Records reveal troubled waters at Minnetrista City Hall

  • Article by: EMMA NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2014 - 5:22 PM

Deep-seated political divides stalled plans for a new water plant.

A growing need for clean water has devolved into allegations of dirty politics in Minnetrista, a small community on Lake Minnetonka.

Conflict between two factions came to a head this spring with the resignation of the city’s longtime mayor, appointment of a new mayor and the firing of the city administrator. Now a group of residents has hired an attorney amid concerns that public city business is being conducted in private.

Residents say the rift has soured the climate in the town, which like many suburbs is bracing for a rush of growth.

“I think if somebody were to want to move here and knew what was going on, they may have second thoughts,” said Wendy Applegate, a resident involved in the potential suit.

Planning for a new water treatment plant has revealed deep divides between those who support the council and those who don’t.

Several months ago, council members were set to move forward with a nearly $5 million plant designed by an engineering firm it’s worked with for years. Then a council member independently sought out a different firm — one with ties to locals who had supported her campaign and those of others on the four-member council.

That council member, Anne Hunt, was appointed mayor in April. She said city meetings have been conducted lawfully. Of those making allegations, she said, “They go for the drama and … think that people are going to think, ‘Oh, well, there must be something there.’ ”

Minnetrista residents have long complained that high levels of iron and manganese have left them with murky, smelly water.

In light of that — and the fact that new development will be connected to municipal water, rather than wells — the council authorized the engineering firm WSB & Associates Inc. about a year ago to do a pilot study for a water treatment plant. WSB, the city’s go-to for capital projects, came back with recommendations for a gravity filtration system that would cost about $5 million. In December, the council gave WSB the go-ahead to do the final designs.

Then some council members asked WSB to look into a more expensive system, reverse osmosis, that the company hadn’t built before.

Former city administrator Mike Funk said the council never publicly asked staff to look into reverse osmosis, but the directive was clear. It was also clear that some council members aligned with Hunt wanted WSB to get advice from reverse-osmosis system manufacturer Wigen Water Technologies, a company formerly owned by a resident who had donated to Hunt’s campaign and those of at least two current council members.

That owner, Jerry Wigen, passed the company on to his son, Jeff, in 2010, and said his involvement ended then. But records show water treatment plant discussions between city leaders and both Wigens stretching back several months.

In February, Hunt e-mailed Jerry Wigen about a proposal by Bolton & Menk Inc., the firm she’d sought out without the knowledge of city staff or then-mayor Cheryl Fischer. “I am sure the council will say yes to it,” she wrote.

Bolton & Menk and Wigen Water have collaborated in the past, including on two reverse-osmosis water treatment plants in St. Peter, Minn.

Hunt revealed Bolton & Menk’s proposal at a special council meeting Feb. 18. “It was a surprise for all of the staff, certainly,” Funk said. The council later voted unanimously to approve the proposal, as well as a $10,000 fee and other expenses.

Minnetrista city attorney Ron Batty said Hunt didn’t violate any law or council policy, but her actions weren’t in keeping with council procedure. Usually, he said, the council would discuss the issue and then direct staff to find other engineering firms and report back.

Hunt said council members asked staff to pursue other firms, but weren’t seeing progress. “Somebody had to stand up and do it,” she said. “And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing your due diligence and providing more information.”

Funk denied that the council asked staff, officially or otherwise, to pursue other firms.

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