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Fight allegedly breaks out at northern Minnesota council meeting

THIEF RIVER FALLS—At least one Thief River Falls City Council member has denied accusations he threatened and took a swing at a colleague when a fight involving a thrown chair broke out Tuesday, July 10, at City Hall.

The Pennington County Sheriff's Office said it has handed over its investigative material regarding the altercation to the County Attorney's Office. Council member Josh Hagen said fellow council members Curtis Howe and Jerald Brown threatened him Tuesday during an Administrative Services Committee. Brown allegedly hit Hagen with a chair, and Howe took a swing at Hagen, according to Hagen's account of the altercation.

Howe said Thursday the accusations made against him are "completely false."

"When this comes out and that stuff, he's going to be in big trouble," he said of Hagen. "I'm not prepared to make any comments on that stuff until this is all over. The truth will come out."

Brown declined to comment on the allegations, citing legal advice.

No charges have been filed in relation to the investigation, but the County Attorney's Office will review evidence and interviews to see if the altercation warrants criminal charges.

The allegations are concerning, Mayor Brian Holmer said. He plans to give council members a refresher on how to conduct themselves during meetings to prevent another altercation.

The argument broke out during discussions regarding a proposed splash park and how to pay for it. Howe threatened to take Hagen outside, Hagen said.

The argument cooled down until later in the meeting, when Brown said he was "sick of (Hagen's) mouth," Hagen said.

At one point in the meeting, Brown, who is the committee chairman, got up from his seat, walked toward Hagen and shoved him, Hagen said. Hagen pushed Brown to the ground, who then stood up, grabbed a chair and swung it at Hagen, according to Hagen's account. Hagen hit Brown and pushed him to the ground, but Brown grabbed Hagen's legs while City Administrator Rodney Otterness tried to pull Hagen away from behind, Hagen said.

The fight eventually broke up, but not before Howe took a swing at Hagen, Hagen said. Hagen also suffered several injuries from the fight, he said.

The city typically doesn't record committee meetings, so there are no video or audio recordings of the meeting, Assistant City Attorney Nathan Haase said. The city does record regular City Council meetings. Minutes of the committee meeting won't be made public until they are prepared several days before Aug. 6, the next time the Administrative Services Committee will meet.

Howe and Otterness were only trying to break up the fight, Howe said, adding it isn't fair for anyone to make any comments about the incident until the investigation is over.

Most council members declined to comment, citing the active nature of the investigation. Don Sollom, a council member who does not sit on the committee, said he is waiting until the sheriff's office report comes out before he forms an opinion.

"Honestly, I can't tell you what my reaction is," he said, adding he is neutral at the moment.

Similarly, council members Steven Narverud and Rachel Prudhomme said they could not comment on what happened, adding they were not at the meeting.

Jason Aarestad, who does sit on the Administrative Services Committee, did not return a message.

There isn't much the council can do aside from vote to censure—issue a formal statement of reprimand—a council member, Holmer said. It's up to the County Attorney's Office to pursue criminal charges and punishment, and residents would have to decide if they want to remove a city leader from office, he added.

Looking on the brighter side, the argument shows leaders are passionate about city business, Holmer said.

Hagen said he hasn't made up his mind on what he believes should happen to those involved, though he said he wants an apology. He at least wants people to understand they can't threaten others.

"It's not like I want these guys to go to jail or anything," he said. "It's time for everybody to start actually being civil to each other."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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