Thief River Falls meeting turns into scuffle with shoves, thrown chair, council member says

THIEF RIVER FALLS - A Thief River Falls City Council member said his colleague swung a chair at him during a Tuesday argument at City Hall, an altercation that has sparked an investigation.

THIEF RIVER FALLS - A Thief River Falls City Council member said his colleague swung a chair at him during a Tuesday argument at City Hall, an altercation that has sparked an investigation.

The Pennington County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the disturbance that took place Tuesday afternoon during an Administrative Service Committee meeting. Most city officials have declined to offer details on the case, citing the active nature of the investigation.

But City Council member Josh Hagen, who sits on the committee with fellow council members Curt Howe, Jerald Brown and Jason Aarestad, told the Herald an argument about a splash park project escalated into a physical confrontation.

Hagen, who has championed a splash park as a less-expensive alternative to a swimming pool, has proposed using the funds earmarked for a pool to build the splash park. During an argument at Tuesday’s committee meeting, Hagen said Howe threatened to take him outside.

The argument cooled down, but later in the meeting, Hagen made a comment to Melissa Sletten, manager of Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls. He didn’t give specifics on the comment, but Brown, the chair of the committee, said he was “sick of (Hagen’s) mouth,” Hagen said.

When Hagen said, “I don’t care,” Brown threatened to take Hagen outside “to teach him a lesson,” Hagen said. Brown then got up from his chair and walked to Hagen, according to Hagen, who stood up as a reaction. Brown pushed Hagen, and Hagen returned the push, causing Brown to fall to the ground, Hagen said.

“The important thing is I did not move after that,” Hagen said. “I stayed right at my chair. Jerry Brown fell back away from me. I did not go after him.

“When Jerry Brown gets up, he picks up a chair … and he goes to throw it at me,” Hagen said.

Hagen said he put his hands up to get the chair away from Brown. He eventually hit Brown, again forcing him to the ground.

“This is pure self-defense,” he said, adding he perceived it as a physical threat with an object. “As soon as he picked up that chair, it changed the aspect. It is no longer some dude pushing you.”

Brown then wrapped his arms around Hagen’s legs, and City Administrator Rodney Otterness grabbed Hagen from behind, Hagen said, adding Howe took a swing at Hagen.

Everyone eventually let go. Hagen said he then went to the Thief River Falls Police Department to file a complaint that night, but no one took his statement until the next morning.

Investigation

Assistant City Attorney Nathan Haase confirmed an incident happened during an Administrative Services Committee meeting Tuesday. He declined to give further details, saying the matter was under an “active investigation.”

“Until that is released, we don’t really have any details,” he said. “There was incident. It is under investigation by the (Pennington) County Attorney’s Office, and we’re just awaiting those results.”

Haase said he did not attend the meeting. Thief River Falls Police Chief Dick Wittenberg also confirmed there was an incident at City Hall but declined to comment beyond that.

To avoid a conflict of interest, the Sheriff’s Office is investigating the matter in place of the Police Department, Haase said. Sheriff Ray Kuznia said Thief River Falls Mayor Brian Holmer asked if his deputies would investigate the altercation, but the sheriff hesitated to call it a criminal investigation until the County Attorney’s Office concludes its review of the case.

Several people have been interviewed regarding the disturbance, Kuznia said. He hadn’t had an opportunity to speak with deputies to get an update on the situation as of Wednesday afternoon.

County Attorney Seamus Duffy is aware of the case. Information will be passed on to his office for potential prosecution once deputies complete their work.

It’s possible that could happen later this week, Kuznia said.

Holmer was not at the meeting but was aware something happened during the meeting. He also declined to comment on what unfolded, citing the active nature of the investigation.

Hagen, who was elected to City Council in 2014, said he has to use a cane to walk because he suffers from complex regional pain syndrome. He said he has several bruises and scratches from the altercation. He also was treated for a sprained finger because he was hit by the chair, he said.

He said he doesn’t plan to run for re-election this year.

Howe, Otterness and Aarestad did not return messages left by the Herald Wednesday afternoon. The Herald attempted several calls to a number listed on the city website for City Council member Jerald Brown, who chairs the committee. The phone call disconnected after several rings.