Even when enough council members show up for a meeting, the mood at Lakeland’s City Hall is contentious.

Over the past four months, two council members have resigned. The three who remain are feuding over how to fill the vacancies. The mayor decided to single-handedly appoint someone to the seat, a move that the city attorney has declared unlawful.

And so the stalemate in the east metro suburb continues, stalling municipal business and eroding the community’s faith in its leadership.

“It never came to this before,” said Council Member Joe Paiement, who has lived in Lakeland for two decades. “What we have now is a matter of dysfunctional government and widespread distrust.”

However crippling, quarrels in municipal governments are not uncommon. Now efforts are ramping up to intervene early before discord threatens progress in city governance and confidence in elected officials.

The League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) last summer launched its Collaboration Services program, offering a full-time facilitator to help city councils work together, stay transparent and avoid conflict. The aim is to share best practices in governance and conflict resolution, which can reduce insurance claims made against cities.

In-house mediation rare

The LMC is the only municipal league in the nation to offer such dispute resolution services in-house, though others around the U.S. and Canada have expressed interest in launching similar programs.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily more [conflict] now, but I think we are paying more attention to it,” said Sharon Press, a law professor and director of Mitchell Hamline’s Dispute Resolution Institute.

She added: “It would be great if everyone could really focus on being proactive before things blow up.”

That’s the goal for Pam Whitmore, the league’s collaboration and mediation director, who visits at least one city a week to help municipal leaders work through issues.

Whitmore is frequently called on to help city councils understand open meeting laws and offer guidance on how to keep council meetings focused. Mediation sessions between city officials — like the one Whitmore conducted last month between Paiement and Lakeland Mayor Richard Glasgow — have only been required a handful of times in the past year, she said.

In the most extreme cases, the LMC’s insurance trust, a self-insurance pool for member cities, can raise a city’s deductible as a penalty for issues that create risk for other municipalities. That’s a rare move, one that the insurance board has made only a handful of times in its 40-year history, most recently three years ago in Lake Elmo.

Lake Elmo, just 10 miles west of Lakeland, has made headlines for years for numerous episodes of dysfunction: rapid staff turnover, harassment accusations, marathon council meetings. Fearing an increased risk for insurance claims, the league chose to increase Lake Elmo’s deductible from $500 to $200,000 per claim. After two years of progress toward stability, that penalty was lifted last year.

However, there are limits to the league’s involvement. Dan Greensweig, who runs LMC’s insurance trust, said the league can’t play the role of city attorney in disputes like Lakeland’s.

“We’re in a bit of a holding pattern because so many of the issues for Lakeland now are legal issues,” he said.

Mediation isn’t a guarantee of success. And it doesn’t seem to have worked yet in Lakeland, a Washington County city of 1,800 on the St. Croix River just north of Afton.

In a discussion that Whitmore facilitated, Paiement and Glasgow agreed on a process to fill the first council vacancy by advertising it, hosting an open candidate forum and submitting the top-ranked candidate for a City Council vote.

Agreement disintegrated

But the agreement fell apart within a matter of days when Glasgow tried to appoint Lakeland resident Doug Sand outside that process. In protest, council members voted against adopting the agenda, ending the meeting moments after the Pledge of Allegiance.

The vacancy opened in February, when Council Member Jim Stanton resigned after citizens questioned the ethics of his multiple paid positions with the city. Disagreement over how to fill his seat led to council members skipping meetings to prevent Glasgow from appointing his pick.

That didn’t stop Glasgow, despite the mediated agreement. In an interview, the mayor said he unilaterally appointed Sand to the council by having his oath of office notarized. The city attorney disagreed and said the appointment wasn’t legal.

This week, Glasgow doubled down on his position, sending a certified letter to the law firm and the league with a copy of the signed oath of office. He wrote that he had not received clarification from the city attorney about why the appointment was invalid.

At the end of May, Council Member Tami Fahey resigned, citing council behavior she said she could no longer support. With just three members on the council, Paiement and Shayne Orning can satisfy the quorum requirement and conduct meetings even if Glasgow refuses to attend.

Neglecting citizen input

In hindsight, Paiement said, he wishes the City Council had prioritized transparency and community involvement from the start.

“I didn’t see quite the need for those kinds of conversations then,” he said. “There was such little involvement from people in town before this. ... You got the sense that people in town either trusted the council or they felt there was no need to pay attention.”

Press, of Mitchell Hamline, said that neglecting community input on the front end can often lead to more contentious processes down the road.

“There’s this desire to think, ‘We know what needs to be done and we just want to move forward,’ ” she said. “Inevitably what happens is you end up spending way more time and way more resources because communities are going to push back. ... Then you end up having to backfill a process and deal with all of the mistrust.”

Since the mediation session for Lakeland, the LMC has stepped back, opting against weighing in on legal matters such as whether Sand was lawfully appointed. Still, the league is eager to help again once the city moves past its deadlock, Greensweig said.

“I am hopeful and confident they will find their way out of it to focus on what’s important to them and their constituency,” he said.