The East Bethel City Council appointed a new council member last week to replace Council Member Shelly Beck, who resigned in August over the fallout from a surprise visit she and Council Member Suzanne Erkel made to the city’s animal control officer in July. The incident also led to the censure of Erkel and the dismissal of Planning Commission member Jim Smith.
The council voted unanimously Aug. 30 to appoint Wanda McLaurin to fill Beck’s seat until a special election takes place in November 2022, in conjunction with the regular election. McLaurin is a special event coordinator for the Green Barn in Isanti and has worked for Microsoft, General Motors and Lee Enterprises. Other applicants interviewed for the position were former Council Member Randy Plaisance, who lost his seat when Beck was elected last fall, as well as Tanner Balfany and Daniel Dobbs.
The appointment comes as the dust settles on a controversy over an unannounced inspection Beck and Erkel attempted at Gratitude Farms, the business of Tammy Gimpl, who contracts as the city’s animal control officer. Gimpl faced criticism in 2017 after she allowed a family to adopt a runaway dog named Duke when Duke’s owner failed to pay the fee to retrieve the dog by the six-day deadline. Although the city said Gimpl followed protocol, some residents were unhappy with the city’s decision to renew its contract with her. Gimpl told ABC Newspapers she has since become the target of unwarranted complaints.
Beck and Erkel said they have seen or heard many complaints against Gimpl and wanted to learn if they were true. According to City Administrator Jack Davis, the city has investigated a majority of complaints it has received about Gimpl and has found no basis for them. He said they’re largely “rumor” and “Facebook gossip.”
Unhappy that the city hadn’t inspected Gratitude Farms since 2019 due to the pandemic, Beck and Erkel took matters into their own hands and went to Gratitude Farms unannounced July 9, along with Planning Commission member Jim Smith. Beck said it was intended as an inspection to see if Gimpl was complying with her interim use permit. The permit requires Gimpl to allow random inspections by “City Officials or their agents,” and the two council members cited that language as justification for their visit.
Before going, Beck and Erkel requested an escort from the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, and two deputies accompanied them, despite one deputy saying the request was odd. Erkel told the council she requested the deputy because she wanted to document the interaction and because she didn’t know if Gimpl would take offense to the visit.
Gimpl denied the council members entry to her facility. Gimpl told ABC Newspapers she did so because she practices biosecurity for the health of the animals. She said when her veterinarian and visitors from the Board of Animal Health come, they wear special booties and equipment to protect against spreading disease.
“This is all for the health of the dogs so people get healthy dogs back,” she said.
Gimpl added that the council members weren’t qualified to be inspectors and that they were violating her rights. She is calling on Erkel to join Beck in resigning.
“You don’t call a police officer to come out to a business to check for compliance when you’re just a council member,” Gimpl said. “I’m inspected every year by the Board of Animal Health, my vet and then the city. My inspections have always been cleared.”
Beck and Erkel maintain they did nothing wrong, but the other three members of the council believed the two overstepped their authority, saying they’re not qualified or authorized to conduct an inspection on behalf of the city.
“I can’t imagine how you thought that was proper,” Mayor Steven Voss said during the July 26 council meeting.
He said this isn’t how the city supports its business community.
On July 26 the council voted 3-2, with Beck and Erkel dissenting, to remove Jim Smith from the Planning Commission. Voss also made motions July 26 to censure Beck and Erkel. Censure is a formal statement of disapproval and must be done by resolution, so the council tabled the matter to give city staff time to draw up resolutions for approval Aug. 23.
Beck resigned Aug. 10 and later told ABC Newspapers it was a direct result of the situation and the council’s response. She said she was frustrated with Mayor Steven Voss and Council Members Tim Harrington and Brian Mundle, who she said are like the “three musketeers.”
“Regardless of what Suzanne Erkel and myself would say or do, it would never matter,” she said, adding that the motion for censure is what “threw me over the edge.”
Beck said her position on the council was affecting her life to the point that she couldn’t continue.
“It kills me,” she said. “My whole reason for running for council was to stand up for the residents and be there for them. … It was physically making me ill.”
The council voted Aug. 23 to table Beck’s censure in light of her resignation, but it voted 3-1 to censure Erkel.
A defiant Erkel cast the dissenting vote.
“This [censure] is like a badge of honor to me,” she said. “You three good ol’ boys would censure me at every meeting if you could, and you know it. You keep trying to discredit me, and I’m thinking it’s making me stronger.”
She said the city would never get to the bottom of the accusations against Gimpl through a scheduled inspection, and she called the censure a political attack intended to make her look bad.
The censure condemns Erkel’s attempt at an “unauthorized inspection” and her “misuse of the city’s police resources” by requesting a deputy to accompany her.
According to the resolution of censure, a council member “does not have individual authority to act on behalf of the City outside of direct authorization from the City Council as a whole.” The resolution also says Erkel’s request for a police escort “pulled two Anoka County Sheriff’s deputies away from their important law enforcement duties.”
Voss told Erkel she was missing the point of the censure.
“The message is for you to understand, and for all the council to understand … we operate as a council,” Voss said “We don’t operate as individuals out in the community doing city duties. We don’t have that charge. We don’t have that authority.”
The censure approved by the council did not carry any consequences beyond the statement itself.