While some city workers are warned against politics, police chief steps to the podium

Council president files ethics complaint against Chief Arradondo

By: - October 28, 2021 2:49 pm
Medaria Arradondo

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo speaking at a Wednesday, Oct. 27 press conference about the public safety ballot question.

Abigail Cerra watched incredulously Wednesday as Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, in his blues, stepped in front of a wall plastered with Minneapolis Police Department logos and explained his opposition to Question 2, the public safety ballot initiative before Minneapolis voters Tuesday.

Cerra, who is the volunteer chair of the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission, received an email Tuesday from City Attorney Jim Rowader warning her that posting an election-related comment on NextDoor was a misuse of her position. Cerra had posted on the social media platform about why she doesn’t support Mayor Jacob Frey’s reelection.

Rowader wrote that as a “local official” subject to the city’s ethics code, Cerra is prohibited from engaging in political activity. 

The city code says “a local official, employee or candidate for elective office shall not use city facilities, property, funds, personnel, the city logo, the city seal or other city resources to engage in political activity.”

It’s unclear how a NextDoor post would violate the policy. 

Meanwhile, the uniformed, instantly recognizable police chief — who is an ally of the mayor, who nominated Rowader to be city attorney — was holding a press conference on the clock, at a church, to state his opinion on a ballot question.

“I’m like ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me right now,’” Cerra said. “That’s next level.”

Chief Ethics Officer Susan Trammell has cautioned city officials not to use government resources for political activities. 

The city election is the most intense in memory, drawing both local and national attention in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and the ensuing debate about the future of the Minneapolis Police Department. 

If Question 2 passes, the city would replace MPD with a new public safety department that takes a public health approach to crime. Question 1 would give more power to the mayor, who is up for reelection, while all 13 City Council districts are also on the ballot. 

City Council members have been warned by Trammell, the ethics officer, about publicly promoting or laying the groundwork for a new public safety department, despite their election certificates.  

Meanwhile, members of the Charter Commission, which is like a standing constitutional convention, have been outspoken about their positions on the charter amendments on Tuesday’s ballot. 

City employees have been warned, chastised and the subject of ethics complaints for expressing political opinions.

In his email, Rowader told Cerra to delete any such political posts she’d made to date, and “refrain from such conduct in the future.” 

Cerra, a former Hennepin County public defender and former employee of the city’s civil rights department, responded to Rowader that she didn’t make any posts in her official capacity, and didn’t use any city resources for political activity. She said after Rowader’s email, she added a disclaimer to her posts, noting she was writing in her personal capacity. 

She refused to remove the posts, however, and said she’ll continue to speak out in her personal capacity.  

Paul Ostrow — a prosecutor, former City Council president and board member of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, said Arradondo violated the city ethics code by holding another press conference where he opined on the ballot question.

“He’s making these statements in his uniform, in his capacity as police chief in a way that would seem to clearly violate the ordinance,” he said.

By contrast, it would take a “strained interpretation” to say Cerra violated the code, Ostrow said.

“The unequal treatment of Abigail’s serving in a volunteer capacity as an unpaid board member and the city’s chief of police — the blatantly unequal treatment of them as it relates to the ethics code is highly questionable,” he said. 

The Reformer obtained an email complaint sent by a citizen to the city attorney and Trammell regarding Arradondo’s press conference. Rowader replied to the sender, saying his office was aware of the chief’s press conference. Misconduct allegations are considered disciplinary matters, Rowader wrote, and until discipline is imposed and final, only the existence and status of complaints may be shared publicly.

City Council President Lisa Bender filed an ethics complaint of her own against the police chief and called for an investigation into the press conference and the mayor’s role, if any.

She said in a statement that the police chief appears to have used city resources, including the support of city staff, city logos and the MPD uniform, at a press event explicitly focused on taking a position on a ballot question.

MPD Senior Public Information Officer Cyndi Barrington released a statement in response saying, “Chief Arradondo stands by every word that he said. Council President Bender has made the decision to launch an ethics complaint. The chief respects the ethics process and will cooperate fully. The chief firmly believes that he has an obligation to be honest and truthful with the residents of the city regarding their public safety and he will continue to do that.”

Ostrow said the city attorney is overstepping boundaries. 

“I’ve been concerned for years about the politicization and, frankly I hate to put it this way, but the weaponization of the city attorney’s office,” he said.

Copied on the email to Cerra was City Clerk Casey Carl. Another city employee — granted anonymity to protect her job — said Carl contacted her supervisor to complain about her anti-Frey post on Facebook.

Meanwhile, she noted, a political group called MPLS Together has touted Carl’s own opposition to Question 2 on its website. Carl did not respond to a request for comment.

Ostrow said the ethics code must be enforced even-handedly.

Cerra said it seems like Trammell is violating the ethics code by limiting one group of people from speaking on ballot issues, while allowing “flagrant abuse” by others, such as the police chief.

Trammell did not respond to a request for comment, but city spokesman Casper Hill released a statement saying the city ethics officer is only permitted to give advice to those covered by the code when they ask for advice prior to taking an action. The ethics officer is not permitted to opine when they seek advice after the fact, or when somebody else asks whether a violation has occurred.

Updated at 5:19 p.m. to include police chief’s response.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.