Camp Ripley was not a uniform application of public business.
“Since public forum comments are requested to be framed around items that fall within the authority of the City Council, tonight’s allowance of Camp Ripley’s presentation during council meeting is a mockery of your own rules and a vivid demonstration once again of a lawless council,” Hensel said.
Hensel also said that she wished to share information that she did not believe would be shared later on, saying that “The military is the most secretive, shielded and privileged of polluters because of the hallowed mantra, ‘national security trumps the public’s right to know.’”
“Robin, can I stop you one minute? This has nothing to do with the City Council, we can’t do nothing about Camp Ripley,” Council President Don Klinker said.
“Neither does Camp Ripley’s presentation tonight,” Hensel said.
“It’s an economic –” Klinker said.
“Let me continue,” Hensel said.
“– impact,” Klinker finished.
“Let me continue please,” Hensel said, as she proceeded with her presentation.
“She’s defying what you guys decided last week,” VanRisseghem said, conferring with other members of the Council in reference to a decision made by the Council in March to limit public forum time to items within the authority of the Council.
“No, we can request,” Council Member Jeremy Hanfler said, clarifying that the Council could ask, but not mandate, what people could talk about.
“We can request her not to,” Gosiak said.
“Excuse me, your own rules require you to not talk when someone holds the floor, and I’m holding the floor,” Hensel said.
“Where’s that?” Gosiak said.
“In your own rules, No. 69 and 2.42,” Hensel said.
Hensel resumed her presentation until her three minutes of public forum time were ruled up.
“Time’s up, your three minutes are up, I’m sorry,” Klinker said.
“I get an additional minute because you interrupted me,” Hensel said.
“No. You don’t get an additional minute, I’m sorry,” Klinker said.
“Excuse me, you’re violating your own rules,” Hensel said. “You interrupted me, rudely if I might add.”
Klinker said she had 15 more seconds. When that time expired, Klinker said, “Time’s up, we’ve got to move on,” as Hensel continued. “We’re going to move on. Anybody else want to speak?”
Hensel continued to speak until VanRisseghem called point of order.
VanRisseghem said that while she disagreed with the earlier decision to limit what people could talk about, she wants to make sure that what is discussed is something the Council can help with.
“We’re there for the people,” she said. “When a person comes and they have issues that relate to the community, that’s wonderful, that’s what we’re there for. We don’t want to limit anybody. It would just be nice that they bring us issues we can actually help them with.
“I’m supposed to be serving the people,” she said. “I hope that they honor that in the sense that I’m there for them and I want to help them.”
Little Falls City Council Briefs
In other business Monday, the Little Falls City Council:
• Approved John Ruby as Police Sergeant;
• Authorized purchase of playground equipment for the Taylor Chebet Playground and a 2015 GMC Sierra WT Pickup for Engineering Department;
• Accepted resignation of Stephen Miller as library services coordinator and received letter of retirement from Michael Klosowski as wastewater operator;
• Voted not to institute three-hour parking on First Street Southeast by Mid-Minnesota Federal Credit Union on a 4-4 vote, with Council Members Brian-Paul Crowder, Frank Gosiak, Don Klinker and Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem voting no. If it had been implemented, the police would come and mark tires when receiving a call, Chief Greg Schirmers said, then return in three hours;
• Approved a telephone system upgrade for the Police Department;
• Heard from Steve Fenlon from Midwest Health Capital and approved a project by St. Francis Health Services consenting to the issuance of obligations;
• Approved a stop sign request for the northeast corner of 18th Street and Mary Ann Avenue; and
• Discussed the possibility of a sales tax referendum being put on the ballot to fund the recreational complex, Pine Grove Zoo and the Trails through Little Falls. Final recommendation is expected later in the month.
The next Little Falls City Council meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 14, at 7:30 p.m.