Public Record Media

Public record research • Public interest publication Transparency litigation • Public affairs education

In tiny Prinsburg, an abortion debate left bruises

By Mike Kaszuba

Two days after the City of Prinsburg voted in 2022 not to outlaw abortion in the tiny western Minnesota town, Tim Miller sounded upset.

“You sided with wicked, evil [Minnesota Attorney General] Keith Ellison who has never even seen the ordinance. In the process, the prepared statement by your attorney, threw me under the bus as a scapegoat, and will be used by abortionists statewide to bully more cities into inaction,” Miller wrote to the City Council on Dec. 4, 2022.

Miller, who had recently retired from the Minnesota Legislature, had in the fall of 2022 created a brief flurry of headlines and stirred emotions in the small 500-person prairie town by asking the City Council to adopt a new city ordinance preventing abortion.  Ellison, who said he read about the proposal in a newspaper, quickly told the town that such a move would violate the state’s constitution.

Documents and interviews conducted by Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in Saint Paul, have captured the confusion that ensued when Miller – a Republican who represented Prinsburg at the state legislature and lives in the city – said he first approached the town’s mayor in the spring of 2022 regarding the proposal.  The documents, among other things, detail how Miller obtained the help of a former solicitor general of Texas – in essence, that state’s top appeals court lawyer – to represent Prinsburg free of charge if it chose to adopt the ordinance.

In addition, the documents and interviews also show how some town officials, even months after unanimously rejecting the ordinance, continued to distance themselves from Miller and what had occurred.

“I honestly do not know who specifically wrote the [ordinance summary],” Sarah Van Dyken, Prinsburg’s city clerk, said of a summary of the ordinance the city sent to PRM.  “It was sent to the City by Mr. Tim Miller.  We did not work, create or write the ordinance.   It was sent to us.”  Van Dyken added that, before the proposed ordinance, Miller had little interaction with the City Council.

Roger Ahrenholz, Prinsburg’s mayor, declined to answer questions about the proposal or his relationship with Miller.  He said he would not comment beyond a three-sentence press release the city issued following the vote.  “I have no further comment,” the mayor wrote to PRM.

Similarly, none of the City Council’s four other members at the time responded to questions regarding the proposal.

Miller’s proposal had pushed the small town into contentious political territory.

The City Council’s official minutes of its Dec. 2  meeting portrayed the city as suddenly being thrust into the middle of the renewed national debate over abortion.  That debate had been rekindled in June 2022 – just six months before the vote in Prinsburg – when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision from 1973 that had established a constitutional right to abortion.

State statistics show that 41 women who resided in Kandiyohi County, where Prinsburg is located, had abortions in 2022, the most recent year for which statistics are available and the year Miller lobbied the city to act on his anti-abortion idea.

Kandiyohi County’s 41 abortions compared to 3,525 abortions that same year for women living in Hennepin County, Minnesota’s most populous county.  There were 12,175 abortions in Minnesota in 2022 – the highest number since 2009.  However, abortions in Minnesota have generally been trending downward since a high of 19,028 abortions in 1980.

Abortion procedures in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, occurred mostly at four facilities – almost all in the Twin Cities.  Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, with locations in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Brooklyn Park and Rochester, accounted for 7,101 of the 12,175 abortions performed in 2022.  State statistics showed that 15 unnamed independent physicians, small clinics and hospitals across Minnesota performed 2,647 of the 12,175 abortions in 2022.


Prinsburg “was thrust into the spotlight”
“The city was thrust into the spotlight with several news outlets reporting on the proposed ordinance.  [The] spotlight and the overall narrative of those reports surprised the citizens of Prinsburg, especially those who were in attendance at the November 15, 2022 meeting,” the City Council minutes stated.

“When discussing this proposed ordinance,” the City Council minutes added, “the Council is not making a determination as to whether each member is pro-life or pro-choice. That is not the issue before the Council.  To the contrary, the Council must analyze the request from Mr. Miller and determine whether adoption of such an ordinance is in the city’s best interests.”

(PRM’s public data request to the city asked for all correspondence related to the proposal.  While the city produced several documents, such as the proposed city ordinance, the material did not include any email or text correspondence between city officials and Miller or with Pro-Life Ministries, an anti-abortion group Miller was affiliated with.  No documents were produced showing whether city officials responded to the former Texas solicitor general’s offer to represent them.   ‘Here [is] what I have,” Van Dyken told PRM in a March 1, 2023 e-mail.  “Minutes [of City Council meetings] can be found on our city website.”)

The proposed ordinance would have created a so-called private right of action, allowing anyone – except the city or city officials -- to file a civil lawsuit against those who supplied women “with the means to an abortion remotely or in person in Prinsburg, by sending pills or abortifacients through the mail or common carrier private delivery service, or with a combination of phone or tele-health counseling and prescription medication.”

The ordinance, according to a draft summary provided to PRM by the city, would also cover “surgical abortions from mobile clinics in Prinsburg.”

In addition, a summary of the proposed city ordinance stated the city “will not take it upon itself to enforce these laws” but would “encourage enforcement through private civil action, meaning any individual, other than someone employed by the government[,] has standing to bring a civil suit under this ordinance.”

The draft summary said the ordinance would not apply to cases that featured an “emergency contraception” or any act to save the life or preserve the health of an unborn child.  In addition, a woman who sought an abortion could not be sued under the proposal, the draft summary stated.

The proposed ordinance added:  “Abortion is a murderous act of violence that purposefully and knowingly terminates an unborn human.”  It likewise stated that the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, along with a later, supporting decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, were “lawless and unconstitutional pronouncements [which] had invented and perpetuated a supposed constitutional right to abortion that cannot be found anywhere in the text of the Constitution.”

At its Dec. 2, 2022 meeting, with Miller and several media outlets watching, the five-member City Council voted unanimously not to consider the proposed abortion ordinance.  “Over the last couple of weeks/days,” the City Council minutes of the meeting stated, “we have heard from our citizens on this issue.  These have been positive conversations.”

Three months after Miller’s failed proposal had disappeared from the headlines, the town had moved back to more prosaic matters.

The City Council, instead of dealing with the emotionally-charged subject of abortion, was instead weighing a street project on Pleasant Avenue in March 2023 and also whether to put an antenna atop a water tower.  The local booster club was asking the city for a concession stand and a batting cage.  As spring moved into summer, the city debated hiring Angel Mendoz at $15 an hour to do summer lawn mowing.

Asked whether the city had heard from Miller in the months since the controversy, Van Dyken recently told PRM:  “No.  Nothing.”

Miller outlined to PRM why he had initially chosen Prinsburg as part of an overall strategy to create a series of “Life Cities” patterned on what had occurred in Texas under that state’s so-called “Heartbeat Law” abortion ban.   Since leaving the Minnesota Legislature in May 2022, Miller has become the head of PLAM Action, a new outreach group in Minnesota aligned with Pro-Life Action Ministries.

He told PRM that, in light of what happened in Prinsburg along with new state legislation, he and others had for now “decided to step away from the original plans for Life Cities” and were pursuing other, unspecified options.


Miller:  “The work was kept behind the scenes”
“I live in Prinsburg and know the members of the council to varying degrees. We chose Prinsburg as a place to begin because it fit much of our criteria in finding cities which might pass an ordinance.  I first talked with the mayor in late spring [2022],” he told PRM.

“We took our time because it was important to get everyone on board including the community,” he added.  “The work was kept behind the scenes as much as possible due to the volatile nature of this work in Minnesota.”

When the proposal became public in November 2022, it quickly drew criticism from the state attorney general.

In a letter to the city’s mayor on Nov. 23, Ellison warned the city about pursuing the ordinance and asked for any correspondence between Prinsburg and Pro-Life Ministries and also the Thomas More Society.  In the letter, Ellison asserted that the Thomas More Society had been linked to “efforts to undercut legitimate elections, suggesting it has low regard for the rule of law.”

Wrote Ellison:  “Any municipal ordinance which limits the fundamental rights of pregnant Minnesotans to receive an abortion is unconstitutional.

“In addition, we have extensive state laws regulating the practices of medicine, nursing, and pharmacy. No city in Minnesota has the power to restrict the right to abortion or enact conflicting regulations on health care providers,” the state attorney general added.

Miller, in summarizing what happened, told PRM that Ellison wrote the city “a nasty letter claiming the ordinance proposal was ‘unconstitutional’.

“My suspicion is [that Ellison] never even read the ordinance. If he had and investigated its background, he would have found that the ordinance would likely have withstood court scrutiny.  Perhaps he did know that and therefore sent a threatening letter to discourage the city from proceeding,” Miller added.

Prinsburg “took the bait”
“In any case, the city took the bait and chose to have a special meeting to take up and then vote down the ordinance,” Miller added.  “I had encouraged them to simply table it.”

As part of his efforts in Prinsburg, Miller had found an ally in Jonathan F. Mitchell, the former solicitor general of Texas who had been a driving force behind the so-called Texas Heartbeat Act, which outlaws abortion after cardiac activity is detected and empowers private citizens to bring lawsuits against those who violate the act.

The Texas Heartbeat Act took effect in 2021 after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block it.

In October 2022, Mitchell had written to Prinsburg’s mayor about the city’s attempt to “designate Prinsburg a sanctuary city for the unborn.”  Mitchell said his law office would legally represent the city free of charge if it chose to adopt the ordinance.   Although the city provided the letter from Mitchell to the city’s mayor, it did not produce any correspondence indicating whether the mayor had responded to Mitchell.

Mitchell, in addition, did not respond to a series of questions sent to him by PRM.

After the city chose not to adopt the ordinance, Miller criticized city officials for not consulting Mitchell.  “You relied on a young [city] attorney's opinion,” Miller wrote, “one formed not by speaking with the author of the ordinance, who has defended this ordinance through federal court and who clerked for [the late U.S. Supreme Court] Justice [Antonin] Scalia.”

In a fleeting reference to Mitchell, the city’s minutes from its December meeting stated that “we do not live in the state of Texas where this ordinance has been approved and are instead subject to the laws of the state of Minnesota.”

Miller’s push to get Prinsburg to adopt the ordinance came just months after he retired from the Minnesota Legislature, where he gave a farewell speech to his colleagues by quoting extensively from a religious letter from the Apostle Paul.  He was given a standing ovation, a customary salute from legislators, when he finished.

In an email to the city on Dec. 4, two days after the City Council decided not to adopt the proposal, Miller scolded city officials.

“Did you all spend time in prayer over this?  Did you fast?” Miller asked.  “Did you talk with your pastors about this?  Or did you react to a few news articles, which only said Prinsburg is considering doing something to save unborn children, and a false information letter [from] Ellison?”

 

(Supporting documents for this article can be accessed by contacting Public Record Media at admin@publicrecordmedia.org , or at 651-556-1381)

 


Filter by Topic

  • All
  • 2016 election (3)
  • 2020 election (2)
  • Abortion (1)
  • Alan Page (3)
  • Amazon (5)
  • Anoka County (2)
  • BCA (2)
  • Barack Obama (3)
  • Bill McGuire (2)
  • Bob Dylan (1)
  • Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (3)
  • COVID (4)
  • Cargill (2)
  • Chanhassen (1)
  • Check Topics (3)
  • Congress (1)
  • DEED (7)
  • Dakota Access Pipeline (2)
  • Donald Trump (17)
  • Drones (3)
  • Eagan (1)
  • Edward Snowden (1)
  • Espionage Act (1)
  • FBI (9)
  • Federal Aviation Administration (3)
  • Federal Communications Commision (1)
  • Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis (3)
  • Federal Transit Administration (1)
  • Financial Services Roundtable (1)
  • FoxConn (1)
  • George Floyd (4)
  • Glen Taylor (1)
  • Google (1)
  • Gov. Arne Carlson (1)
  • Gov. Mark Dayton (7)
  • Gov. Scott Walker (1)
  • Gov. Tim Pawlenty (1)
  • Gov. Tim Walz (3)
  • Greater MSP (7)
  • Health Partners (1)
  • Hennepin County (1)
  • Hennepin County Attorney's Office (1)
  • Hennepin County Sheriff's Office (6)
  • Hillary Clinton (2)
  • Huawei (1)
  • Hubbard family (1)
  • Immigration (3)
  • InfraGard (2)
  • J. Edgar Hoover (1)
  • Jamar Clark (1)
  • Jerry Kill (1)
  • Joan Gabel (1)
  • Joe Biden (4)
  • Justice Antonin Scalia (1)
  • KSTP-TV (1)
  • Kenneth Dahlberg (1)
  • Marv Davidov (2)
  • Medtronic (1)
  • Met Council (2)
  • Metro Transit (2)
  • Minneapolis (8)
  • Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (3)
  • Minneapolis rally (2)
  • Minnesota (13)
  • Minnesota Attorney General (2)
  • Minnesota Council of Health Plans (1)
  • Minnesota Department of Health (1)
  • Minnesota Department of Human Services (1)
  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (1)
  • Minnesota Department of Transportation (3)
  • Minnesota Management and Budget (1)
  • Minnesota State Fair (1)
  • Minnesota State Patrol (1)
  • Minnesota United FC (3)
  • Minnesota Vikings (9)
  • Minnesota state auditor (1)
  • Myron Frans (1)
  • National Football League (3)
  • National Guard (1)
  • National Transportation Safety Board (1)
  • Neel Kashkari (4)
  • PJ Fleck (1)
  • Page Amendent (3)
  • Peter Smith (2)
  • Pohlad family (1)
  • PolyMet (2)
  • Prince (1)
  • Prinsburg (1)
  • Public Record Media (6)
  • Public Records (1)
  • Ramsey County Sheriff's Office (2)
  • Richard Painter (1)
  • Robert Mueller III (2)
  • Row The Boat (1)
  • Scott County (2)
  • Securian Financial (1)
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (1)
  • Sen. Rod Grams (1)
  • Sherburne County (1)
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation (1)
  • St. Louis Park (1)
  • St. Paul (8)
  • St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman (1)
  • Sterling Medical Associates (1)
  • Stillwater Bridge (1)
  • Super Bowl (5)
  • TCF Bank Stadium (1)
  • Tesla (1)
  • Texas (1)
  • Third Precinct (1)
  • Twin Metals (2)
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (1)
  • U.S. Marshal's Office (1)
  • U.S. Supreme Court (2)
  • US Bank (2)
  • US Bank Stadium (6)
  • US Bureau of Land Management (2)
  • US Department of Defense (5)
  • US Department of Justice (2)
  • US Forest Service (2)
  • United Health Group (1)
  • University of Minnesota (11)
  • Washington County (1)
  • Watergate (1)
  • Wayzata (1)
  • White Bear Lake (1)
  • Wisconsin (2)
  • Wisconsin TV station (1)
  • firearm background checks (1)
  • health management organizations (1)
  • homelessness (1)
  • ilhan omar (1)
  • non-disclosure agreement (1)
  • public records (10)