Stillwater officials get heated over illegal bridge donation

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2011 - 7:52 AM

The City Council will meet next week on how to respond to state auditor's report that city erred in giving $80,000 to a pro-bridge group.

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This undated artist rendering released by the Minnesota Department of Transportation shows an aerial view looking west that shows the proposed St. Croix River Crossing between Oak Park Heights, Minn., and St. Joseph, Wis.

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Stillwater should be talking about how to retrieve an $80,000 donation given to a coalition promoting a new St. Croix River bridge if the city made a legal mistake in giving the money, two City Council members said Tuesday.

In a heated exchange over the state auditor's report last week that said the donation was illegal, Doug Menikheim and Micky Cook questioned how City Attorney David Magnuson would resolve the matter. Menikheim and Cook said the city should be working as quickly as possible to get the money back.

"If we tap dance and pull this out forever and ever, it gets worse and worse," Menikheim said.

The review from State Auditor Rebecca Otto's office said the donation of public funds, which Mayor Ken Harycki and three other City Council members approved in a July vote on Magnuson's advice, was made without a contract that would keep the public informed about how the money would be spent.

Magnuson acknowledged Tuesday that it was a mistake not to write a contract. The money went to the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, formed this year to promote construction of a four-lane bridge at Oak Park Heights. Under that plan the Stillwater Lift Bridge would close to vehicle traffic and become a pedestrian crossing.

The auditor's letter advised Stillwater to recover the donation as well as $70 the city paid for the coalition's filing fee with the Minnesota secretary of state.

Stillwater faces a second investigation by the state auditor, this one relating to how the city diverted the $80,000 from tax-increment financing (TIF) money. The City Council went into a closed meeting Tuesday to discuss that matter, which the auditor hasn't discussed publicly.

This summer, Magnuson had concluded that paying from the TIF fund was legal. Along with the mayor, Menikheim, Jim Roush and Mike Polehna voted in favor of the donation, while Cook opposed. The mayor also serves as the coalition's co-chairman.

The City Council will hold a special public meeting Tuesday to hear Magnuson's recommendations for responding to the auditor's report.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles

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