Nature added its own music to “Pomp and Circumstance” Thursday afternoon, as the Owatonna Area Learning Center honored 25 graduating seniors in the parking lot of the school district office.
Coming down the ramp off Bridge Street, students and their families were ushered into alternating parking spots — every other stall blocked off with a cone to try and ensure 6 feet between occupants. Windows down, they were able to hear the music played from a speaker at the front of the lot, mixed with the birds chirping and leaves rustling in the surrounding trees.
Both before and after the program, graduates had the opportunity to have a photo taken with their family in front of a blue-and-white ballooned backdrop on the grass near the building.
Under a tent just outside the offices were Superintendent Jeff Elstad, members of the ALC staff and two student performers — senior Adora Elmore who sang “Where Is The Love?” by The Black Eyed Peas, and Tajanea Thomas, who gave a short speech to her classmates after graduating a year early. In her speech, Thomas thanked her teachers and family for supporting her and helping her get her diploma in three years.
“They helped me get through this year. It was long and hard,” she said. “But I did it and I’m glad I did it … I’m pretty proud of myself.” Cheers went up out of car windows, with attendees yelling back, “I’m proud of you, too!”
“She really pushed through hard and kept going,” Principal Jim Kiefer added at the end of Thomas’ speech.
Kiefer helped kick off the ceremony with a reflection on students’ time at the ALC. He recalled meeting with each of the graduates in their first intake meeting, a tradition upon arriving at the center to help staff learn students’ stories and goals. Similar to advice he had given throughout the year, Kiefer reminded graduates to show up, stay engaged and be kind.
In addition to the seniors, math teacher Ray Ostfeld was honored at the ceremony for his role as advisor to the school’s Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs’ STARS program. An acronym for “success, teamwork, achievement, recognition and self-esteem,” there are MAAP STARS groups in alternative learning settings across the state, providing leadership training and volunteer opportunities for participants.
Ostfeld was named advisor of the year for the entire state of Minnesota, a recognition that Kiefer surprised him at the ceremony.
After Ostfeld and Thomas’ remarks, staff read out the names of the graduates as Elstad and other educators went around to car windows, handing out diplomas, Owatonna-themed masks and personal cakes to celebrate.
When each name was read, that family’s car would honk and — masked and gloved — staff would bring everything to the window. Throughout the ceremony, including Elmore’s song, Thomas’ speech and the presentation of the graduates, attendees were clapping out of the 20-some cars and honking their horns to show support for their own students and others.
A group of four conservative state legislators, two from local districts, filed a lawsuit last week that could nullify Gov. Tim Walz’s Declaration of Peacetime Emergency.
On May 28, Minnesota’s New House Republicans joined the Free Minnesota Small Business Coalition, a group of more than 40 businesses across the state, in filing the lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court. The filing was just the latest in a legal battle waged against Walz's executive orders by the Free Minnesota Small Business Association.
In late April, the group filed a lawsuit in the Minnesota Court of Appeals, arguing the governor’s orders violated the 14th Amendment, known as the Equal Protection Clause, because some businesses were allowed to remain open or reopen while others with similar profiles were not.
That case was ultimately dismissed because the court ruled that it did not have the authority to rule on the constitutionality of the governor’s executive orders because the legislature did not provide the court of appeals with the power of judicial review. The ruling dealt a blow to the FMSBC’s hopes of reopening the government as soon as possible, though another group known as the Midwest Law Center is continuing to pursue that line of argument in federal court.
Although it’s not part of the current lawsuit, members of the NHRC are sympathetic with that argument. They argue that the governor’s executive orders have hit small businesses disproportionately and unfairly.
“His executive orders are completely arbitrary,” said Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, who represents much of Waseca County. “He’s shutting down certain businesses and not others. We saw the candy store (in Belle Plaine) open while other retailers were forced to close, and that’s not fair.”
FMSBC took that opportunity to retool its argument. Its new lawsuit continues to claim that the governor’s Executive Orders run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, while adding the new claim that they violate the state Constitution as well.
Though they may have recently joined the state lawsuit, members of the New Republican caucus have long been skeptical of the Peacetime Declaration of Emergency, even when compared to other Republicans.
The four-member breakaway group is led by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, whose district includes represents Kenyon and Wanamingo, and includes Munson. Staunchly conservative, it was created in January 2019 by legislators frustrated with the Republican caucus’s leadership.
On May 14, when the governor announced that he would again extend the Peacetime Emergency declaration while loosening some restrictions on businesses, the NHRC released a joint statement that didn’t hold back.
“Governor Walz’s decision to extend the peacetime emergency order is foolhardy, dictatorial and self-centered,” it said. “Clearly, the governor still believes he has the almighty authority to suspend our God-given rights.”
In addition to the NHRC’s longtime support for the cause, the collaboration is made less surprising by the FMSBC’s close ties to the Republicans. Its chief spokesperson, Dan McGrath, has long been an outspoken conservative activist.
Similarly, the group’s lead attorney, Erick Kaardal, is a former secretary/treasurer of the Minnesota Republican Party. Though he's taken on plenty of conservative leaning causes in the past, Kaardal insists that his activism derives chiefly from a staunch opposition to government overreach. Kaardal said that by challenging the orders on state rather than federal grounds, and arguing that the governor has usurped powers rightly delegated to the legislative and judiciary branches, the lawsuit is able to sidestep questions regarding public health risks.
He added that his approach was inspired by the successful challenge to Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’s emergency executive orders. However, while Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices are elected on a technically nonpartisan basis, a majority of them lean conservative.
By contrast, a majority of Minnesota Supreme Court Justices was appointed either by Walz or his predecessor, former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. As the arguments are centered around the state constitution, the Minnesota Supreme Court will serve as the final authority.
On the other hand, the FMSBC’s lawsuit provides three arguments regarding the Peacetime Emergency’s constitutionality. Should any be found to hold merit, every Executive Order authored by the governor under the Peacetime Emergency declaration would be null and void.
First, the lawsuit argues that the governor has overstepped his authority to write de facto laws criminalizing certain behaviors, such as opening a business during the pandemic without permission from the state.
“He is creating crimes, telling people they can’t run businesses, telling churches they can’t operate,” Drazkowski said. “He is writing entire laws, which is a legislative activity.”
The governor’s effective usurpation of the ability to write laws from the legislature isn’t the only issue, the plaintiffs argue. Because no provision exists that would allow the judiciary to review these de facto laws, the Judicial branch’s authority is also compromised.
“This comes down to the importance of having three separate branches of government,” said Munson. “The legislative branch can’t relinquish its own authorities to the executive branch.”
Secondly, the lawsuit claims that the executive order statute is unconstitutional because under state law, the Governor’s Emergency Declaration only ends, and pieces of it may be overturned, only if both chambers of the legislature vote to end it.
The lawsuit argues that combined with the first point, that effectively puts the veto power in the hands of the legislature and the lawmaking part in the hands of the governor, when the state’s Constitution demands the opposite. While the governor must seek permission for the orders from the state’s Executive Council, which includes every statewide official, all are DFLers. By contrast, Republicans have had control of the State Senate since 2016, though they won slightly fewer votes in that election.
In recent weeks, Senate Republicans have become increasingly critical of the governor’s use of executive authority. However, with the DFL-controlled House of Representatives still supportive, those criticisms have failed to gain much traction.
The lawsuit cites the 1983 Supreme Court case of INS vs Chadha in arguing that the “one house” legislative veto is unconstitutional. That case turned on a provision which gave either house of Congress the power to overturn the attorney general’s recommendations.
Part of the Immigration Act of 1965, the measure was designed to allow the Congress to overrule the Attorney General in specific deportation cases. The court found it unconstitutional because it regarded the provision as Congressional overreach.
Thirdly, the lawsuit argued that the governor’s emergency powers should not be construed as to cover a broad public health emergency like COVID-19. Instead, the plaintiffs argue that the powers are much more narrowly limited to short-term emergencies like a storm or flood. Kaardal noted that a DFL-controlled House committee tried to pass a bill explicitly adding a public health emergency to the list of situations covered under the executive order. He argued that shows even the DFL was skeptical that the governor’s powers extend that far.
Drazkowski said that by restricting its use to short-term emergencies, the governor’s power under the statute would be strictly limited. By applying it to the virus, he said that a nearly indefinite state of emergency could be perpetuated.
“We don’t believe that a virus is an act of nature,” Drazkowski said. “A natural disaster has a start and an end to it. This virus will be around forever, along with many other viruses.”
The plaintiffs have asked the District Court to respond to their filing by June 11. That’s because they anticipate that if the case fails, the governor will call the legislature back into session on June 12 to allow them the chance to veto a new Peacetime State of Emergency Declaration.
In addition to the Peacetime State of Emergency Declaration, the legislature will have a full plate for a special session. The bonding bill will be on the top of the list, after legislators failed to come to an agreement on it at the end of regular session.
Given the recent protests and riots against racism and police brutality, police-reform bills are also likely to get considerable discussion. Wracked by riot-related damage, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul also have significant requests.
Following what protest organizer Percy Mayer said was a productive meeting with the Owatonna Chief of Police on Thursday, the teen announced that Saturday’s protest will go on, but look different than planned.
“Saturday’s protest will take a more formal approach to push the focus of dialogue,” Mayer said of the 12:30 p.m. protest scheduled to take place in front of the Law Enforcement Center on Pearl Street in Owatonna. “I will be bringing a table out for people to express their voice and be heard in a less chaotic manner.”
Mayer, along with some other co-organizers in the upcoming protest, met with Chief Keith Hiller and Capt. Jeff Mundale of the Owatonna Police Department on Thursday morning to discuss concerns and frustrations within the community regarding police relationships with the public. Both Mayer and Hiller said the outcome of the conversation was very positive.
“We had enlightenment on both sides of the table,” Hiller said. “It was an opportunity for everyone to share personal experiences that will lead to a more productive conversation on Saturday.”
Come Saturday, Hiller said that he and Mundale — as well as a few other officers who have built strong relationships in the community — will be present at the gathering outside of the center to engage in conversation to help strengthen community relationships. Hiller said that he believes Saturday will provide a strong foundational platform for the Owatonna community to express their feelings as well as an opportunity for others to listen.
“I really look forward to the future of our community,” Hiller said. “I’m very hopeful that Saturday will resemble positive communication, growth and a start to healing with our community as a whole.”
The protest on Saturday was planned as a follow-up to a 10-hour long protest on Sunday that ended with members of the Owatonna Police Department kneeling with a group of young demonstrators in honor of George Floyd, a black man who died May 25 while in the custody of Minneapolis police. Mayer said on Wednesday that he had been hearing from the community that the actions of the local police Sunday felt disingenuous, adding that a second protest was needed to call for reform of police systems and the government.
“The Owatonna Police Department has openly expressed they are against racism and do not side with racist or white supremacists,” Mayer said following the meeting with Hiller Thursday. “They are fully willing to come out and talk to everybody and answer any questions they can.”
Also on Thursday, Hiller and five other elected and appointed Steele County officials released a public statement on the death of Floyd and the following protests and riots that have followed throughout the country. The statement reads that Floyd’s “unjustified killing” is weighing heavily on community leaders as well as Steele County residents. The statement also says that these types of actions “serve as stark reminders that we still have much work to do to address systemic racism and the resulting inequities and disparities that exist in our country.
Along with Hiller, the statement was signed by Owatonna City Administrator Kris Busse, Steele County Administrator Scott Golberg, Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele, Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz, and Owatonna Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Elstad.
“Sometimes what we think is obvious still needs to be said,” Hiller said about the decision to release a public statement. “People that are hurting want to hear the message directly from people that influence the community. While I denounce racism and I view the police tactic used in Minneapolis as horrendous, we heard from Percy and the other co-organizers that it’s important for you to say that and to say it in public ways. That is the message we want to get out — we don’t support the tactic that was used and we certainly don’t support racism, we want to denounce it and be public and vocal.”
Hiller said that while he is aware that there are many systemic issues prevalent throughout the country that are in turn creating violence for a variety of reasons, he believes that Owatonna is positioned to address these issues in a positive way.
“I’m proud of this community and I don’t want to see anyone hurt, I want to see us use this momentum as a catalyst for change,” Hiller said. “We want to stand out as something that is different, as people coming together and be that shining light that when we do come together we can make progress in going forward.”
Mayer echoed Hiller’s comments, adding that he is ready to see where the conversation on Saturday will lead the community to next.
“I think with the first protest we allowed everyone to let out a lot of anger and hurt,” Mayer said. “Now I think it’s time for us to have a deep breath and sit down to talk about solutions.”
The protest Saturday is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. in front of the Law Enforcement Center. To ensure the safety of everyone involved, the Owatonna Police Department will block off North Elm Avenue between Vine and Rose streets, East Pearl Street between North Cedar and Grove avenues, the 100-200 block alley between North Cedar and Grove avenues, and the 100 block alley between North Cedar and Elm avenues. The road and alley closures are expected to be in place by 10:30 a.m.
A former Minnesota state representative who last held office in 1984 has filed to run against incumbent GOP Rep. John Petersburg for the District 24A seat.
DFLer, Tom Shea, of Owatonna, filed Tuesday. Shea served as a representative in the Minnesota House from 1980 to 1984, representing parts of Steele and Dodge counties. Because of redistricting since then, this would be Shea’s first time representing Waseca County, if he’s elected in November.
Aside from his two terms as a representative, Shea also served as a Steele County commissioner from 1990 until 2011, when he stepped down to take a run at the vacant county administrator position. He was officially hired in that role in September 2012 and retired in 2015. Prior to his role on the county level, Shea worked Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation as a loan officer, at Riverland Community College as a small business management instructor, at Premier Bank in Owatonna as a banker, he owned the Owatonna Photo News and worked at his family’s beer distribution company – Shea Distributing Company, Inc.
Petersburg is a retired church administrator with ties to both Waseca – where he lives – and Owatonna – where he worked. Petersburg was first elected to the state House in 2012. Most recently he was challenged by political newcomer Joe Heegard, of Owatonna, in 2018, but Petersburg got 61% of the vote to secure his fourth term.
District 24A includes the cities of Owatonna and Waseca and the rural areas that surround them, including Blooming Grove and Woodville townships in Waseca County, and Deerfield, Meriden, Lemond, Owatonna and Clinton townships in Steele County.