NISSWA — First Amendment rights and appropriate conduct of elected officials came up for discussion Thursday, June 25, at Nisswa City Hall after Facebook comments from Mayor Fred Heidmann were deemed racist and xenophobic by many.
Two Nisswa City Council members called a special meeting Thursday to discuss the issue, which was brought to their attention last week at the regular council meeting.
Biff Ulm, owner of Zaiser’s in downtown Nisswa, attended the regular meeting June 17 to ask Heidmann to clarify his Facebook comments. He also submitted a list of questions for the mayor to answer. Patrick Kennedy, who grew up in Nisswa, submitted a letter to the council last week asking for the immediate resignation of Heidmann. Kennedy did not attend the regular meeting but wrote in his statement he expects the issue to be addressed in a timely manner “or I will take alternative steps in order to recall the mayor,” according to a story in the PineandLakes Echo Journal.
The comments in question related to Kara Hall, a Forestview Middle School teacher who resigned earlier this month after her own Facebook comments about riots in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s death drew community outrage for what many deemed racist content. On a post of a former lakes area student who lives in Minneapolis and described her experience amongst the riots, Hall wrote comments, which included: “I know all I see are scary awful blacks people robbing businesses that don’t deserve this.”
Another comment from Hall criticizing Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and calling for law and order to be restored included: “The creepy, destructive, violent blacks we are all across America watching raid and ruin businesses across America need to be put in jail!”
Heidmann’s comments came on a later Facebook post from Deb Cruz, who called for Hall’s resignation June 3.
“What was said is a pretty accurate account of what is happening,” Heidmann wrote of Hall’s comments, according to the Echo Journal story. “I believe with all my being that what happened to George Floyd is inexcusable. Those officers need to face the consequences to the full extent of the law. But when one side can say anything they want and get praised for it and the opposite side is chastised for everything they say, that then becomes communism.”
A subsequent comment from Heidmann stated, “I do not see that her words were hateful or vulgar. What is harmful is teaching our children that Islam is good, Christianity is bad, there is no God of the Bible, science knows everything, America is bad Cuba is good, etc.”
Ulm since created a petition calling for Heidmann to “explain his racial and xenophobic comments on Facebook.”
Heidmann was not at last week’s regular council meeting when Kennedy’s and Ulm’s concerns were raised, but he responded to both men in a joint letter, which Ulm shared on change.org at https://bit.ly/3dCQGvI.
Ulm also included screenshots of posts from Heidmann’s Facebook page, including an article about why homosexual marriage is harmful and should be opposed; a post stating Muslims hate Christians, Jews and atheists; and an article on Somali migrants from a website called Bare Naked Islam. The website’s tagline, according to the homepage, is “It isn’t Islamophobia when they really ARE trying to kill you.”
About 20 people showed up to city hall for Thursday’s special meeting, called by council members Gary Johnson and Mike Hoff, but Heidmann was not among them. Instead, he sent a statement for City Administrator Jenny Max to read to the crowd. In the statement, he alleged Johnson and Hoff called the meeting at a time they knew he would not be available. Johnson said that was not true and said he felt the need to call a meeting as soon as possible to make known the council’s position on Heidmann’s comments.
“I personally don’t have Mr. Heidmann’s work schedule at my ready, so I called the meeting as soon as possible,” Johnson said. “We all have work to do, and the rest of us are here.”
Heidmann’s statement went on to say he made it clear before last week’s meeting why he would not be able to attend, noting he had a large workload and was short-staffed.
“I did exchange emails with Mr. Ulm yesterday. It was good we were able to connect,” Heidmann’s statement continued. “I again want to reiterate that I support the First Amendment and your right to express your concerns. That right is the most important right we have.”
He concluded by urging those who have concerns to call him so they can have a conversation. The city administrator, he said, has his contact information.
In a second statement, sent Thursday afternoon, Heidmann stated he wanted to make the council aware there are people who are furious at Ulm over his antics.
“Also, they are critical of the city council and city attorney for their role in this,” he wrote.
He encouraged everyone to remember the First Amendment is for every American and said that right should not be silenced by those who think they should control the narrative.
“The silent majority is watching this meeting very closely as well,” he stated. “They will not be in attendance tonight, but nonetheless they are here.”
Johnson told those present Thursday the rest of the council could not answer their questions for Heidmann but invited those who wanted to voice their concerns.
Ulm took the floor first, asserting his support for the First Amendment.
“I push the limits even in my own store with some things that I know are not for everybody else,” he said, noting he didn’t have much more to add but said he had been very transparent with his concerns so far.
Nisswa resident Bob Fier then spoke, saying he believed the meeting should have been scheduled around Heidmann’s availability so he could be there to defend himself. He also said he did not believe reports he heard from some who have said they repeatedly reached out to Heidmann but never heard back. In his experience, Fier said anyone who wants to reach a council member can speak to staff at city hall and will likely hear back from the elected official within the day.
A handful of other community members spoke out in opposition of Heidmann’s comments, noting the First Amendment does not mean anyone is free from potential consequences of their speech. The social media policy is what Mollie Kennedy said her son, Patrick Kennedy, would like to see in addition to Heidmann’s resignation. She also suggested diversity training for employees and elected officials.
Cruz, who drew a laugh from the crowd when she said her family is about half the diversity in the community, said she has known Heidmann since he was a little kid and believes he is a good guy. She said she does not agree with a lot of his social media posts and supports his First Amendment right but added he is a representative of Nisswa.
“He’s a mayor, and as a mayor, he has to stand up for the values of the city,” Cruz said, encouraging city council or staff members to come up with a set of guidelines and values to hold public officials to.
“I do want (Heidmann) to take a look at what he’s doing and change his ways,” she said. “If he doesn’t change his opinions, that’s on him, but he has to change his behavior. It’s just not OK for our city.”
Sandy Potthoff, who grew up in the lakes area and recently moved back, said her husband is a minority. She said she has known Heidmann a long time and was not expecting this when she moved back. She echoed the need for clear social media and conduct guidelines for city employees and officials.
“An elected official should not be posting this type of stuff,” she said, adding she would like to see Heidmann’s comments deleted.
“This is not who we are,” Potthoff added. “And Nisswa is supposed to be a welcoming place because we rely on people to come here and enjoy themselves and to feel welcome.”
Anne Bliss, who has a daughter who was born in another country, said she does not understand racism and said if someone wants to make comments online like Heidmann’s they should have their Facebook page set to private. She said she voted for Heidmann after he knocked on her door before the last election but since regrets not digging into his social media history.
The council’s stance
After listening to public comments, council members took a turn at the mic. Council member Don Jacobson criticized Heidmann for missing the last two meetings.
“I know he’s busy, but he’s an elected official,” Jacobson said. “You sign up for the job, you do the work.”
Jacobson added the city council and attorney did not do anything to lead to this situation, in response to Heidmann’s assertion in his statement that people are critical of the council and attorney.
Council member John Ryan said when you’re a public official, you live in a glass house. He agreed the city should have a clear social media policy for elected officials, and the council agreed to look into that and Kennedy’s suggestion of diversity training.
Ultimately, the council approved a combination of statements from Johnson and Hoff to adopt as the city’s official stance. In essence, the council members do not condone Heidmann’s comments.
“We find the comments insulting and unacceptable, and they do not in any way represent the thoughts and feelings of the city council, nor the city of Nisswa,” Johnson said.
Hoff added city staff and employees of Nisswa are accepting of all, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, religion or economic standing.
“We want everyone to feel accepted whether you are a resident, visitor or business owner,” Hoff said.
After Ryan encouraged everyone to take Heidmann up on his offer to sit down and have a conversation, Jacobson suggested adding that as a last line to the city’s statement.
The official statement will be reviewed by the city’s attorney and then available on the city’s website.