For Washington County cities, November's election might be known as the Year of the Mayor. Twenty of them will elect top leaders, 10 in contested races.
From Forest Lake and Scandia in the north to Cottage Grove and Newport in the south, city voters will see crowded ballots. Most cities also will elect city council members. (More information about candidates will be available in the Star Tribune's 2012 voter's guide, to be published Wednesday, or now at startribune.com/myVote.)
At least four cities will see races with debates over spending and taxation.
One of them is the tiniest city in Washington County, the manufactured home village of Landfall, where incumbent Greg "Flash" Feldbrugge and four other residents filed for the mayor's job after a year of upheaval over management and finances.
Two active challengers in Cottage Grove will face off with incumbent Myron Bailey, and four challengers join two incumbents in the City Council race, in an election driven by issues surrounding construction of a new Public Safety/City Hall Building. The building was completed this month.
Stillwater has two City Council races after a tumultuous year of confrontations over thousands of dollars in spending to promote a new St. Croix River bridge in the downriver city of Oak Park Heights. The bridge and related projects figure prominently into a contested mayoral race and two City Council seats in Oak Park Heights, Stillwater's neighbor to the south.
In Woodbury, Washington County's largest city, two City Council incumbents face a trio of challengers.
Emotions ran high when Cottage Grove's City Council in 2010 approved construction of its new $15 million Public Safety/City Hall Building. A vocal faction thought the decision should have gone to a referendum. But since the project involved no property tax increase -- instead, it meant a continuation of bond financing along with using city reserves -- it did not.
Another outgrowth of that is the creation of a charter commission that will decide if the city's government structure should be changed. And voters are being asked to decide two separate referendum questions, one to add an aquatic center and another to upgrade and expand Hamlet Park.
Both of Bailey's challengers -- Chad Magle and Chad Rediske -- support a city charter and oppose both referendum questions, citing cost concerns. Bailey opposes the charter and supports both questions. (A fourth candidate, Lezlie Schriver, is not actively campaigning, but appears on the ballot.)
"If set up properly, the charter can provide for more equal representation amongst the city and protects the community from excessive spending by the council," Rediske said. Added Magle: "A city charter could provide some additional checks and balances for the citizens paying the bills to have their voices heard."
But Bailey said a charter is unnecessary and could be costly; he argued that if people are dissatisfied with their representatives, they can be voted out. "We are already a fiscally conservative city," he said. "We do not need another layer of government."
Rediske said one of his priorities is broadening the city's tax base, which would lighten the burden for everyone. "I want to focus on convincing employers to set up shop here -- add entertainment or retail that cannot be found in surrounding communities."
Bailey said well-planned growth tops his agenda, using a three-prong strategy: Marketing to both single- and multi-family housing developers, attracting firms to the city's business park and a commercial marketing plan for retailers and restaurants. "We also started a 'Shop Local' marketing campaign to help support and increase awareness of our existing businesses."
Magle supports a one-year spending moratorium for items other than the basic budget, and said more transparency is needed. He would also allow more citizen input at council meetings. "Treat people as citizens and not as subjects," he said.
In Oak Park Heights, incumbent David Beaudet faces Mary McComber, a City Council member, in a race largely defined by the city's role in the $676 million St. Croix River bridge project.
Beaudet said he wants to continue leading a city government that's "approachable and accountable" to residents. He wants money saved for infrastructure projects such as streets, sewer and park shelters.
The bridge project will have no direct benefit to the city, he said, and he cast the only dissenting vote when the city granted municipal consent to the Minnesota Department of Transportation in late summer. He favored a tunnel design near the existing Stillwater Lift Bridge a few miles from Oak Park Heights.
"Now that the City of Oak Park Heights has approved the project, we must move on and work with the governor to keep his promise so that the taxpayers will not be responsible for the $1.9 million to relocate utilities along Hwy. 36," Beaudet said.
McComber said she's running for mayor to ensure good coordination with all the government agencies, businesses and residents involved in the bridge project. A key segment of that collaboration will involve an upcoming Washington County study of Osgood Avenue through the city, she said.
"There will definitely be inconveniences during the construction, such as changes of traffic patterns, noise and dust," she said. "Keeping residents informed of the progress of construction will be very important."
The Landfall race -- a large field of mayoral candidates given that the city has about 700 residents -- comes after a summer of discontent. In August, the Washington County housing authority sent a letter of censure to the City Council after the firing of the city manager. Subsequently, in October, the housing authority put some of the city's decisionmaking in the hands of a property management company.
A threat to end the city contract with Maplewood police also led to disagreements in Landfall last spring.
The same issues driving the mayor's race are defining the City Council race. Jen Peterson and Justin Olsen are each seeking a second four-year term. They are challenged by Tina Folch, Michael Fouts, Matthew Kowalski and Lisa Meyer.
Both Fouts and Kowalski strongly support a charter. "We have to ensure that the fiasco of the City Hall project can never happen again," Fouts said.
The City Council brushed aside a petition effort to put the project to a referendum, Kowalski said. "A charter would hopefully put checks and balances on the city government that would avoid this type of behavior in the future."
Meyer said she is open to a charter if public trust is not rebuilt. "If that does not occur, then it is important to put a charter in place so residents feel their voices are heard." The city's governing structure is not out of balance, Folch added. "However, I do believe our elected officials need to ask harder questions and demand clear answers."
Olsen said there is nothing wrong with the charter idea, but "there is no clear need or desire on the part of the majority of Cottage Grove residents to move toward a home-rule charter system of governance ... that would add an additional layer of government to what already exists today." Peterson said voters can express opinions about their leaders every two years at the ballot box.
Fouts and Folch oppose both referendum questions. Kowalski also questioned the spending, but supported letting voters decide. Peterson also supported putting the issue to a public vote.
Meyer supports the aquatic center, but is concerned about the costs for the park improvements, especially its splash pad. Olsen supports both questions, saying the new amenities will bolster the city's quality of life and bring more traffic to local businesses.
In Stillwater, Tom Corbett and Ted Kozlowski will square off to replace Ward 2's Micky Cook, who decided not to run for a second term. Cook has been the frequent contrary voice on spending proposals. She has questioned why Mayor Ken Harycki was voting to contribute money to the Coalition for a St. Croix River Crossing while also serving as co-chair of the pro-bridge coalition.
Both Corbett and Kozlowski take issue with the City Council's gifts to the bridge coalition, particularly a $10,000 donation made in September after the project was approved.
Corbett, an attorney, said he sees problems with the mayor's duplicity and legal confusion over amounts and sources of money paid to the coalition. "The new St. Croix bridge is a done deal," he said. "I don't see a need to make any further payments to the coalition to lobby and advocate. That money has better uses."
On other matters, he said the city must plan ahead for a "very different" downtown once the Stillwater Lift Bridge closes in 2017 and the new bridge opens. He also wants to address "festival fatigue" downtown through the summer months and instead support fewer events that have wider public support.
Kozlowski, an online marketing and advertising consultant, said the city made a mistake in its attempt last year to donate $80,000 in tax-increment financing money to the bridge coalition. The coalition last fall returned the donation after a state auditor review concluded that the city had violated state law. The coalition returned the money but the city had to forfeit half of it in penalties.
"I strongly object to the latest $10,000 payment to the coalition. ... I'm not sure why we are paying a lobbyist to promote a project that the president, Congress, Minnesota and Wisconsin have already signed off on," Kozlowski said.
He, too, wants a city plan to address changes in downtown, and to curtail "major spending on items I would consider questionable at best." One of the biggest complaints he hears from residents while door-knocking, he said, is that they perceive the City Council as not listening to or respecting their concerns.
In a second Stillwater City Council race, incumbent Jim Roush is facing challenger Tom Weidner. Roush opposed the city's most recent bridge donation but voted for previous donations.
High-charged disagreements are not at issue in Woodbury, though two of five City Council seats are in play.
Both incumbents, Amy Scoggins and Paul Rebholz, are seeking their third terms. They are challenged by Mark Doree, Mike Thissen and Joe Grinols, a college student who did not respond to Star Tribune requests for information.
With the city poised for more major development as the economy recovers, each candidate cited managing growth and traffic as a priority, along with the city playing a continued role in transit plans for the Gateway Corridor along Interstate 94.
Doree said one of the key differences between himself and the two incumbents is his support of a ward system for council seats, rather than having them all be at-large positions. "A ward system would bring a voice from every part of the city to the ears of the City Council," he said.
What sets Thissen apart, he said, is that "I am a candidate who will get things done and not just talk about it. I will respond to resident concerns and requests."
Both incumbents said their experienced leadership is needed as the city continues to grow.
"As Woodbury begins its next stage of development, I believe we need to be guided by our core community values -- comprehensive planning, financial discipline and consistent leadership -- as these remain critical to our long-term success."
Added Scoggins: "I don't believe we need to make wholesale changes. I think we have done a great job during difficult economic times. We've kept taxes low and services high. ... We are able to do this because we are all focused on the big picture."
Kevin Giles 651-925-5037 Jim Anderson 651-925-5039