In nearly all instances, it takes a citywide vote to rebuild a city street in Lino Lakes.
Voters have said no three out of four times over the past three decades, and it’s been 15 years since the one and only time they gave the OK.
The Anoka County suburb of 20,000 has one of the most restrictive charters in the state when it comes to big-ticket public improvement projects, according to city staff. Critics of the charter say a “not my neighborhood, not my problem” mentality is behind the defeats.
Now, the road rebuild issue is raging in this year’s City Council election, with candidates taking sides on whether the charter should be changed.
Four candidates are vying for two at-large seats on the City Council, which will go to the top two vote-getters.
Two candidates, incumbent Rob Rafferty and Park Board member William Kusterman, support loosening the charter to allow for road rebuilds without a referendum; one candidate, Melissa Maher, believes the requirements are just right, protecting taxpayers from overreaching city government. The fourth candidate, Park Board member Byron Roland, could not be reached by the Star Tribune for comment.
Lino Lakes voters approved the city charter in January 1982 after a contentious sewer and city water expansion. City Administrator Jeff Karlson says Lino Lakes is the only one of Minnesota’s 107 charter cities to require voter approval for most public improvement projects.
Under the charter, most such projects, including road rebuilds, require four steps:
• First, the City Council must initiate the project.
• Second, affected property owners have 60 days to petition the city. If more than 50 percent of them oppose the project, it is killed.
• Third, if the city cannot assess affected property owners for 100 percent of the cost, the project goes to a citywide vote.
• Fourth, if voters approve the project, the City Council formally orders it.
“If we use $1, or any money, from the general fund, it has to go to the vote,” said Lino Lakes Community Development Director Mike Grochala. “Then, everybody in the city is weighing in on our street improvement.”
The city can rarely assess affected property owners for 100 percent of the cost of a road rebuild because of provisions of state law.
According to an August report, 12.5 of the 95 miles of city roads need to be rebuilt. That mileage will only edge up, along with the costs, if voters keep saying no to road rebuilds, city staff said.
West Shadow Lake Drive, which skirts waterfront properties along Lake Reshanau, has become the epicenter of the charter debate.
Voters said no three times to rebuilding the road: in 2003, 2005 and 2007. The city has done some patching and resurfacing, but needs to rebuild down to the dirt to fix the road, Grochala said.
“Ultimately, you are just passing the buck to future generations.” Grochala said.
It would require a voter referendum to change the charter.
In separate interviews, the three candidates (in alphabetical order) laid out their position on the charter debate.
The City Council should have the ability to work with the citizens to amend the charter, Kusterman said.
“The process is broken,” Kusterman said. “I am a limited-government guy, but at some point how are we going to make this community better?”
He said that taking every road rebuild to a vote means critical road and infrastructure projects don’t always get done.
“They don’t want to pay for somebody else’s road. They ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ ” he said. “This is representative government. You allow the City Council members to make decisions on your behalf. We have to think of the greater good in the community.”
Kusterman, 52, is an executive director of Ernst & Young in Minneapolis. He is married with four daughters. He has lived in Lino Lakes for 17 years.
The city charter provides protection for city residents and shouldn’t be changed, Maher said.
“It’s a protection method. Public improvements that create special tax assessments need to go to a public referendum,” Maher said. “The city has tried to say we can’t fix our roads because of the charter. It appears to me that what the city has done is really neglect road maintenance and attempted to blame the charter.”
Maher said that she is the only pro-charter candidate and that, if elected, she will be more receptive to the residents she serves.
Previous failed attempts to change the city’s charter are what prompted her to run.
“I am just sick over what the city is trying to do with the charter. To amend it to get their own way is not acceptable. I decided to be the person to stand up and say, ‘No, we are not going to do this.’”
Maher said she’s also worried about the city’s comprehensive plan, which she says calls for “unrealistic, explosive growth.”
“I moved out here because I love the fact there are working farms a mile from my house,” Maher said. “I really want to preserve the rural feel we have out there.”
Maher, 45, is an attorney with the Minneapolis law firm of Lockridge Grindal Nauen, which represents plaintiffs in class-action lawsuits.
She moved to Lino Lakes in 2004 from Falcon Heights. She served on the charter commission from 2007 to 2010. She is married with two children.
Times have changed, and so must the charter, said incumbent Rob Rafferty.
“I do not think the charter works right now,” Rafferty said.
He supports amending it so that road rebuilds can be done without a referendum. Fixing roads is a public-safety issue that also will help preserve property values, he said.
“Whether its tough economic times or not, we have to do the right thing for the good of the city,” Rafferty said. “These are our neighbors. We work together as one. … That’s the right thing to do, to help each other.”
Rafferty, 57, has served on the City Council for four years. He is also a former member of the charter commission. He is the director of information systems and a minority owner in Rafferty Rafferty Tollefson Lindeke Architects in St. Paul, a firm started by his father and his uncle. He moved to Lino Lakes in 1997 and is married with two children.
The charter debate has loomed large in city elections for two decades.
There have been four failed ballot measure to change the charter, in 1989, 1995, 2008 and 2012. During the most recent attempt, voters defeated a charter change measure by less than one percent.