Calling this meeting the most important in his nearly 12 years on the Nisswa City Council, acting Mayor Gary Johnson said in a prepared statement - which the council ultimately approved - that the council rejects comments Mayor Fred Heidmann recently posted on Facebook.
“While the city council of Nisswa and the city of Nisswa support every person’s First Amendment rights, we do not condone or support the comments made by our mayor in a recent Facebook posting. We find the comments insulting and unacceptable and they do not, in any way, represent the thoughts and feelings of the city council or the city of Nisswa,” the statement reads.
The four-person council met in a special meeting Thursday, June 25, to address the public regarding Heidmann’s comments on another person’s Facebook post that have been called “racial and xenophobic” in an online petition seeking for the mayor to explain his comments. That petition had 275 signatures as of Tuesday morning, June 30.
Heidmann wasn’t present at the June 25 meeting, but he asked City Administrator Jenny Max to read a written statement. About 20 people attended the meeting, including a dozen outside the council chambers to meet social distancing guidelines.
In his message, Heidmann apologized for not being able to attend the June 25 special meeting, saying Johnson and council member Mike Hoff, who called the meeting, “chose to do so knowing that I would not be able to attend, which seems odd since I am the person who Mr. Ulm and Mr. Kennedy had inquired about.”
Heidmann referred to Biff Ulm, who asked at the June 17 regular council meeting for the mayor to answer several specific questions in reference to his Facebook comments, and Patrick Kennedy, who submitted a letter to the council seeking the mayor’s resignation over the comments.
Those comments were in response to others’ remarks regarding a now former Brainerd School District middle school teacher whose words about Black people during the riots that followed George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis while in police custody were deemed racist by many.
“What was said is a pretty accurate account of what is happening,” Heidmann wrote of that teacher’s comments. “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.”
Another comment from Heidmann said, “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.”
Heidmann did not attend the June 17 regular council meeting, saying in his message that Johnson and other council members were told before that meeting that Heidmann would not attend because of his work load, but did not relay that for the public record.
“It is critical that city staff see that all pertinent information be part of the record and accurate for the public knowledge and future record. This failed to happen and caused unneeded speculation. This is another point of change I have been pushing for our city,” Heidmann said in his statement.
Johnson responded at the special meeting, saying he felt the need to call a meeting as soon as possible.
“... this was the soonest we could do a meeting. I personally don’t have Mr. Heidmann’s work schedule at my ready so I called a meeting as soon as possible. We all have work to do, and the rest of us are here,” Johnson said.
Hoff agreed, saying it wasn’t true that they knew Heidmann wouldn’t be able to attend.
“He had the opportunity to call a meeting to fit his schedule and he didn’t do that,” Hoff said. “I’m taken aback that he’s calling us out for stuff we did not know. I wish he was here as well to help settle this as well.”
In his statement, Heidmann said: “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 asked residents to feel free to call him if anyone wanted to get together for conversation, and to see the city administrator for his contact information.
Responding to hearing that emails sent to city hall opposed Heidmann’s First Amendment rights, he said in his message: “I want to make the council aware that I also have people emailing, calling and stopping me on the street, stopping by the store and are furious at Mr. Ulm, over his antics,” adding they are critical of the city council and city attorney for their role in this.
“Please remember the First Amendment is for every American and that should not be silenced by those who think they should control the narrative. The silent majority is watching this meeting very closely as well. They will not be in attendance tonight, but nonetheless are right there. These are the words I am hearing,” the mayor’s message said.
Johnson said he and Hoff requested the special meeting to make known the council’s position on Heidmann’s social media comments. The rest of the council-approved statement says:
“The city of Nisswa, Nisswa City Council and the Nisswa city staff are an entity accepting of all individuals 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. We would hope that everybody enjoys what Nisswa is known for, ‘The Best Small Town in Minnesota.’ Come enjoy Nisswa without any worries.”
The statement ends with a city council request that the mayor and all parties with concerns get together to attempt to resolve their issues.
“If folks here are looking for answers to questions of Mr. Heidmann, we as a council can’t answer those questions. We can’t speak for him,” Johnson said before the council accepted public comments.
Ulm, who owns Zaiser’s in downtown Nisswa, first brought the Facebook comments to the council’s attention. But he said he is not alone with his sentiment.
“I have been judged for choices I make for the First Amendment, and we all have the right to be judged for those comments made,” he said, noting he values First Amendment rights for all.
Bob Fier said he believes anyone who wants to get a hold of a council member can do so, in his experience, so he was confused and not happy that Ulm and Kennedy didn’t get together with Heidmann outside the council forum.
“I don’t think this really needed to come to this level. I think this meeting should have been scheduled around Fred’s availability,” Fier said.
Mollie Kennedy spoke for her son, Patrick, who is working out of state.
“He loves Nisswa,” an emotional Kennedy said, adding her son didn’t take this lightly at all. “And it’s a difficult place to live as a kid sometimes but he didn’t want to bring a negative light on our city, on our tourism, on anything. So he is trying to find a way to rectify the situation.”
Kennedy said she asked her son what, besides resignation, he’d like to see. He said the offensive posts removed from Facebook and a social media policy for city officials.
“Those are very small steps but show a resolve to be able to rectify the poor response,” Kennedy said.
Deb Cruz said Heidmann commented on her Facebook post, which sought the teacher’s resignation because of her comments.
“My family is about half the diversity in this community,” Cruz said, noting Heidmann is a good guy whom she’s known since he was a little kid, but she doesn’t agree with his posts or that as mayor he can post whatever he wants.
“As our mayor, he has to stand up for the values of our city,” Cruz said.
Sandy Potthoff said her husband is a minority, and she was shocked when she saw Heidmann’s comments.
“To me, I just felt very, very offended,” she said, adding she’s also known Heidmann all her life.
She asked the council to seek guidance from the League of Minnesota Cities and include a social media policy in the employee handbook if one doesn’t already exist.
She also said an easy answer would be for Heidmann to delete his comments from the Facebook post.
“This is not who we are. Nisswa is supposed to be a welcoming place because we rely on people to come here and enjoy themselves and to feel welcome,” Potthoff said.
Johnson said he appreciated people’s passion and emails, and that he’s received more feedback on this issue than any other issue in his tenure on the council.
“I agree and support everybody’s First Amendment rights and wouldn’t try to deny those,” he said, agreeing that public officials must be careful with social media, which has become such a prevalent part of people’s lives.
“While these comments were posted as Fred Heidmann as a citizen, it’s also a bad reflection of us and has put us in an awkward position, but also opened our eyes,” Johnson said.
Council member Don Jacobson said people are critical of the city council and its role in this issue.
“We didn’t do anything. Not a thing. It came out of the blue,” he said, adding if Heidmann had attended and answered Ulm’s questions at the regular June meeting, there wouldn’t have been a special meeting.
“I know he’s busy and that’s OK. But his job as an elected official is to be at important meetings. You sign up for the job, you do the work,” he said, adding, “He has the right to say what he wants to. He has to think about what he’s saying though.”
Council member John Ryan said public officials live in a glass house, and a problem with social media is that people read things the way they want to read them.
“They don’t necessarily read it the way you meant it. So when there’s a question, you have an obligation … to explain why. And I think that’s all people are asking,” Ryan said, urging people to take the mayor up on his offer to sit and have coffee and ask for his clarifications.
“As an elected official, if you say something people feel is controversial, you have an obligation to be reachable to explain what you mean,” he said, adding he agreed the city needs clarification regarding a policy for social media.
Kennedy also suggested the council and staff undergo diversity training. Ulm urged the council to think all this through, especially when talking about diversity.
“We do have diversity in our town. It just doesn’t look like it when they look at me and you guys,” he said.
Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.