When East Bethel Mayor Richard Lawrence lost his house to a bank in October, he wanted to stay a city resident and keep his seat at City Hall.
So he quietly switched his official residence to a 28-foot RV parked at a seasonal campground on Coon Lake.
But there’s a hitch: The campground is closed in the winter. So now Lawrence and his wife are living outside the city limits — 10 miles north in Isanti — until spring.
When rumors of the mayor’s move spread in the northern Anoka County city of 12,000, a City Council member confronted him. A fiery hourlong debate about whether Lawrence could still be considered a city resident roiled the council’s Dec. 18 meeting, ending in a 2-2 gridlock.
Two council members concluded that he is no longer a city resident and should be removed as mayor. Two others called him a snowbird and said he should be allowed to stay. (Lawrence himself abstained from voting.)
But the debate isn’t over: The council will tackle the subject again on Jan. 8. And its outcome could have implications for a crucial meeting between city leaders and the Metropolitan Council about debt linked to the city’s controversial water and sewer treatment project.
The mayor said he won’t step down.
“You may not like the way I am living, but I am still a resident of East Bethel,” said Lawrence, who lost his home after health crises hurt the family business. “I have plans to return to the city of East Bethel in a couple of months. ... They want to take [the mayor’s job] from me, and I don’t think they have the right.”
State law leaves the decision about whether he can stay in office in the hands of the council, according to East Bethel’s city attorney.
‘Kind of a deception’
Council Member Robert DeRoche, who raised the issue of Lawrence’s residency, wants him out of office.
“The whole thing to me is kind of a deception,” he said. “If he’s not a resident, I honestly don’t think he should be serving as the mayor. If it were me, I would have resigned.”
Lawrence said he believes he’s in DeRoche’s bull’s-eye because “Mr. DeRoche does not like getting gaveled down at council meetings, which frequently happens because he doesn’t yield to the mayor.”
“He is very insulting,” Lawrence continued. “He is very abusive when someone doesn’t believe what he believes is right. That makes it difficult to get good work done, when you have that going on.”
Responded DeRoche: “That is not a true statement. I have never insulted anyone on the council.”
DeRoche said the last thing East Bethel needs is uncertain leadership — and more controversy.
Earlier this year, the city’s $48 million water treatment and sewer system was completed. Projected business growth was supposed to create the tax base to pay much of the bill, but the kind of growth that would have been needed to do so did not materialize.
So the city is on the hook to repay $30 million to the Metropolitan Council for part of the project. 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.
On Jan. 10, city leaders will meet with Met Council staffers to discuss potential revisions to the project agreement in hopes of getting some financial relief.
A string of ill fortune
During an interview Friday, the two-term mayor, whose salary is $525 a month, said a series of health problems snowballed, resulting in foreclosure on his home.
Lawrence and his wife, Sharon, have lived in East Bethel for more than two decades. They own and operate a machine shop that now is based in Isanti. When Sharon Lawrence suffered a seizure in 2011 and a brain tumor was diagnosed, the business suffered. Doctors successfully removed the benign tumor, but in June 2012, she fell and broke her shoulder.
The couple fell behind in paying the mortgage on their 2,200-square-foot home on Sims Road NE. They tried to negotiate with the bank, but the home fell into foreclosure.
Their troubles were compounded when Richard Lawrence underwent heart valve replacement surgery in September.
After losing their home, Lawrence said, they looked to rent in East Bethel, but couldn’t find any affordable options — only single-family homes renting for $2,000 a month.
So they decided to make Norquist Campground on Coon Lake their official permanent residence. Lawrence said they’ve found winter accommodations in Isanti but declined to elaborate. Meanwhile, the mayor receives mail at a post office box that serves East Bethel.
Norquist Campground owner Joyce Nelson confirmed that the Lawrences have an RV parked there. In the winter, water is shut off and campground roads are not plowed, she said. She’s the only one who lives there year-round.
Lawrence said he and his wife are not sure they’ll buy another home.
“I am 60 years old. My wife is 67 years old. Do I want a 30-year mortgage? Not really,” he said. “This gives us an opportunity to do more relaxing. I hope to get some fishing in on Coon Lake this year.”
Decision in council’s hands
DeRoche said he knows the mayor has had health and financial struggles but argues that he should have disclosed his move.
He and Council Member Tom Ronning said they don’t believe a seasonal campground is a credible residence.
“I don’t think he’s intended deception. I think there is some confusion about what the rules or law says,” Ronning said. “I like Richard. I was looking for a way to help him out. I couldn’t come up with anything.”
Council Members Heidi Moegerle and Ron Koller supported the mayor’s position at the Dec. 18 meeting.
“To find that the mayor no longer is a resident is erasing the voices of the voters. We need to meet a very high standard of proof to do that,” Moegerle said.
“How does Richard’s situation contrast with [that of] a snowbird going down to Florida for the winter?” she said. “He’s not going to be as long gone as a snowbird. He will be in East Bethel on a daily basis.”
Moegerle said she’ll go into the Jan. 8 meeting with an open mind. “I am trying to get people to attend the meeting,” she said. “We need to hear from the voters.”