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MPRAC Protesters shut down Minneapolis City Council meeting

Russ Erkkila received, with his third warning letter, a statement that SAFE would recommend that his rental license be revoked. When Erkkila explained what he had done to rid the building of crime, officer Hillary Freeman replied that it was “too little too late.” Apparently, the main complaint against Erkkila was that he had not responded to the first two warning letters, even though he had addressed the problems raised in one of these letters by prompt and effective action. Also, Freeman complained that Erkkila had not submitted a written “management plan”. Erkkila had, however, at Freeman’s urging, hired Housing Plus in April 1998 to do all his tenant screening.

Erkkila appealed the license-revocation recommendation to a committee consisting of landlords which he described as a “kangaroo court”. The most memorable event, besides its sustaining the recommendation, was a member’s comment that the fact that Erkkila’s son had misplaced the second warning letter showed that Erkkila was a “poor manager”.

The decision next went to a subcommittee of the Minneapolis City Council chaired by Joe Biernat. Erkkila and his attorney, Gary Wood, requested a copy of the findings and notes from the landlords’ committee meeting to prepare for this one. They never received anything. The letter from the City Council committee stated that Erkkila would not be allowed to introduce any new information or issues at the meeting.

The City Council subcommittee meeting was held on October 21, 1998. The most memorable event was that, even though Erkkila was not allowed to introduce new material, Hillary Freeman pulled out a letter which she said was written by anonymous “neighbors” alleging that three incidents had occurred in Erkkila’s building involving gun shots. Erkkila alleges that this was a complete fabrication. He knows of one gunshot incident that occurred elsewhere in the neighborhood; none in his building. Freeman also said that a number of suspicious-looking cars had visited Erkkila’s building. Erkkila later checked this accusation out with his tenants, who denied its accuracy.

The members of this subcommittee appeared to Erkkila to be “inattentive” when he testified but quite attentive when Freeman testified. Chairman Joe Biernat was frank about his preferences. “We consider Hillary Freeman to be a goddess,” he declared at this meeting. He also said: “We’ve never gone against a SAFE unit recommendation.” These statements seemed to Erkkila to indicate that the subcommittee would recommend that the full City Council revoke Erkkila’s rental license when it met to consider the matter on Friday, October 30, 1998 - which indeed it did.

Sweet Revenge

Russ Erkkila told his side of the story to members of the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee who were, of course, sympathetic. An MPRAC strike force made preparations for a counterattack against the city if the City Council should vote to revoke Erkkila’s rental license. First they called the downtown headquarters of SAFE and said they wanted to talk with the goddess Hillary Freeman in person about this matter at 9 a.m. Being the courageous cop that she is, Freeman managed to be on vacation at the appointed time.

A group of approximately twenty-five landlords and supporters descended on the SAFE offices on 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue carrying picket signs and a bullhorn. One of the picketers was a tenant faced with eviction if the rental license were revoked. The group also included candidates for statewide office for several third parties - the Secretary of State candidate for the Reform Party, the gubernatorial candidate for the Grassroots party, Leslie Davis (also a gubernatorial candidate), the State Auditor candidate for the Libertarian party, with his three-corner hat. (Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party gubernatorial candidate, was also invited to participate but he was then barnstorming the state in a motor home.) It was the Friday before the state election.

This “motley group”, as it was later called in a newspaper article, stormed into the police building demanding to see Hillary Freeman. Instead, Lieutenant Dias of CCP/SAFE came out to the lobby to talk. It became apparent that the discussions with him were going nowhere. Meanwhile, the group received a report by cell phone that the City Council had already voted on the Erkkila matter. So the picketers marched to Minneapolis City Hall a block away. They crowded into the third floor Council chambers where Erkkila and his attorney were seated. The City Council, predictably, had voted to revoke the license.

At first, being nice Minnesotans, the picketers sat politely in the visitors benches listening to the boring business items left on the City Council agenda. The Council members stonily ignored the seated protesters with their picket signs. After five minutes or so, Charlie Disney, leader of the landlord group, impatiently rose from his seat and urged the others to follow. Round and round the Council chambers the protesters marched, like union picketers on strike. Still the City Council members stonily ignored the disturbance, a bit more nervous than before.

Suddenly - bless him - Leslie Davis’ running mate for Lieutenant Governor and a northside landlord, Keith Reitman, shouted at the council members: “Hey, there’s a demonstration going on.” City Council President Cherryhomes banged her gavel down on the table demanding order. “This is our meeting,” she said. “No it’s not,” growled landlord Bob Anderson, an ex-cop. The rumble was on.

As the noise level increased from the protestors, the individual Council members looked stunned. They just sat in their chairs helpless to deal with this uprising. “Legalized extortion!” one demonstrator (Sam Czaplewski) kept shouting over and over as he taped the scene with a camcorder. Other demonstrators had equally pungent remarks about how the city was treating landlords and tenants. This went on for about half an hour.

Befuddled, the Council members individually rose from their seats. Some left the Council chambers, while others huddled with Cherryhomes discussing how to handle the situation. The police were summoned but never made a move to stop the demonstration. At length, Cherryhomes announced that her colleague, Joe Biernat, would make a statement about the Erkkila case. Predictably, Biernat’s statement did not sooth the demonstrators, especially when, for no reason at all, he called Russ Erkkila a “liar” and sarcastically referred to Erkkila’s living in the suburbs. A second round of invectives flowed between the demonstrators and Council members. Then the demonstrators became bored and left the Council chambers: Mission accomplished.

One remaining question about this event is why the contingent of city police gathering in the back of the chambers did not make a move to arrest the demonstrators. One reason may be that the audacity of the landlord assault left the City Council stunned and unable to react. Another reason may be that this was the Friday before the 1998 state election. With all the political candidates among the demonstrators and with their own disgraceful deed in scapegoating a landlord for neighborhood crime and tossing innocent tenants out on the street, the largely DFL City Council felt that it could not afford the bad publicity at this time. The rebellious landlords were exploiting a unique window of opportunity.

So the DFL showed special restraint so as not to embarrass their colleagues running for office on the following Tuesday. In hindsight, they needn’t have bothered. A Third Party candidate “shocked the world” in being elected Governor of Minnesota, with the DFL candidate running third.

Another significant aspect was media attention - or lack of it. The Star Tribune reporter, Kevin Diaz, who was covering the City Council meeting, filed a story about about the disrupted meeting which he called the worst disturbance at Minneapolis City Hall in twenty years. He followed this up with a feature story about Charlie Disney and the landlord group several weeks later. Also, WCCO radio sent a reporter to interview people in the hallway outside the Council chambers. Otherwise, there was little media attention to this event.

Even so, the landlords found a way to keep their event alive before the public. They devoted the next several weeks of their cable-television show on Channel 6 (the regional public-access channel) to running and rerunning the videotape of the disturbance at City Hall shot by Sam Czaplewski’s camcorder. The public was treated to a recurring spectacle of the mighty brought low, the unjust being hoisted on their own petard. By some stroke of luck, a published letter to the editor of the Star Tribune gave the public the dates and times for viewing this spectacle. “Minnesota nice” was giving way to a new militance led by this most unlikely group of civilly disobedient crusaders for justice extended to property owners.

Pushing the limits of good taste, two of the landlords followed up on Friday’s rumble by picketing a DFL rally featuring Hillary Clinton at the State Theater on Hennepin with signs that read: “Hillary Homewrecker.” This brought angry stares and comments to the effect that Bill Clinton, not Hillary, was the real homewrecker. To all who cared to listen, the picketers explained that their sign referred to SAFE officer Hillary Freeman, not the President’s wife. This Hillary, after all, was responsible for throwing a dozen innocent northside residents out of their home in Russ Erkkila’s apartment building. But many did not know what a SAFE officer was.

(For the complete story of Russ Erkkila's experience, see http://www.landlordpolitics.com/erkkila.html.)

 

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