In the end, a 28-foot RV parked at a seasonal campground that’s closed for the winter didn’t constitute a permanent residence, in the eyes of the East Bethel City Council.
The council removed Mayor Richard Lawrence from office Wednesday night after a majority of members concluded he no longer lived in the city. The 3-1 vote followed a sometimes-testy debate in a packed council chamber.
Lawrence lost his East Bethel home to foreclosure in October. He said his permanent residence is the RV but explained that he and his wife, Sharon, are living in Isanti until the campground reopens.
Council Member Robert DeRoche, who first questioned the mayor’s residency, was appointed mayor later Wednesday by the same 3-1 majority.
DeRoche confronted Lawrence publicly during a December council meeting after rumors of the mayor’s move spread in the northern Anoka County city of 12,000. On Wednesday, council members DeRoche, Tom Ronning and Ron Koller voted for Lawrence’s removal while Heidi Moegerle supported Lawrence. She compared him to a snowbird who intended to move back in the spring.
Lawrence, 60, did not vote on the issue. The two-term mayor had refused to resign and recently had his driver’s license address changed to the RV park. He collects his mail at a post office box serving East Bethel.
The city attorney said that the council could weigh intent but that it was ultimately its decision.
Lawrence defended his position.
“The facts are, I am not really gone. I am out of the city, but if [the city administrator] calls me up, I can be here in 15 to 20 minutes, tops,” said Lawrence, who made $525 a month as mayor.
He argued that the RV is a legitimate permanent residence for a majority of the year: “You may not appreciate or like where I live, but that’s not a requirement.”
Lawrence had said previously that DeRoche targeted him for removal after the mayor repeatedly “gaveled down” the council member in previous meetings for rude behavior.
“I am disappointed. I was really doing it for the people,” Lawrence said.
Several people stopped Lawrence on the way out of the council chambers to shake his hand and thank him for his service.
DeRoche denied rudeness or retaliatory behavior, saying the issue is about protecting the city.
“The whole thing to me is kind of a deception,” DeRoche said. “It was really unfortunate how it all had to play out. State law is state law.”
The majority on the council didn’t seem convinced that intent was enough.
“Nobody but God and Richard knows what’s in his mind. We don’t have the luxury of going through everybody’s minds. We are expected to obey the law,” Ronning said.
Lawrence said a series of health problems hurt his family-owned machine shop, triggering a cascade of financial troubles. His wife had a benign brain tumor removed and then broke her shoulder. Lawrence underwent heart valve replacement surgery in September.
After the couple fell behind on payments, they lost their 2,200-square-foot home.
Sewer debt could be affected
The outcome of this dispute could have implications for a meeting Friday between city leaders and the Metropolitan Council about debt linked to the city’s controversial water and sewer treatment project.
The $48 million water treatment and sewer system was completed last year. Projected business growth was supposed to create the tax base to pay much of the bill, but the necessary growth has not occurred.
East Bethel residents face a 15.1 percent increase in the city portion of their property tax bill to pay interest on water and sewer bonds issued for the project. The city is also on the hook for $30 million owed to the Metropolitan Council for part of the project. City leaders and Met Council staffers will meet to discuss potential revisions to the project agreement in hopes of getting some financial relief.
This is the second squabble over residency in the north metro in recent months. St. Francis City Council Member Mike Haggard resigned in December after fielding questions about his residency. He sold his St. Francis home and said he was renting a room but also acknowledged spending time at a residence in Zimmerman.
He resigned at a December council meeting after fellow council members asked about the situation.