In tornado zone, a helping hand gets slapped with a $275 fine

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 2, 2011 - 8:45 PM

Mike Haege had the day free between jobs and just wanted to do some good. That wasn't uncommon for Haege and his family, who have been featured in their local newspaper for everything from raising money for the Orphan Grain Project in Liberia to holding Bible study groups in their Hastings home.

This time, however, Haege learned the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished. But stay with me: It's a little more complicated than it sounds.

When a tornado hit north Minneapolis that Sunday, Haege was with his sister, who once lived in the neighborhood. She told him about how poor the area was and guessed that many of the homes damaged didn't have insurance.

Haege owns Custom Cut, trimming trees and building things for a living. So the next day Haege signed up as a volunteer with Urban Homeworks, which was coordinating the volunteer effort to help tornado victims. Minneapolis police had the area cordoned off into zones. About 2 p.m., they opened the first zone and volunteers poured in.

Now comes Haege's side of the story. He said he and another volunteer entered a block on Fremont and began clearing branches. He thought he was in the zone to which he was assigned.

"We did about six houses," said Haege. "I told them I was strictly volunteering. I wouldn't even give out business cards if people asked me."

That's when city inspectors stopped Haege and asked for his city license. Since he was volunteering, not contracting, he said didn't need one. The inspector said, "I don't believe you."

He showed them his paperwork from Urban Homeworks, but the problem was that Haege had left his assigned zone to assist people clamoring for help.

Inspectors told him to go back to his station, and he complied.

While heading back, another resident called out for help in clearing a path to her house. Haege couldn't ignore her. But police had been following Haege, and confronted him.

"They told me to leave the city," Haege said. "They were very rude."

Haege left and headed for a job building a water slide in Missouri. Story over, right?

On Wednesday, a $275 ticket for cutting down trees without a license came in his mail.

As you can imagine, Haege is a little miffed.

JuDonna Bennett lives on the block on Fremont. She said when police escorted Haege out, she and her neighbors were out in the street, standing up for him. "We were all out there, saying, 'He's doing it for free.' We were mad."

Enter the bad guys, who actually make some good points.

Sgt. Steve McCarty, spokesman for the MPD, said the area was dangerous that day, with downed powerlines and teetering structures. "He was not authorized to be in that zone," McCarty said, explaining that everybody who ignored barricades was cited, regardless of his or her intentions.

McCarty said police were working in a chaotic environment and their first job was to keep people safe. He's sorry Haege got a ticket, however, and noted that he might have a good shot at an appeal.

Matt Laible, spokesman for the city, said Haege was doing work in a zone that he hadn't been assigned to, work that should only have been done by a contractor licensed in Minneapolis. Laible said 18 citations were issued to people for working without a permit.

Ben Post works for Urban Homeworks, and sympathizes with Haege. But he said volunteers were given explicit directions to stay out of banned zones, so if Haege was in one, he was on his own.

"People were super ramped up to help, and frankly there wasn't much to do," he said. "The hard part is, I'm sure people were asking volunteers for help in those areas. But if we just released 600 people into the neighborhood, it would have been a nightmare."

Haege plans to appeal the fine. Bennett said she'll back him up. Meanwhile, someone has started a Facebook page to raise money to pay for the ticket.

I asked Haege if the experience made him reconsider lending a hand.

"I've been helping people out for long time, and I won't let this discourage me," he said. "I just hope it doesn't discourage others."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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