As if its hands weren't already full building a new sports dome, undertaking a major overhaul of Robert Street and deciding how to modernize City Hall, West St. Paul now is also coping with a rogue council member.
In a somber and dramatic discussion of a kind rarely seen in city government, council members last week expressed embarrassment, frustration and exasperation with what they called aggressive, unethical and uncooperative behavior on the part of City Council Member Ed Hansen.
Taking the strongest action it could, the council voted 5-1 - with Hansen opposed - to censure him and urge him to resign.
"You have become a detriment to the city," Council Member David Wright told Hansen. "I am speechless at your behavior. ... You brought the type of notoriety to this city that we are neither looking for or need."
Hansen is an anti-government conservative who embarrassed the council last winter by hanging a Confederate flag from his porch, a symbol many consider racist. Now he is being investigated for alleged violations of the council's code of ethics in two instances involving two properties next to his home at 1010 Felix St.
In one case, he is accused of conflict of interest for allegedly trying to derail a city redevelopment project that he opposes by offering to buy the property from the developer for $10,000 more than the city sold it for.
In the second case, Hansen is accused of failing to maintain the highest personal ethics when he allegedly entered a foreclosed home offered for sale by BMO Harris Bank and "aggressively confronted a real estate agent and a potential buyer," the city resolution said. The incident prompted the bank to temporarily take the house off the market "for fear of the safety of any real estate agent who came to show the property," the resolution said.
Both of these incidents are under investigation by the Dakota County Sheriff's Office, which will present the results of the investigation to the county attorney, who could bring charges, said City Attorney Korine Land.
After hearing Land describe the charges, council member after council member asked Hansen to resign.
"You hate government in every way. You tell us that at every opportunity," Wright said. "But yet you ran for this office and you are part of government. How in the world does that happen?"
Council Member Ed Iago said: "Mr. Hansen, today you are an elected official. It's become my personal opinion, not a very good one. What information did you have before you decided to run for public office?" Iago asked Hansen. "Did you do any homework as to what the duties and responsibilities of an elected official were?"
Council Member Jim Englin chided the voters of Ward I who elected Hansen. "This is what happens when you don't know who you are voting for," Englin said.
Hansen has consistently voted against government spending to keep property taxes low. Now, Englin said, Hansen will be personally benefiting from property tax revenues that will be needed to pay the legal fees in dealing with the charges against him.
"If you resign, the chances go down that we will get sued. You stay, the chances are we are going to get sued," Englin told Hansen. "You came off the rails somewhere, man."
Hansen took a defiant tone, saying repeatedly that "these are just allegations." He said he had done nothing wrong. He has two years left on his term and said he would not be "bullied" into resigning.
If Hansen were to resign, the City Council would have to fill the seat. It also must temporarily fill the seat that will be left vacant by Council Member Tony Vitelli, who is moving away. And it must fill four vacancies on the planning commission, with no community members stepping up to serve on the commission. Adding one more task to the already full plate, the council is looking to hire a new city manager by fall.
The City Council cannot remove Hansen from the council. The city charter requires a petition signed by city voters to initiate a recall vote against council members.
The council did, however, use its power to remove Hansen from the Economic Development Authority, the agency dealing directly with the redevelopment project Hansen allegedly tried to buy off. He will remain off that body pending the outcome of a city hearing that will allow him to speak. That hearing will not be scheduled until after the county concludes its investigation, Land said.
In the meantime, Mayor John Zanmiller has asked the City Council to fill Vitelli's seat either with former City Council Member Mark Tessmer or former Mayor Mike Bisanz and to look for qualified people to appoint to the planning commission.
Six of seven seats on the planning commission are open and three incumbents are reapplying.
"Short of going out knocking door-to-door, we have done everything to get people involved," Englin said.
The council plans to fill the gap temporarily with City Council members in an effort to refocus the commission on working as a team with the council.
"In many cases the planning commission acts as their own political entity instead of an advisory body," Englin said. "Their purpose is to help the council carry forward the vision for the future in terms of planning and zoning.
"There have been too many times over the years that that group has done things, and the council says, 'Well thank you for your effort. We are going to do something else.'"
Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287