Records reveal troubled waters at Minnetrista City Hall

  • Article by: Emma Nelson
  • Star Tribune
  • August 29, 2014 - 4:13 PM

A growing need for clean water has devolved into allegations of dirty politics in Minnetrista, a small community on Lake Minnetonka.

Conflict between two factions came to a head this spring with the resignation of the city’s longtime mayor, appointment of a new mayor and the firing of the city administrator. Now, a group of residents has hired an attorney amid concerns that public city business is being conducted in private.

Residents say the rift has soured the climate in the town, which like many suburbs is bracing for a rush of growth.

“I think if somebody were to want to move here and knew what was going on, they may have second thoughts,” said Wendy Applegate, a resident involved in the potential suit.

Planning for a new water treatment plant has revealed deep divides between those who support the council and those who don’t.

Several months ago, council members were set to move forward with a plant whose preliminary cost was nearly $5 million plant, documents show, designed by an engineering firm it’s worked with for years. Then a council member independently sought out a different firm — one with ties to locals who’d supported her campaign and those of others on the four-member council.

That council member, Anne Hunt, was appointed mayor in April. She said city meetings have been conducted lawfully. Of those making allegations, she said, “They go for the drama and ... think that people are going to think, ‘Oh, well, there must be something there.’”

‘The council will say yes’

Minnetrista residents have long complained that high levels of iron and manganese have left them with murky, smelly water.

In light of that — and the fact that new development will be connected to municipal water, rather than wells — the council authorized the engineering firm WSB & Associates Inc. about a year ago to do a pilot study for a water treatment plant. WSB, the city’s go-to for capital projects, came back with recommendations for a gravity filtration system that would cost about $5 million. In December, the council gave WSB the go-ahead to do the final designs.

Then some council members asked WSB to look into a more expensive system, reverse osmosis, that the company hadn’t built before.

Former city administrator Mike Funk said the council never publicly asked staff to look into reverse osmosis, but the directive was clear. It was also clear that some council members aligned with Hunt wanted WSB to get advice from reverse osmosis system manufacturer Wigen Water Technologies, a company formerly owned by a resident who’d donated to Hunt’s campaign and those of at least two current council members.

That owner, Jerry Wigen, sold the company to his son, Jeff, in 2010, and said his involvement ended then. But records show water treatment plant discussions between city leaders and both Wigens stretching back several months.

In February, Hunt e-mailed Jerry Wigen about a proposal by Bolton & Menk Inc., the firm she’d sought out without the knowledge of city staff or then-mayor Cheryl Fischer. “I am sure the council will say yes to it,” she wrote.

Bolton & Menk and Wigen Water have collaborated in the past, including on two reverse osmosis water treatment plants in St. Peter, Minn.

Hunt revealed Bolton & Menk’s proposal at a special council meeting Feb. 18. “It was a surprise for all of the staff, certainly,” Funk said. The council later voted unanimously to approve the proposal, as well as a $10,000 fee and other expenses.

Minnetrista city attorney Ron Batty said Hunt didn’t violate any law or council policy, but her actions weren’t in keeping with council procedure. Usually, he said, the council would discuss the issue and then direct staff to find other engineering firms and report back.

Hunt said council members asked staff to pursue other firms, but weren’t seeing progress. “Somebody had to stand up and do it,” she said. “And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing your due diligence and providing more information.”

Funk denied that the council asked staff, officially or otherwise, to pursue other firms.

‘Two down and two to go’

The current political climate can be traced back before the water treatment plant gained traction.

In the mid- to late 2000s, a public works upgrade and new police station faced heavy opposition from the resident group Save Minnetrista. Members included Jerry Wigen, his friend and fellow resident Tom Notch and most of the current council. They objected to the project’s cost and demanded a referendum, distributing pink lawn signs featuring a star-studded pig.

The project never went to a referendum and the upgrades went through, but Save Minnetrista lived on. Hunt and now-Council Member Arlene Donahue ran on a single ticket in 2010, with a platform similar to what Save Minnetrista was built on. Notch’s wife, Cindy, was their campaign manager.

After Hunt and Donahue were elected, Jerry Wigen, who was listed as a campaign supporter on Hunt and Donahue’s joint campaign website, sent an e-mail with the subject line “Save Minnetrista.” Recipients included Save Minnetrista members, outgoing council members and Fischer.

“2 down and 2 to go,” the e-mail said. “Save Minnetrista, a ‘small group of radicals,’ and a pink pig have created a new majority at City Hall.”

‘I am ready to strangle ...’

E-mails show that as Bolton & Menk entered the picture, there were frequent attempts by Jeff Wigen, Jerry Wigen and others to discredit WSB.

In a March 5 email to Jerry Wigen, council members and residents, Jeff Wigen acknowledged connecting the council with Bolton & Menk, saying WSB lacked drinking water experience and had gotten cost projections “completely wrong.”

Meanwhile, Fischer and city staff continued to be excluded from decisions about the plant, and also received increasingly aggressive e-mails. “It had an effect on morale throughout the entire organization,” Funk said.

After a Feb. 28 Bolton & Menk presentation, Hunt e-mailed Jeff Wigen that she hadn’t attended, but had listened to a recording Tom Notch had given her. She told Wigen she was “ready to strangle Funk.” In another e-mail to a Bolton & Menk employee, she said she was “ready to wring Mr. Funk’s neck.” She even e-mailed Funk himself, saying, “I am ready to strangle Mike Funk — what an idiot.”

Hunt said she was already upset with Funk, and hearing his “ignorant” questions on the recording was the last straw. “I’m not going to apologize for getting so frustrated that I said something like that to him,” she said.

In March, WSB pulled out of the project. Then, after a request for proposals sent to several firms including Bolton & Menk, the council chose Bolton & Menk to design the water treatment plant. The company’s bid, which credited the work Hunt had asked for, came in lowest.

On April 10, Fischer resigned after nearly 16 years as mayor.

Then, at a May 5 meeting, the council voted to fire Funk. E-mails show it was a plan long in the making.

Notch e-mailed Hunt Dec. 22 about council committee assignments: “Hopefully we can get two people on the personnel committee who are not afraid of giving Funk his well-deserved walking papers.”

Records show frequent contact between Hunt, council members, Notch and occasionally Cindy Notch.

Tom Notch said he brought concerns about Funk to council members, but hasn’t had much other contact with them. “I’m nobody here,” he said. “I’m just a homeowner.”

‘A political game’

Locals trace this conflict back to the public works upgrade and police station, as well as to Notch’s time on the Westonka school board. In the most recent election, a group called Yes Westonka organized, in part, to successfully defeat him.

A group of 32, some who were part of Yes Westonka, have retained Mark Anfinson, a First Amendment attorney who has represented the Star Tribune, to look into potential open-meeting law violations by the current council.

“There’s certainly circumstantial suggestions that decisions were made by the council in kind of a mysterious way — major decisions that materialized from relatively little public discussion,” Anfinson said. “And that naturally invites some skepticism as to how it happened.”

And the plant? The council has asked for citizens’ input on what kind they’d prefer, but will make the final decision. Varying costs for a reverse osmosis system have been reported, but the current estimate is $16 million to $23 million in capital costs over 20 years. The estimate for WSB’s $5 million plant did not project costs past a preliminary stage.

In the meantime, residents are gearing up for the November City Council election. Jane Norling, part of the group that retained Anfinson, is also working with a much larger group to prepare candidates — an effort to elect “ethical, law-abiding council members,” she said.

Hunt is unfazed. “This is all a political game,” she said.

Staff writer Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report. Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509

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