A Minneapolis City Council member's old e-mails now could cost the city millions if a developer has his way.

A judge ruled Wednesday that Council Member Lisa Goodman displayed such bias against a proposed 21-story residential tower near Loring Park that he set a hearing on potential damages; developer Brad Hoyt wants $23.6 million.

Hennepin County District Judge Stephen C. Aldrich determined that Goodman improperly organized neighborhood opposition to Hoyt's Loring Hill project and tried to sway fellow council members against it while she was supposed to keep a quasi-judicial neutrality. He cited a series of Goodman's e-mails that an investigator for Hoyt dug out of the city's electronic archives shortly before a nine-day civil trial that began in June.

Aldrich set a Sept. 29-30 hearing on whether the city should pay damages to Hoyt.

The judge dismissed two of Hoyt's claims but agreed with his argument that Goodman's bias violated his procedural due process rights and deprived him of a fair hearing before the council.

Goodman, who served on the council's Zoning and Planning Committee, e-mailed one constituent: "Please do not be spreading the word that I have made up my mind and am working to oppose the variance on this project. If the developer hears this, they will rightfully question that they didn't get a fair hearing and that I made up my mind before the hearing."

Aldrich wrote: "The city condoned or otherwise ratified the unlawful conduct of Goodman and others whose conduct directly injured plaintiff, thereby making [the city] liable for her actions."

The city said it was pleased by the dismissals and was analyzing the impact of Aldrich's ruling on the procedural issue.

"This is a huge victory for Brad Hoyt and for holding Council Member Goodman and her cohorts accountable," said Hoyt's attorney, William Skolnick.

Hoyt wanted to build his slender condominium tower in the Loring Hill neighborhood, with townhouses around its base. He applied for city permits and variances in 2004, but the Planning Commission denied his requests. He appealed, but the council unanimously denied it. Hoyt submitted a revamped proposal but then withdrew it and filed suit.

Aldrich found that the city acted reasonably on the merits in that denial, and he didn't buy Hoyt's argument that the city approved similar proposals. The city argued that the project was too tall for the six-story scale of the Loring Hill area. Aldrich found that argument reasonable after touring the neighborhood and considering the city's downtown-area plan.

Mike Christenson, who heads the city's development arm, said Goodman's view of the project was based on planning staff findings and city plans. "I don't think it's about bias by any council member against the developer. It's about the height of the building," he said, noting Goodman supported Hoyt's revamped proposal for a shorter structure.

Goodman represents the downtown and Cedar-Isles area, and the ward's concentration of businesses and affluent residents has given her a $116,000 campaign treasury, which dwarfs those of other council members. She has been twice reelected with more than 80 percent support, and has developed a reputation as a knowledgeable but sometimes brash council member. Her office referred calls to the city attorney's office.

"I think this is extremely damaging to her and to the city," said Pat Scott, who chaired the zoning committee during her eight years representing the ward, before Goodman. "I think it damages the credibility of any public official when this kind of thing happens."

Michael Katch, one of Goodman's challengers for reelection, said the decision reinforces that council members can't take sides in zoning disputes. "It's beyond question as to how she's acting," he said. "This is no longer conjecture. It's not rumor. It's only something she brought on herself."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438