Wendy Kowalski held copies of a resolution by the Sherburne County Board she claims is invalid because the seal is missing. Kowalski is suing the board.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Zimmerman official's lawsuit disputes legality of Sherburne County’s tax increase

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune
  • January 30, 2012 - 8:28 PM

Wendy Kowalski is suing Sherburne County for $207 -- even though it cost twice that much to file the suit. She's suing the county's five commissioners -- the very board to which she's seeking election this year.

Kowalski, a Zimmerman City Council member, has challenged the commissioners' right to impose a special levy of nearly $2 million -- without certification, she says -- to support the Northstar commuter-rail line.

"The people never voted on this," Kowalski said. "The five commissioners were unanimous, but five votes aren't enough. The people should have been allowed to vote."

Kowalski, 51, runs a Zimmerman barbershop. She is not a lawyer and says she doesn't plan to hire one should her case go to trial. A conference has been set in Sherburne County court for Feb. 9. Kowalski knows that going to trial would cost her more than the $420 filing fee she's already paid.

"It will cost the county a lot more than that," said Larry Farber, chairman of the county board. "I don't understand this. I thought we did everything legally."

So does Sherburne County Attorney Kathleen Heaney. She commends the county board "for its level of accountability to constituents" and says there's a Minnesota statute that shows the five commissioners, who comprise the Sherburne County Regional Rail Authority, were within their rights.

"I think it's great for people to keep an eye on us," said Commissioner Felix Schmiesing. "But for the life of me, I can't figure out what this is all about."

Nothing personal

Kowalski says it's not personal. Other than Rachel Leonard, the commissioner she says she plans to run against this fall, Kowalski says she's never spoken to any of the county board members and has nothing bad to say about any of them.

But there is a history here. Kowalski has heard repeatedly that you can't fight City Hall. Yet as a Zimmerman council member the past seven years, she is City Hall. And she's rarely been shy about offering her opinion.

Dave Horvath, Zimmerman's public works director, calls Kowalski "an extremist." She spent years feuding with the city over its sewer and water policies, alienating city officials and fellow council members who publicly discussed ousting her from the council because they thought she was padding her arguments with unsubstantiated observations. A former city administrator told her she was in "violation of the city's code of conduct."

But she was grabbing the city's attention years before her election to the council. At the turn of the millennium, Kowalski was a constant critic of the city's Y2K disaster-prevention strategies, creating "a real fiasco" that began her "never-ending merry-go-round," Mayor Dave Earenfight said recently.

Kowalski says she's involved in a lawsuit over another sewer issue -- this one over property that she and her husband, Rodney, own in Garrison. A Crow Wing County judge noted in a November ruling that a similar complaint in 2010 was dismissed. The Kowalskis failed to appeal within the statutory time limit, Judge Kristine DeMay ruled Nov. 4. But Kowalski told the Star Tribune she doesn't believe the matter has been settled.

'Off the wall'

Commissioner Leonard said she wasn't overly familiar with details of Kowalski's other suits. But of the suit against the county board, Leonard would only say, "this is just so off the wall."

Kowalski thinks otherwise. The county rail authority's unanimous approval of a $1.9 million levy should have first gone to a referendum, she said. Heaney said the board acted properly.

"Does the regional rail authority have the ability to levy taxes?" said the county attorney. "The answer is yes. Absolutely."

When the commissioners' resolution was approved by County Administrator Brian Benson, the document was filed Dec. 20 without a Minnesota state seal, presumably an oversight to everyone involved. Not to Kowalski.

"This isn't about the $207.66 that the county wants me to pay," she said. "Other people spoke up about this at a tax hearing. I want to make sure those people -- all Minnesotans, really -- are heard.

"I was brought up to believe that government did everything right. But I know now that that's not always true. I like to get my customers' input. As a citizen, that's what I'm providing for our elected officials."

Does she worry that pursing her suit beyond next month's court conference could cost her and the county thousands of dollars?

"I don't think it will come to that," she said. "I'm confident this can be resolved."

Does she worry that by naming all five county commissioners in her suit that she might alienate people she hopes to work with?

"Oh, no, I wouldn't think so," Kowalski said. "I'm trying to do what's best for the county. I'm sure they can appreciate that."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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