A month before the City Council election, the small, wealthy and highly private Lake Minnetonka city of Orono is at the center of growing tension ignited by a split council and a series of anonymous fliers criticizing some incumbents.
A state administrative law judge on Wednesday will review the fliers for possible campaign violations in advance of the hotly contested election, which has drawn a record number of candidates. The fliers criticize a lack of transparency, particularly with regard to a council vote against videotaping Planning Commission meetings.
"I can't imagine the tens of thousands of dollars that are being spent on this election," resident Ralph Kempf told city leaders at a meeting last week. "And it brings the worst of what is in the national political scene today to our city."
The lakeside city of 7,400 is home to prominent CEOs and was on a top 10 list of the most expensive real estate markets in the nation in 2013. With mostly residential neighborhoods and few commercial sites, Orono doesn't typically get much attention.
But recently, residents have spoken out about the divided five-member council after meetings featured shouting matches and even a walkout by a council member. While other cities have council vacancies or uncontested races, Orono boasts eight people vying for mayor and two council spots, more candidates than the city has seen in at least 25 years.
"This kind of shows that people want a change," said Denny Walsh, a council member who is challenging Mayor Lili McMillan.
It's not just about the divided council, but the personal attacks as well, said Council Member Jim Cornick Jr., who's running for re-election.
"At times, it feels like 'What are we doing here? We're acting like kids,' " Cornick said. "We've been polarized the entire year. It's OK to disagree or vote differently, but we shouldn't be criticized for what we believe."
The state Office of Administrative Hearings will hold a hearing Wednesday where an administrative law judge will review the allegations against the anonymous fliers titled "Orono Watch 4 U" mailed to residents in the last year, targeting McMillan and two council members for a lack of transparency. City leaders in turn question the transparency of the fliers, saying that they violate state rules because they contain false information and don't disclose where they're from.
"Is that, in a small town, how we treat each other?" said Council Member Lizz Levang, who is running for re-election. "It is what I'd call adult bullying."
The flier's listed website and e-mail address were inactive as of Tuesday. In the last week, a counter website and flier titled "Citizen for Orono" have been launched, targeting Walsh.
Clashes on the council
Orono politics are reminiscent of Lake Elmo, where volatile City Council meetings have made headlines and led last month to an increased insurance deductible.
The Orono City Council last year considered a policy about council decorum modeled after Lake Elmo's, but council members couldn't agree to its terms. In June, a routine discussion over variances grew heated, leading Levang to walk out after Walsh interrupted a motion she was about to make.
"I think we can be a little more professional up here in front of the public," said Cornick, who was about to leave himself until he was told that they needed to maintain a quorum.
At a later June meeting, McMillan said discourse had grown uncivil. "It seems like we've been struggling for the last almost 18 months on some issues," she said before offering rules for proper behavior.
It's not the Orono that Levang said she's gotten to know over the years.
"I know about Lake Elmo — how close do you want to look in the mirror?" she said this week. "That might be us."
But it's just disagreement over city issues, Walsh said. "If you don't want to have a debate, that's where we have a problem," he said. "We just have a very philosophical difference about how a city should be run."
Debate over taping meetings
One rift centers on the videotaping of Planning Commission meetings. City Council meetings are videotaped, but last year the council decided not to start taping the planning meetings. Council members said it would make residents uncomfortable about discussing housing requests and that commission members didn't want meetings videotaped.
The split vote prompted the "Orono Watch 4 U" fliers and website, with the intent to "expose council deliberations."
In an unusual move, Levang stepped down from the council dais at a Sept. 26 meeting to speak at the podium about the fliers and defend her vote against taping the commission meetings.
"By videotaping, you are putting our citizens on display and their lifestyle choices … and you are providing details of their life that are not the business of anyone with a computer," she said. "People move to Orono for privacy. And you are opening wide that door."
McMillan, who has been mayor since 2011 and involved with the city since 1992, also left the dais and said she had "never seen such a smear campaign" as that contained in the fliers. She didn't respond this week to requests for comment.
Among neighboring cities, Wayzata, Excelsior, Plymouth and Minnetonka videotape planning commission meetings and make them available online, while Shorewood doesn't.
"This immaturity is causing division within the council … and it doesn't serve the community well," candidate Victoria Seals said via e-mail.
Local politics also have gotten ugly. Council candidate Richard Crosby said he's had campaign signs destroyed or taken. Another candidate, Brad Maenner, said the council's division could be the result of growing divides between long-standing council members. New officials might help the situation, he said.
"This is a municipal election," candidate Margaret Radke added. "Usually these kind of races are pretty small and uncontested, and this is the opposite of it."