An intense political and legal feud is dividing the city of Victoria, where city officials have spent nearly $500,000 to defend against a 2016 open meeting lawsuit — a case now headed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

A debate rages over who should pay the legal fees two years after a Carver County judge found that four City Council members intentionally held secret meetings and exchanged e-mails to avoid public scrutiny relating to the construction of the new City Hall and other buildings.

The conflict has sparked clashes between Mayor Tom Funk, who initiated the lawsuit before taking office, and two council members who could lose their seats in the dispute, Thomas Strigel and James Crowley.

“All taxpayers should be stunned by what’s happening,” said Kenneth Goulart, who is among those who filed the lawsuit and is pressing the case to the Supreme Court. “Our city government has been hijacked and we as residents are unable to do anything to stop it.”

Janel M. Dressen, an attorney representing the current and former elected leaders, including Strigel and Crowley, accused the opponents of drawing out the legal battle in an effort to oust her clients from office — even after they paid court-ordered fines and accepted responsibility.

“It’s really unfortunate that once the underlying lawsuit was resolved [in 2016] that everyone couldn’t just move on,” Dressen said.

The Minnesota Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case 9 a.m. Monday in St. Paul.

Deepening divide

The legal battle has its origin in a political dispute dating to 2013, when Funk rallied a group of residents to question local leaders he thought were conducting city business in secret.

He distributed yellow fliers around town accusing council members of hiding public information, and then filed data requests to confirm those suspicions.

Funk and his supporters filed a series of three lawsuits. His goal was to target individual council members and stick them with any fines and legal fees, rather than taxpayers. “We did not want the citizens of Victoria to pay for this,” he said.

In March 2016, District Judge Janet Barke Cain ruled that the four council members intentionally violated the state’s open meeting laws 38 times by failing to properly close, record and give notice for meetings. She also found that they had improperly sent e-mails to avoid public scrutiny.

The Supreme Court’s ruling could effectively remove Strigel and Crowley from office; public officials who intentionally break the law on three separate occasions must be removed from office, attorneys said.

Funk and his wife, Carolynn, who acted as original plaintiffs, removed their names from the case after his 2017 election. He believed the move would prevent a conflict of interest when voting on related legal fees.

Crowley accused Funk of “making a mockery of this body,” by continuing to push the case.

Said Council Member Tom Vogt, “This is really wasting a lot of the City Council’s time.”

Of the city’s $476,000 in legal bills, $400,000 is covered by insurance.

Moving forward

Dressen, the attorney for the current and former city leaders, said voters — not the state’s high court — should decide whether Strigel and Crowley keep their jobs.

Funk, however, said the council members’ open meetings infractions should disqualify them from serving the city.

“It’s unpleasant. It leaves an ugly aftertaste; I get that,” Funk said. “But to me, it’s the right thing to do. Instead of just complaining about the government, I’m trying to change it.”

But the legal and political implications are wearing on some members of the community.

“No matter what side you’re on, it’s toxic,” resident Emily Nebben said. “I don’t think it has to be.”