Key Ham Lake officials expressed outrage and disbelief Saturday at what they consider a racial slur by their mayor.
At odds with his fellow council members who oppose a new city sewer system, Mayor Paul Meunier said during a recent planning meeting, "I feel like a black person in a room with 30 white people."
Meunier, who is white, acknowledged making and repeating the comment on April 16 but said he meant it as a "metaphor for what it means to be a minority in this world. Anybody who knows me knows I'm not a racist. I'm not a bigot."
Meunier said his comment was made to illustrate his frustration of "getting nowhere." It was "not a derogatory statement," he told the Star Tribune. "I even said, 'I'm in the minority here,'" he said.
But some council members, who were among the fewer than a dozen people at the meeting, heard differently.
"At first I was in total shock," said Julie Braastad. "I could not believe that came out of his mouth."
Councilwomen Joey Erikson said that after Meunier made his comment, she turned to him and asked, "What did you say?"
She said Saturday that she knew Meunier was frustrated with conversation concerning a sewer system. But when he repeated his comment, Erikson said, "I felt very uncomfortable. I really didn't know how to take it."
Another councilwoman, Diane Theodorski, said she thinks she understood what Meunier was trying to convey, and said she assumes "he didn't mean it offensively.
"I don't believe he's a racist," Theodorski said.
But the comment was relayed to Don Wilson, a Ham Lake planning commissioner who was not at the meeting. Wilson said he was "so disgusted that a public official would use a racial slur" that he e-mailed others, alerting them to Meunier's comment.
Wilson, a retired Anoka County deputy sheriff, said in his e-mail that he has a bi-racial grandson of whom he's very proud.
"There's no room in the community for that kind of talk," Wilson said Saturday.
Meunier, who said he grew up in north Minneapolis among black and Asian kids who attended his birthday parties, wonders how much of the outrage is politically motivated.
Meunier is a Democrat who supports Barack Obama. Among those who have criticized him since his April 16 comment are state Rep. Chris DeLaForest, R-Andover, and Gary Kirkeide, whom Meunier defeated for mayor in 2006.
DeLaForest said Saturday of Meunier's statement: "Certainly I'm offended by that statement. It's wholly inappropriate. People are outraged."
Kirkeide, who was appointed to Meunier's City Council seat after Meunier was elected mayor, said, "To me, it was an inappropriate statement. If he was using it as a metaphor, he used the wrong metaphor."
Although Wilson's e-mails were common knowledge by last Monday's City Council meeting, Meunier did not address the issue, said councilwoman Braastad.
"I'm a Republican, but that has no bearing toward the way I feel about this," she said. "I wish he would have addressed it at the council meeting, but he didn't. As I tell my children, you can always tell the true colors about a person when they're facing adversity."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419