Stillwater could be headed for another showdown over whether to hire bridge lobbyists at taxpayer expense.

A proposal to hire two lobbyists -- previously among beneficiaries of an $80,000 city donation that the state auditor said was illegal -- is expected to land on the City Council's Feb. 21 meeting agenda.

Under consideration is whether the city should hire a St. Paul public relations firm and a second lobbyist, Mike Wilhelmi, to lobby for a proposed $690 million bridge project at Oak Park Heights.

That possibility stirred a brisk exchange between council members Micky Cook and Mike Polehna at the Jan. 31 meeting.

"To throw precious tax dollars at this seems like an outrageous expenditure," Cook said.

"I think we need to fight for that bridge for all we're worth," Polehna countered.

Wilhemi is executive director of the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, which had employed the St. Paul firm, Goff Public, to promote the bridge. The coalition last fall returned the $80,000 in tax-increment financing money after a state auditor review concluded that the city's donation had violated state law. The city had to forfeit half of that money in penalties.

The coalition also has received thousands of dollars from other local governments, including Washington County and St. Croix County, Wis.

Stillwater's latest effort came to light when attorney David Magnuson told the five-member City Council that he had found a new way for the city to hire Wilhelmi and the Goff firm.

"The question is, would you like to retain a lobbyist and at how much, and not whether you can do it. We have found a way to do it," Magnuson said. The lobbyists would contract directly with the city "to continue the work they started for the coalition," he said.

"Goff Public is not involved in any contract with the City of Stillwater," said Mike Zipko, a vice president at the firm who has been a spokesman for the bridge coalition.

Mayor Ken Harycki and Polehna had asked Magnuson to research a new contract, which involved talking with the City of St. Paul about how lobbyist contracts are handled there, City Administrator Larry Hansen said last week.

Harycki, who also serves as co-chair of the bridge coalition, has said that Stillwater has a vested interest in the bridge project to eliminate traffic congestion on the Stillwater Lift Bridge. The old bridge, under the current plan, would close to vehicle traffic and become a pedestrian trail.

Cook, the only City Council member who voted against the $80,000 donation, also challenged a city contract signed in April with a consulting firm, The Conach Group. Cook said earlier that Conach did not specify what services were being provided to Stillwater in return for $1,500 a month.

The Conach Group representative, Mike Campbell, told the city Feb. 1 that he was ending the contract in two months, Hansen said last week.

At the Jan. 31 meeting, Cook took exception to the latest lobbyist proposal. "Stillwater carries the water on this project continually," she said. "It's absolutely unacceptable in my opinion to now ask residents to pay for a lobbyist to add onto money that's already being thrown at this coalition effort when we could be cleaning up our lakes throughout the city and paying for other projects that need our money."

Harycki said a recent coalition survey showed strong support in Stillwater for the proposed bridge. The survey was funded by the National Association of Realtors with a sampling of 162 residents in Stillwater, Stillwater Township, Grant Township, Oak Park Heights, Bayport and West Lakeland Township.

"The poll results certainly don't indicate we're a city divided," the mayor said.

Cook shot back: "What kind of a study is that? Do we really want to go there? That is irresponsible at best."

The survey fell to criticism in a meeting earlier this month with U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., that attracted about 80 Stillwater-area residents who oppose the current bridge plan.

Steve DeLapp, a former member of the Lake Elmo City Council, told McCollum that nobody in Lake Elmo was polled despite Hwy. 36 cutting through the city.

"We're going to get all the traffic [from the proposed four-lane bridge]. We have no control over anything," DeLapp said.

McCollum led the meeting with Cook and David Beaudet, mayor in Oak Park Heights.

"It's not just the cost of the bridge, it's going to cost every homeowner and business owner along Hwy. 36 and quite frankly, I'm the only one who's talking about it," said McCollum, who's argued that a four-lane bridge will cause substantial traffic congestion all along Hwy. 36. Her district includes Ramsey County and western Washington County.

The Fourth District congresswoman responded to critics who say she has no business opposing a bridge project outside her district. She said it's her job in Congress to do what's best for Minnesota regardless of location.

"Michele doesn't drive my policies," she said in reference to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a bridge advocate whose district includes Stillwater.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles