Mayor calls out council member for behavior after receiving seat belt violation by a deputy downtown

    The morning after Crookston Mayor Wayne Melbye publicly rebuked Ward 1 Crookston City Council Member Jake Fee at Monday night’s Ways & Means Committee for a late-night email he recently sent to Polk County Sheriff Barb Erdman, Erdman told the Times that she considers the matter resolved.

    “My concern through all of this is that the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the City and the Crookston Police Department have a good relationship and work well together; I believe we have done that for a long, long time and my interest is in that positive relationship continuing,” Erdman told the Times Tuesday.

    The sheriff said she brought her concerns to the mayor after receiving Fee’s email, in which he voiced his frustrations over being cited for a seat belt violation in downtown Crookston by a Polk County deputy, because she didn’t know if Fee was speaking for himself or for the entire council. She said Melbye assured her that the council and CPD want to continue their positive relationship with the PCSO.

   “As far as I’m concerned, I think for the most part the matter is resolved,” Erdman said. “The council (after Monday night’s tense exchange between Melbye, Fee and some other council members) maybe doesn’t have that same feeling, but I have no desire to stir the pot or get involved in any internal issues the council has had or is continuing to have.”

End-of-meeting tense exchange

    Fee was put on the defensive at the conclusion of Monday evening’s Ways & Means Committee when Melbye read a prepared statement publicly rebuking Fee for his behavior after being cited for the seat belt violation.

    Melbye said Fee sent Erdman a “rude, pointed” email after midnight that was full of misspellings and grammatical errors, and that he cursed at her as well. The point of Fee’s email was that he didn’t think county deputies needed to be patrolling in town and citing motorists when Crookston already has a full-time police department. In all capital letters in the email, the mayor said that Fee wrote, “STAY OUT,” an apparent reference to deputies working within City limits. By using all caps, Melbye said, Fee was in essence yelling at the sheriff.

    The mayor’s statement revolved around the notion that Fee was speaking for the entire council in his email to Erdman. Fee using the words “we” and “us” in his email was an indication of that, Melbye contended. Fee countered that he sent it from his personal email account and that he was within his First Amendment right to free speech to communicate in the community as a private citizen and not just a council member.

    Still, Melbye said he was “deeply disturbed” by Fee’s behavior, and he went on to list other actions by Fee that he said concerned him since Fee prevailed over several other candidates in Ward 1 to win his council seat in November of 2016. Among them, the mayor said, Fee asked to see the other job applications for a Parks & Recreation position when one of his family members wasn’t hired. In addition, Melbye said Fee has called other council members after midnight with slurred speech, “ranting” about City Administrator Shannon Stassen.

    “This cannot be tolerated,” Melbye said. He added that when the Ways & Means Committee next meets, he wants to have the League of Minnesota Cities’ code of ethics on the agenda to be considered for adoption by the Crookston council.

    Fee, who appeared to be caught off guard by Melbye’s statement, said he had communicated with Erdman via multiple emails since his initial one to her. He said he apologized and told her he thought the PCSO does a great job. He said he was not representing the council in his email to Erdman, and he added that it was “awfully disrespectful” of the mayor to call him out publicly without first talking to him individually about what had transpired. Fee also cited a letter to the editor Melbye had previously written to the Crookston Daily Times regarding a potential large levy increase that, he said, could have been interpreted by those who read it as the council’s point of view and not just the mayor’s. Not once in the letter, Fee said, did the mayor indicate his opinion on the levy increase was his own and not necessarily the council’s.

    Fee went on to mention last week’s LMC workshop on team-building and improved communication put on by LMC representatives in Crookston for the council, mayor, and Stassen. Fee said he considered the workshop to be a positive turning point, but that it must have been “all for nothing.”

    “It seems like every time we want to turn a page, you bring us back,” Fee said to Melbye. “Every single time. …It’s the same BS every time we try to turn a corner, and it gets to be a bit much.”

    Melbye said the primary reason he was bringing up the issue publicly is because the sheriff reached out to him directly after she received Fee’s initial email. “She’s the one that initiated me to do this, and the council wanted to know what was going on,” Melbye said, adding that the sheriff initially asked Fee to speak with her and received no reply.

    Fee might have First Amendment rights relating to free speech, the mayor acknowledged, but “as a council member, sitting in that chair, you lose some of your stuff,” he said to Fee. “I’m tired and done with it.”

    “Well, I’m tired and done with it, too,” Fee replied.

    The mayor also mentioned a Facebook comment thread spurred by a Facebook post by Fee on his personal page on the Friday he received the seat belt violation. In the post that afternoon, Fee urged other motorists to make sure they were buckled up in the area around Subway because a deputy was parked nearby and was giving citations. His post spurred a comment thread by others that turned extremely negative against law enforcement in general, and Fee subsequently deleted the post.

Other council members’ thoughts

    Ward 5 Council Member Dale Stainbrook added to Monday night’s debate, saying that Fee always represents the council, even if he thinks he’s just “spouting off” on his personal time. To that, Fee said he can say whatever he wants as long as he doesn’t say it’s on behalf of the city council.

    If Fee doesn’t like the situation, Stainbrook said, then he should consider resigning from the council. “Then you can spout off and make your personal statements all over,” Stainbrook said.

    Fee responded that he’s been close to doing just that on more than one occasion over the past year or so, which has featured at least a couple different camps of council members clashing off and on with each other and the mayor over Stassen’s job performance and other matters. “Some of what you guys have said is just…unbelievable,” Fee said.

    The only other council members (Ward 6’s Tom Vedbraaten was not in attendance.) to chime in were Ward 4’s Dennis Regan and Ward 3’s Clayton Briggs. Regan wondered what would lead Fee to think that Polk County deputies can’t work in town. (It was mentioned earlier in the discussion that the PCSO and CPD are working jointly on a seat belt enforcement campaign.) As for Briggs, a retired police officer, he said he was always advised that whether he was on duty or off duty, he was always representing the Crookston Police Department.

    “I don’t understand how you can go around and do things like that,” Briggs said. “Things aggravate me as well, but you have to take a few minutes and think things through. You have to be careful.”

    Fee said he had apologized to Erdman and that he didn’t know what else he could do. He added that he didn’t think he owed anyone else an apology.

    The Times spoke with Fee after the meeting and he acknowledged that he “let his emotions get carried away” in the first email he sent to Erdman, and that it’s sometimes an unfortunate byproduct of technology that makes communicating so fast and easy. He said he explained himself to Erdman in subsequent emails and that he thought it was a “done deal.” Fee said the mayor’s public statement at the end of Monday’s meeting was especially frustrating because “we try and tear each other down in public rather than building each other up. …It seems like we will continue to try to divide and conquer rather than working as a team.” Fee added that he’s learned a lesson from the situation, and that is that he needs to be more careful when it comes to what he says in his role as a council member.

    Erdman, who has announced she will not seek a third term as sheriff in the November 2018 election, said that whenever she is contacted about anything having to do with the PCSO, she follows up, as she did after receiving Fee’s email. Although she reiterated she considered the matter resolved, she said she would “welcome the opportunity to sit down” with Fee. “And I’ve told him that,” she added.