When the 64-year-old mayor of North St. Paul challenged his 31-year-old City Council colleague to settle their differences “outside” — well, he admits he never really wanted the two to come to blows.
“As we were heading out the door, after he said ‘I’ll go with you,’ I went: ‘Uh-oh, how am I getting out of this?’” Mayor Mike Kuehn said Tuesday.
But, a week after Kuehn and Council Member Scott Thorsen lost their tempers during a council work session, Thorsen says he sees no way the two can coexist in what has become, for him, “a hostile working environment.”
Last week, Thorsen was quoted saying that Kuehn needed to quit — or he would. On Tuesday, Thorsen sounded like a man resigned to resigning.
“It would be one thing if it was just a disagreement that resorted to name-calling,” said Thorsen, an accountant and volunteer firefighter. “I can handle that. But when a guy threatens you with violence, that’s just crossing the line.”
The trouble started at the work session last Tuesday, as the two were discussing liquor ordinances before the regular council meeting. Kuehn, mayor since 2008 and a council member since 1990, reportedly chided his younger colleague for not understanding liquor laws.
Thorsen said this week that he responded by saying: “That’s your opinion. What about the rest of the council?”
Kuehn admitted he took umbrage at Thorsen’s tone. The men agree it then got ugly.
There may have been swearing. Thorsen, who has been on the council a little more than two years and narrowly lost to Kuehn in last November’s race for mayor, agreed to step outside.
But he, too, said he had no intention to duke it out. Since work sessions are not recorded, he wanted to move to an area where there are cameras so the argument could be recorded.
“I thought it was important the facts came to light,” Thorsen said. “To me, threatening violence is a zero tolerance thing.”
He added: “If I did this to a city employee or a city employee did this to a resident, there would be accountability.”
City Manager Jason Ziemer, who witnessed the kerfuffle, said a police report has been filed and “it would not be appropriate for me to comment at this point.”
Ziemer said he is talking with the city attorney about the process of replacing Kuehn or Thorsen, should either resign. The mayor has been steadfast in saying he will not.
“I am terribly embarrassed and sorry for losing my temper for a short period of time. In politics, you kind of lose it a little bit,” Kuehn said. “But there is no reason for me to step down and walk away from 25 years of work I have done.”
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Thorsen sounded tired of talking about the fistfight that never happened — and a little sad. Other council members have not spoken up in his defense, he said. “I am kind of feeling real alienated right now. It’s an unhealthy environment to say the least.”
He said he had hoped that Kuehn would “do the right thing and step down. But he’s not going to do it.”
So, Thorsen said he will walk away instead.
Kuehn said he hopes not.
“He’s a good member,” the mayor said. “He has a financial background and he brings a lot to the table. We both love the community. I just hope we can figure something out.”