The psychodynamics underpinning the turmoil in Lake Elmo are bubbling to the surface as two clusters of candidates vie for supremacy in next month’s city election.
The litmus-test question: Is Lake Elmo special?
Any campaign consultant would react to such a question with a fiercely whispered, “Say yes!” But the candidates have responded in revealing ways.
“I never use the term ‘special,’ ” City Council Member Justin Bloyer said in a campaign debate this month.
Challenger Ben Roth pounced: “We don’t have to build and develop the same way others do. We can choose to be a special place.”
The election in this outpost of self-conscious rural charm is shaping up to be a referendum on the city’s past and future — with each group of candidates suggesting the other could ruin everything.
Council member and mayoral challenger Julie Fliflet deployed the word “special” the moment she began her debate with incumbent Mayor Mike Pearson.
“We live here because it’s different and special, because it’s not Woodbury,” she said. Lake Elmo has “rural character,” “open space,” “charm. … There aren’t many cities like this left.”
Much of the difference involves how the camps view suburban sprawl.
“We do not support cookie-cutter subdivisions,” Fliflet said. Pearson bristled, saying that he had “been in those homes and they are nice homes.”
Fliflet seems allied with two council challengers, Roth and Brett Emmons, though both men stress their independence and their unhappiness with Lake Elmo’s reputation for dysfunction.
For his part, Pearson openly endorses Bloyer and challenger Christine Nelson, who are accused by the “special” crowd of wanting to unleash sprawl on the city.
Fliflet and her allies are reminding everyone that Pearson and Bloyer were part of a City Council majority that was overthrown in 2014 after approving thousands of new housing units.
Pearson and Bloyer argue that the previous council was responding to threatened penalties by the Metropolitan Council if Lake Elmo didn’t comply with court-supported mandates. Actual homebuilding, they add, has been a fraction of the on-paper approvals.
Said Bloyer: “We’ve had 125 homes per year in two years. That ‘rapid growth’ they’re talking about is being spread over 10 years at a minimum.”
Pearson and his allies portray themselves as realists and blame the majority that emerged from that last election for what the mayor calls “the nonsense of the past two years”: staff turnover and strife so intense that a parliamentarian was hired to control the flow of meetings.
Lake Elmo is an upscale community, and the candidates reflect that: a Delta pilot, an engineer, CEOs, a Red Cross liaison with high-end donors. But the city’s politics feel childish to many.
Referring to the most polarizing figures on each side, challenger Ben Roth said in the debate: “I appreciate what Anne [Smith] and Justin [Bloyer] contributed, and I feel it’s time they both moved on.”
Emmons effectively agreed, remarking that the council has suffered from “too many big personalities.” Smith, a council member, chose not to run for re-election.
Nelson said: “No one here is ‘pro growth.’ A couple of us here are more realistic about how that’s going to happen.”