The election that did not take place in Minnesota this year is stirring almost as much ill will as any that did.
A judge’s order that led to the cancellation of the municipal election in New Brighton has left seething the four City Council members who ordered it up, and left triumphant the sole dissenter who challenged her colleagues’ decision.
The city’s top staffer calls the judge’s ruling a “rushed decision” caused by Council Member Gina Bauman waiting until the last moment to file her challenge, forcing city staff to spend a weekend at the office preparing.
Bauman now demands to know how much money was spent fruitlessly fending her off, and the answer, the city acknowledges, is quite a lot: nearly $30,000.
Bauman’s peers seem to feel they’re now being cast as practically criminals when they were just trying to make a change in the timing of elections that many cities make.
“We did not break the law,” Council Member Mary Burg said in a recent meeting. “We cannot be charged with breaking the law.”
Instead, consultant Barb Strandell, who has worked with squabbling city councils around the region, will lead a “team-building” exercise in January that may include personality assessments.
Strandell learned how steep her challenge is at a recent preparatory session when Mayor Valerie Johnson declared: “I don’t want to walk into another meeting where the first words are, ‘You are not a dictator!’ ”
When Strandell sought to cut in with a soothing, “Well, now, just let me say …” the mayor was having none of it.
“No, I’m going to keep talking,” Johnson said. “It’s my meeting.”
The fuss stems from a decision a year ago to change from off-year to even-year elections. It’s a common way to save money and boost voter turnout by piggybacking onto other contests.
It also was done in a way that would elongate Johnson’s mayoral term by a year while cutting Bauman’s short by a year, along with other council members.
Bauman says that wasn’t her objection. She spoke about it to peers in other cities, she says, who were “appalled” and suggested that she consult a lawyer.
Bauman found what Ramsey County District Judge Lezlie Ott Marek later agreed was a flaw in the timing. Bauman challenged the City Council’s decision with petitions the city disallowed on technical grounds. Marek found that the city was wrong.
The council stripped Bauman of her positions representing New Brighton on outside commissions and censured her publicly for calling the city attorney seeking advice.
City Manager Dean Lotter called it a “public shaming.” The council chose to treat her queries as a conversion of “city resources for her own personal use.”
This fall the council did restore Bauman to her positions on outside commissions. But there’s still a rift.
“Team-building is important,” Council Member Brian Strub told council colleagues at an informal workshop in a City Hall conference room. “But right now this body has an overall mistrust on it. One of the people at this table sued the city this year. I don’t know if you can heal the cloud that covers this building — that’s in this room.”
Strub said he believes that Bauman seeks to unseat him and others who opposed her at the next election.
The mayor, meanwhile, has struck a conciliatory tone.
“There have been instances throughout the past year, I know, when I haven’t been at my best and Miss Bauman hasn’t been her best,” Johnson said at one point.
Bauman herself is hardly in kumbaya mode, issuing a news release at the end of October declaring that the Minnesota Supreme Court had denied the city’s “desperate last ditch appeal,” which she characterized as “so baseless the Supreme Court dispatched it with a single sentence.”
Actually, the city manager noted, the appeal wasn’t denied on its merits. Rather, the court denied the request for an accelerated review. Nonetheless, Lotter said, the council will now abandon the divisive challenge, which could get costly and take a long time to resolve.
Strandell said that feuds involving other councils with “big personalities” have been popping up around the metro. She assured New Brighton council members that, like others, they can get past their rancor. She cited Maplewood as an example.
“So much trauma, publicly,” Strandell said. “They’re in recovery mode.”