The suburban election that vanished suddenly from ballots last year is being restaged this fall.
A New Brighton City Council at war with itself is asking voters to settle the dispute, offering stark choices when it comes to taxes and spending.
Each side blames the other for a tense atmosphere that at times includes swearing on camera and tears.
“I think we are civil,” Mayor Val Johnson insisted during a televised debate last week. “There are issues with every council member when they get fired up.”
Her challenger, Sharon Doffing, a former council member, countered that restoring basic civility is “quite honestly the reason I’m here tonight.”
The dysfunction at City Hall extends to senior staffers, several of whom have departed under perplexing circumstances, according to Doffing and others.
Council Member Gina Bauman cited seven departures in recent years. In an interview, she asserted that since 2014 the city has paid out $370,000 in separation agreements to five senior staffers who she assumes were fired. “You don’t make payments to people who leave voluntarily,” she said.
Six candidates in all are vying for two at-large seats on the City Council. In addition to Bauman, they are Graeme Allen, Peter Berthelsen, Emily Dunsworth, Susan Erickson and David Jacobsen. Council Member Brian Strub is not seeking re-election.
Tensions on the New Brighton council, which have simmered for years, spiked in 2016 when a majority of the council censured Bauman and stripped her of her role representing them on outside bodies.
Bauman had disagreed with a council decision to switch from off-year elections in a way that shortened or lengthened the terms of those then serving. She went to court last year and got the entire City Council election stripped off the ballot after a judge agreed it had been engineered improperly.
On Election Day next month, Bauman and her allies seek to alter what they consider a 4-1 imbalance on the council. She is running as a team with Erickson.
Meantime, libertarian Berthelsen is making similar critiques, including attacks on what he called “personal vendettas” being carried into the council chambers, as well as excessive taxing and spending.
“Budgets should be balanced, not bloated,” he said, and tax increases should be closer to zero percent than nearly 10 percent, the levy ceiling set by the council for 2018.
Dunsworth and Allen are praising the way the city runs, including the prospective 2018 tax bump. Jacobsen, a former mayor, will be on the ballot but is said not to be actively campaigning; he did not turn up for a recent candidate forum or respond to an interview request.
At that forum, Doffing raised an episode that challengers say is typical of the incivility they deplore.
“This last Tuesday,” she said, “I did receive notification of some uncivil behavior, including a cussword at a council meeting.”
A buzzer stopped her before she could elaborate. But others said she was referring to a clash during a workshop in which Council Member Mary Burg spoke of “white privilege” as a problem.
When Bauman objected, noting her Italian ancestry as a sensitizing factor, Johnson accused Bauman of making a racist statement. The mayor uttered a profanity, then said, “Gina, I’m passionate about this. For you to disregard the fact that white privilege exists is beyond me.”
Johnson left the room for a short time to gather herself, and the meeting soon ended.
In other ways as well, the city’s changing demographics are becoming a notable theme. The candidates who argue for maintaining the city on its present course stress inclusiveness amid diversity. Allen speaks of his fights for gay rights, while Dunsworth, who is white, highlights her “multiracial family” — her partner is black and they have a child together.
“I’m a certified neutral in Minnesota,” she said, meaning that she’s qualified to handle dispute resolution, and “trained in being a listener. I can find common ground.”