Roseville has all the makings of a sophisticated suburban democracy. It has twice the rate of graduate and professional degrees of the rest of the state, and it’s the most mature — or at least the fastest aging — suburb around.
But a campaign at City Hall to encourage more engagement in civic affairs has turned into an episode akin to “The Jerry Springer Show.”
The result? A police escort to prevent the harassment of one critic, banishment from City Hall proposed for a supporter, and a couple of angry resignations by two men put in charge of the effort to guide citizen engagement.
The whole thing was doomed from the start, a City Council member said.
“There is no point in ‘encouraging civic engagement,’ ” said Tammy McGehee, a frequent dissenter, “when this council is not really interested in engaging with the people. That is the heart of the problem.”
City officials stirred a hornet’s nest when they set about offering to create a network of city-registered neighborhood associations along the lines of St. Louis Park’s.
One problem: Roseville already had three such groups, and one in particular became uneasy about the enterprise.
“Neighborhood associations should be community-driven and not mandated by local government,” Sherry Sanders, of the Lake McCarrons Neighborhood Association, told the council. “I strongly urge you not to waste time on this until Roseville residents request such action.”
Behind the scenes, it now appears, things were going way beyond mere disagreement.
After repeated run-ins, Sanders petitioned last month for an order to protect her from being harassed by Gary Grefenberg, a former chairman of the city’s Community Engagement Commission. She said she feared actual violence, and the order was granted.
“He has twice followed me at a public meeting at City Hall out of the council chambers aggressively and in a threatening manner,” she said in her petition. In January he became “enraged,” she said, drawing “within 6 inches of my face ... as he yelled at me for disagreeing with him.” She asserted that Grefenberg was removed as chairman “due to inappropriate behavior.”
He could not be reached for comment, but he did address some of the charges in a halting, emotional videotaped appearance before his former commission colleagues in May. He said he’d never been accused of “bullying” before, and blamed “cheap charges and grandstanding from outsiders.” He added that he had resigned voluntarily from the group.
In an e-mail, City Manager Pat Trudgeon told Sanders that Grefenberg’s actions “do not rise to the level where the city can take action to ban him from City Hall and participating in future meetings.”
Division over the armory
In the meantime, the City Council has been grappling in public with the underlying causes of the dispute. But it’s done so gingerly, so much so that it feels like election-year wobbliness to Scot Becker, the current Community Engagement Commission chairman.
At a taped commission meeting last month, Becker suggested that nothing will happen until “approximately after the first Tuesday in November.” It wasn’t true, he said, that “we didn’t ask [the three neighborhood groups for input], which is patently false.” He was left with the conclusion “that we were thrown under the bus a little bit.”
At meeting’s end he announced that after nearly four years on Roseville advisory commissions, he was resigning effective March 31, 2017 — a date he said would allow the group “ample time to consider and eventually decide upon its next chair.”
The other side feels equally aggrieved. The city is not sincere about citizen engagement, Sanders said: “They only want us to co-sign whatever they want.”
The great irony in the past few months, said Diane Hilden, another activist with the 3,000-strong McCarrons neighborhood group, is that city officials never truly reached out to them when it came to the fate of the Roseville Armory.
“There’ve been no serious inquiries taking the temperature of the community,” she said, “for a facility that’s been there since 1932.”
The city had been given a right of first refusal for the armory, she said, which expires Dec. 31. But the City Council decided against buying it on a 4-to-1 vote, according to Roseville spokesman Garry Bowman, citing concerns about the $2.2 million price tag and the cost of needed improvements.
Hilden said that many feel an emotional connection to the armory and that neighbors have sprung into action, inviting experts to evaluate its condition. Bowman said residents had a chance to comment during the meeting and that Ramsey County could still step into the picture.
The City Council has signaled its intent to bring the parties together informally for more discussions on neighborhood engagement. Advocates say it has none of the sinister motives some attribute to it.
“This doesn’t replace any communication the city does with residents,” Becker said earlier this year. “It’s strictly voluntary, no resident needs to participate, and it doesn’t rule out block clubs or any way any group of citizens wishes to organize.”