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Council member resigns over police officer hiring

Jesse Smith

The city of Deerwood gained a full-time police officer and lost one of its longest-serving city council members.

Council member Debby Leonard resigned her seat following a Monday night vote during which a council majority approved the hiring of Officer Jesse Smith to the city's department. Leonard, who voiced her opposition to hiring Smith at a December council meeting, voting against it at the time and voting against it when it came before the council again Monday. Although not cited in her resignation letter, Leonard confirmed Wednesday the Smith hiring was the reason.

"I just think it's the wrong direction to be going for our city," Leonard said by phone. "I feel we should have just opened it up to outside hiring at this point, because we couldn't agree."

Before earning the full-time post, Smith worked as a part-time officer in the city and is the chief of the Cuyuna Police Department. He was a full-time officer for the Crosby Police Department from 1999 through July, when he resigned. His resignation followed a tumultuous four years on the department, during which he was placed on paid administrative leave twice and terminated twice. In both instances, an arbitrator with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services ruled in Smith's favor, ordering his reinstatement to the force.

According to the arbitration document, the city of Crosby allegedly terminated Smith for performing work on the Crosby computers for the Cuyuna and Deerwood police departments while he was on duty and being paid as a Crosby officer. The arbitrator ruled the city did not have "just cause" to terminate Smith and it violated the union's labor agreement. The city was forced to pay Smith full back pay and fringe benefits and all city records that reference his termination would be expunged.

The Crosby-Ironton Courier reported Smith's troubles in Crosby were not explicitly discussed at the December council meeting. However, Mayor Mike Aulie—who joined Leonard in opposition and told the council he would not change his mind—appeared to make reference to it. He said the issue was hard to comment on, but council members had the information, according to the Courier. Deerwood Police Chief Mark Taylor noted Smith passed his background check.

Voting in favor of Smith's hiring were council members Jeremy Millsop, John Taylor and Eric Ostrowski.

Leonard served as a council member for 11 years and was elected for another term in 2016.

"I think I've always had the city's best interest in my heart, in all my actions, even if it went against my own personal life," Leonard said.

Reached by phone, Aulie said he would miss Leonard and he had hoped the controversial hiring wouldn't have led to a resignation.

"We've been the two on the council the longest," Aulie said. "She's been a great asset to the council on a number of projects."

Aulie declined to expand on his reasons for opposing Smith's hiring.

"The council has made its decision, and we're going to need to move forward," Aulie said. "It's created a division within the council, but I guess that's nothing new with a lot of cities. It happens in a lot of cities. It's going to be probably a little difficult getting everybody united going forward. ... That's the way things work in our country, I guess. We'll find a way to work through it."

Looking ahead, Leonard said she hoped the council will find someone to replace her who shared her vision of putting the city first.

"There's not a lot of interest in being on the council ever, and so I hope they can find someone who is willing to help," Leonard said.

During the 2016 election, Leonard, Ostrowski and Taylor all ran unopposed. In 2014, Millsop was elected with four votes as a write-in and did not campaign for the seat.

Aulie said the council would officially accept Leonard's resignation at its February meeting and declare a vacancy. He said with four council members remaining, the city will continue to conduct its business until a replacement was appointed.

"In a small town, sometimes it's hard to find people," Aulie said.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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