Tensions have boiled over on the New Brighton City Council after a council member was accused of using city resources for her own benefit.
After an animated session six weeks ago, the council voted to censure Council Member Gina Bauman and relieve her from her appointed positions representing the city. Bauman believes her punishment was personal — and the situation’s fallout threatens to affect the council’s cohesion and productivity.
“As you can imagine, this is a highly sensitive situation,” said Dean Lotter, city manager.
Lotter described censure as “a public shaming” and said Bauman’s temporary removal from two committees, including the North Suburban Cable Commission, “is punishment for going out and representing the city poorly.”
Censure — essentially creating a public record that an official erred — is rare, and the state provides little guidance on it, said Lotter.
The censure came after Bauman consulted the city attorney in a private conversation about a petition she created to challenge a council decision. That phone call, which goes against council policy forbidding council members to use the city attorney for personal matters, resulted in City Attorney Troy Gilchrist resigning.
“We have strict rules as elected officials that we can’t use city assets for our own benefit,” said Mayor Valerie Johnson.
The boisterous dialogue at the April 26 work session between Johnson and Bauman — who squared off in the mayoral election last fall — extended to the regular meeting afterward.
Johnson said Bauman’s concern should have been brought to a council meeting, where the attorney could have commented publicly.
Bauman said there is no rule against her conferring with the attorney on what she believes is a city issue — a November council decision to hold future city elections during even years instead of odd — and that it’s been done before.
At the work session, Johnson said Bauman was out of order, and Bauman hurled the same accusation back at the mayor.
“You do not get to do this to the council and be your own island!” Johnson said.
“You’re a dictator more than you are a mayor … because you don’t abide by the same rules that you want everybody else to!” Bauman said.
Personal or not?
Changing the city’s election years from odd to even was wrong, because the city had just had an election, Bauman said, and residents could have voted on the decision then. The switch means Johnson will be mayor another year while council members’ terms will be shortened a year, something voters didn’t authorize.
“What they did was they negated an election,” Bauman said.
Bauman was absent from the first meeting and work session in May. On May 13, she dropped off a petition saying the election-year change should have been a ballot question. Bauman had the required signatures — 10 percent of city voters — but the petition was deemed invalid because she didn’t meet a statutory requirement to include a synopsis of the question on each page.
Some people didn’t know what they were signing, said Lotter.
Bauman said the council’s rejection of her petition was personal, as was her censure and removal from committees.
But Johnson said the censure was the right thing to do, and it was decided with a 4-1 council vote.
People have accused her of trying to affect Bauman’s political goals with the censure, but that wasn’t her intent, Johnson said.
Bauman disagreed: “This shouldn’t be so personal, but it is,” Bauman said. “It’s always this constant poking at me.”
The council wants to move forward after the censure and take care of business, Johnson said, adding that she can “absolutely” trust Bauman again: “I’m not a person to hold a grudge.”
But Bauman said that the incident will continue to cause tension and that her petition efforts aren’t over yet, though council members may think they are.
“[Johnson] isn’t trustworthy,” Bauman said. “I’ve had enough.”