A short time ago, during a period of rapid staff turnover, the city of Maplewood was down and out. Friends made jokes to the city workers about whether they still worked there. A weekly Twin Cities news magazine called the city the "most dysfunctional suburb." Constant fighting between elected officials and city staff impeded progress and cast a pall over the city.

The city's insurance coverage from the League of Minnesota Cities was negatively affected.

"We were the butt of all the jokes," said Karen Guilfoile, director of citizen services and a 15-year employee of the city.

But things are looking up, according to a progress report this week on the City Council's two-year goals. The council set seven goals at its retreat in February, the first being to improve the city's reputation.

With a unified council seated last January and a new city manager hired, the general feeling among staff is more trusting, Guilfoile said.

Jim Antonen, city manager, said in an interview that he polled department heads before the meeting and asked what they thought had been done to restore the city's image.

"Maplewood is no longer featured in negative articles in the City Pages," he said. "We've taken steps in restoring the financial reputation that Maplewood enjoyed in the past."

Earlier, the League of Minnesota Cities insurance trust had bumped up the city's deductible for employee relations lawsuits. In 2010 the deductible was reduced from $200,000 to $100,000, Antonen said, and they hope to see another drop to $50,000 next year.

Maplewood had also lost its coverage by the trust for open meeting laws violations. That coverage has since been reinstated.

The insurance trust is run like a co-operative, said Dan Greensweig, assistant administrator of the League of Minnesota Cities insurance trust.

The trustees step in and take action on a city's coverage or rates when "it seems there's a pattern of decision making that increases the risks for an individual city, and by extension a risk for the other members."

There are no set benchmarks for revoking or reinstating a city's coverage levels, Greensweig said. The league works with cities to rehabilitate them once underwriting actions have been taken, he said.

Such actions are rare, and of the roughly 1,000 members, Greensweig said there are only a couple of cases per year. In some cases, cities are in a rough patch, he said, but "bad things sometimes happen to good cities."

Council Member John Nephew, whose election in 2007 swung the balance of power on the council away from then-mayor Diana Longrie, said although success is difficult to measure, the city has definitely seen a lot of progress on its image and reputation.

Nephew pointed to the city's current bargaining efforts with city staff units as proof of improved relationships internally.

"I feel there's an environment now where we're on the same team," he said. "And that reduces a lot of needless expense and nonsense."

Externally, there also is evidence the city's name has risen again. North St. Paul recently approved an agreement to partner with Maplewood for recreation programming.

It would have been a lot harder to broker a similar partnership two years ago, Nephew said. "Having a perception that your city is stable is pretty key to being able to form these types of partnerships."

Emma L. Carew • 651-735-9749