Falcon Heights appoints former council member to vacancy; residents object

The Falcon Heights City Council voted unanimously Sept. 26 to appoint former three-term council member Pamela Harris to fill a council vacancy.

The appointment of Harris, who opted not to run for re-election in 2017 and was often a vocal supporter of the St. Anthony Police Department following the police killing of Philando Castile, was met with pointed derision from a small group of people at the otherwise business-as-usual meeting.

Mayor Peter Lindstrom introduced Harris’s appointment by discussing the months-long selection process that was put into motion by Joe Brown Thunder’s resignation this summer.

Out of 11 initial applicants, the council interviewed four — Harris, Kay Andrews, Nicholas Olson and Hawa Samatar — all with experience in city affairs. Lindstrom stressed the decision was not an easy one to make, but Harris’s 20-plus years of work with the city pushed her over the top.

“Pam will bring a lot of strengths to this council. I know that because I’ve seen it,” said Lindstrom, who served on the council in one capacity or another through Harris’s entire tenure.

While the rest of the council had little say aside from agreeing with Lindstrom, residents stepped up to denounce the pick in the near-empty council chambers as Harris sat in the front row of the audience.

Resident Sarah Chambers pounced on the reasons Harris gave for not running for re-election just more than a year ago.

“I think now is a good time to get off [the council] — the past year has been stressful,” Harris told the Roseville Review in August 2017, referencing the 12 months that followed the July 2016 killing of Castile by a St. Anthony police officer and the anger and confusion that was focused at the city and its officials because of it.

She added at the time, “I think there does come a point where a fresh point of view is good for a group.”

Harris did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Chambers said the appointment “was not a sign of a good democratic process” and felt like voters were circumvented.

“I agree with Pam Harris that it was a good time, after 12 years of service on the council ... to not want to go up for election,” Chambers said. “But then so shortly after to be appointed to the council, it feels like not a good decision, not a good process.”

Paula Mielke, who ran for the council in 2017 with aims of police reform and came in a close third place behind current council members Melanie Leehy and Mark Miazga, told council members they’d missed an opportunity to have a more diverse council. 

Mielke was one of the 11 initial applicants for the council seat; none of the four finalists for it were council candidates from last year.

Her husband, Bruce Mielke, also spoke.

“We knew that Pam couldn’t win an election last year so she left and now she’s back again,” he said.

“I’ll speak for at least the people I know in Falcon Heights,” said Bruce Mielke, addressing Harris. “We would prefer that you would not be in this role, we didn’t appreciate you when you were there before and we don’t want to see you here again.”

 

‘Respect the process’

Following the criticism leveled by residents, council members mustered a defense of the appointment.

Council member Randy Gustafson pointed out that the city was currently working on its 2019 budget and that it was also working on its 2040 Comprehensive Plan.

“We need council members who are going to be up to speed on that,” he said, noting that Harris was on the council the last time the city did such planning and that she also served on the Planning Commission.

Bruce Mielke interjected, saying that Leehy and Miazga should think for themselves and “not be controlled by a comeback council member.”

Leaning on his work as a research coordinator for the University of Minnesota Office of Measurement Services, a dour Miazga said an objective scoring system was used to choose Harris to fill the council vacancy.

“I think we have to respect the process,” he said, while noting he appreciates Bruce Mielke’s point. Leehy struck a similar, and conciliatory, note.

Following the unanimous vote to appoint her, Harris took the oath of office and then her seat at the center of the council dais. She will serve out the remaining 15 months on Brown Thunder’s term. Brown Thunder resigned in order to relocate with his family to California.

Harris said during the meeting she did not plan to run to hold the council seat in the city’s 2019 election, and that she volunteered for the position based on her council experience.

 

Changing tides

Speaking after the meeting, Lindstrom stood by what he said about Harris and admitted he wasn’t surprised by the criticism.

“I know when you serve three terms on the council, as Pam has done, you’re not gonna satisfy everybody and I appreciate the folks that weighed in on the appointment,” he said. “And I’m satisfied with the result that came out of the whole process.”

Lindstrom added, “I encourage citizens to weigh in on whatever the question of the day is before the council. That’s the role of the citizen.”

Harris was first elected to the council in 2005, mounting a write-in campaign that won her second place in a four-way race, with more than 30 percent of the vote.

Even before candidate filing for the 2017 council campaign had opened, it was apparent Castile’s death and policing reforms in the city would be central issues in the race and that it would shape up to be a sea-change election.

The only incumbent to run in that seven-candidate contest was Tony Fischer, who came in a distant fourth place behind Mielke, Leehy and Miazga; he won nearly 9 percent of the vote.

 

-Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. 

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