Amid an FBI probe of city operations, the abrupt resignation of its city manager and struggles with faulty asphalt and fast-crumbling roads, it's been a tumultuous first year in office for Maplewood Mayor Nora Slawik.
When Slawik was elected last November, defeating former Mayor Diana Longrie by a 2-to-1 ratio, it was resounding affirmation that voters believed in her message to repair the city's tattered image. At the time, two City Council candidates aligned with her, Kathleen Jeunemann and Marylee Abrams also defeated two political allies of Longrie's.
During Longrie's stormy tenure in office, which ended in 2010, top city staff members were fired or left — sometimes amid accusations of cronyism aimed at her. Maplewood was sued multiple times and nearly lost its insurance. City Council meetings were often long and chaotic, too, leading the alternative weekly City Pages to brand the city as "the Twin Cities' most dysfunctional suburb."
Justified or not, that harsh label has been hard to shake.
Four months into the new-look City Council's tenure, City Manager Chuck Ahl, who took that job in June 2013 after being with the city in various roles since 2001, abruptly resigned just days before a closed meeting to discuss "allegations against a person under the authority of the City Council," city documents say.
Last month, it was revealed that the FBI was investigating an unspecified aspect of the city's operations. Though city and law enforcement officials have been tight-lipped about the ongoing inquiry, signs point to Ahl being its focus.
That development makes it hard to deny a "here-we-go-again" reaction, and Slawik acknowledged recently that it's been an unexpected and disappointing setback to her goals coming into office.
"It's been a much wilder ride than I had even expected," she said. "There have been a lot of surprises."
Slawik emphasized that the FBI probe came at the city's request. And as much as she wants transparency, city officials have been advised that discussing the investigation could do it harm. "To that end," she said, "we will not discuss the investigation until it is completed."
Still, Slawik and the City Council are pressing forward.
On Monday night, the City Council is scheduled to make an initial review of candidates to replace Ahl. And on Saturday, the ribbon will be cut on the city's new Fire Station and Police Substation located on the 3M Co. campus that dominates the southern part of the city.
Maplewood also is conducting a search for a new city manager, though it has been more difficult than expected. Rather than spend $30,000 or more to hire a search agency, the city, led by a special City Council subcommittee, conducted its own search to save money. But only three candidates applied; the city's interim manager, Melinda Coleman, also will be considered.
That lack of interest is not unusual for many cities searching for top-flight managers. As the economy stabilizes along with city finances, administrators just aren't moving around as they once did, Slawik said.
And Maplewood still can't escape its political baggage.
"You plug in 'Maplewood' on the Internet and certain things come up about your past," Juenemann said at a recent City Council meeting as the search was discussed. "And nobody can do anything about that."
Still, they try.
As part of the slow effort to put that past in the rearview mirror, Slawik points optimistically to projects — some of which she championed as a seven-term DFL state representative — now in the works. They include:
• Completion of the East Metro Regional Public Safety Training Center. More than two dozen agencies will be using the 5-acre site for training.
• A $720,000 project at Harriet Tubman Center East, funded by state bonding money, to build an additional 36 shelter rooms for victims of trafficking, exploitation, and other forms of trauma.
• Groundbreaking this summer on 3M Co.'s $150 million research center in Maplewood, after securing state tax-increment finance agreements. The 400,000-square-foot structure is one the largest developments in Minnesota.
• Development of a $12.3 million, 50-unit mixed-income residential and commercial project at the site of the former Maplewood Bowl with the help of a $1.9 million Metropolitan Council grant.
Aside from its unique issues, Maplewood also faces problems typical of inner-ring suburbs, Slawik said. Among them, a spate of burglaries plaguing some east-metro cites — apparently by professionals — and concerns over how to pay for roads built with faulty asphalt. Dozens of cities face the same problem of roads deteriorating before their time because of a MnDOT-recommended asphalt recipe.
And if Slawik needs any further reminders of the city's troubles, Bob Zick and a group of steady critics — sometimes including Longrie — relentlessly air complaints at City Council meetings.
"The conversation out there is that Maplewood is becoming an extension of the inner city," he said, adding that the city's debt load and Community Center are a drain on taxpayers.
Zick, who also has a long-running public-access cable show, remains dubious about the city's new regime.
"I always say, 'Don't believe what the government is telling you. Believe your own eyes and ears — and get video,' " he said.
Slawik, who campaigned for the mayoral job on a theme of stability and "no shenanigans," has taken an attitude of purposeful restraint in response to the sometimes-personal attacks.
"I'm glad I'm mayor, even considering our rough patches," Slawik said. "Overall, I think we have a lot of exciting things to look forward to."