East Bethel mayor's residency questioned at critical time for the city

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 28, 2013 - 10:25 PM

After foreclosure, he lived in campground, then outside city.


Richard Lawrence

When East Bethel Mayor Richard Lawrence lost his house to a bank in October, he wanted to stay a city resident and keep his seat at City Hall.

So he quietly switched his official residence to a 28-foot RV parked at a seasonal campground on Coon Lake.

But there’s a hitch: The campground is closed in the winter. So now Lawrence and his wife are living outside the city limits — 10 miles north in Isanti — until spring.

When rumors of the mayor’s move spread in the northern Anoka County city of 12,000, a City Council member confronted him. A fiery hourlong debate about whether Lawrence could still be considered a city resident roiled the council’s Dec. 18 meeting, ending in a 2-2 gridlock.

Two council members concluded that he is no longer a city resident and should be removed as mayor. Two others called him a snowbird and said he should be allowed to stay. (Lawrence himself abstained from voting.)

But the debate isn’t over: The council will tackle the subject again on Jan. 8. And its outcome could have implications for a crucial meeting between city leaders and the Metropolitan Council about debt linked to the city’s controversial water and sewer treatment project.

The mayor said he won’t step down.

“You may not like the way I am living, but I am still a resident of East Bethel,” said Lawrence, who lost his home after health crises hurt the family business. “I have plans to return to the city of East Bethel in a couple of months. ... They want to take [the mayor’s job] from me, and I don’t think they have the right.”

State law leaves the decision about whether he can stay in office in the hands of the council, according to East Bethel’s city attorney.

‘Kind of a deception’

Council Member Robert DeRoche, who raised the issue of Lawrence’s residency, wants him out of office.

“The whole thing to me is kind of a deception,” he said. “If he’s not a resident, I honestly don’t think he should be serving as the mayor. If it were me, I would have resigned.”

Lawrence said he believes he’s in DeRoche’s bull’s-eye because “Mr. DeRoche does not like getting gaveled down at council meetings, which frequently happens because he doesn’t yield to the mayor.”

“He is very insulting,” Lawrence continued. “He is very abusive when someone doesn’t believe what he believes is right. That makes it difficult to get good work done, when you have that going on.”

Responded DeRoche: “That is not a true statement. I have never insulted anyone on the council.”

DeRoche said the last thing East Bethel needs is uncertain leadership — and more controversy.

Earlier this year, the city’s $48 million water treatment and sewer system was completed. Projected business growth was supposed to create the tax base to pay much of the bill, but the kind of growth that would have been needed to do so did not materialize.

So the city is on the hook to repay $30 million to the Metropolitan Council for part of the project. East Bethel residents face a 15.1 percent increase in the city portion of their property tax bill to pay interest on water and sewer bonds issued for the project.

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