A Pawn in Their Game

Larry Kasella's retirement plans didn't include a showdown with the St. Paul City Council

Nevertheless, a moratorium resolution passed 5-2 on September 2, with council members Jerry Blakey and Chris Coleman voting against it. The mayor noted in a letter on September 16 that since the measure had passed with the necessary five votes to override his veto, he wasn't going to exercise that option. But before the ultimate vote on the official ordinance, council member Jay Benanav changed his mind.

"Larry Kasella did talk to me and I listened," says Benanav. "I guess I finally concluded that he played by the rules as they were in place when he applied for his pawnshop license. We changed the rules on this guy." Benanav says his opinion was also swayed after he visited the Pawn America store at University and Fry in his ward, but he says "80 percent" of the reason for his switch was Kasella's plight. He says he may have been willing to vote for a measure which would not have affected pending applications.

The September 23 ordinance vote passed 4-2, with Coleman and Benanav dissenting. Blakey was out of the room at the time, but says he would have voted against the measure again. City Hall scuttlebutt held that the mayor would likely veto the ordinance: He now had an opening because the council was a vote short in its ability to trump him. Kasella waited while the five-day window for the Mayor to step in ticked away and finally expired.

The scaled-down ordinance, which applies only to pawnshops, calls for a moratorium of up to three months while PED conducts its study, and provides a provision for the council to extend it an additional three months.

Benanav was surprised when the Mayor sent the measure along and allowed it to pass, albeit without his signature. Alluding to a recent gubernatorial campaign photo-op held by Gov. Carlson and Coleman, Benanav says, "I would have suggested that he use that big veto pen he got from the governor and veto this resolution as well. I was hoping that he would see the plight of Larry Kasella and small business in general."

Instead, the mayor sent an October 2 letter noting that while he was "accommodating" the council on the issue, "I want to do everything in my power to minimize the impact of this moratorium." To that end, Coleman directed PED to get cracking and complete its study within 30 days.

Bostrom says that's fine with him: "I have no problem with that. There's no intention to drag any feet with this." But council member Chris Coleman (no relation to the mayor) sees it differently. "It really represents to me a mayor who's trying to play both sides of the fence on this thing," he says. "I think it was disingenuous and really unfair to the Larry Kasellas of the world." The Larry Kasella of St. Paul agrees, adding that he has more basic concerns than the mayor's fence-sitting: "Is the city going to pay my rent on this thing until the city lifts the moratorium?"

Pawn America's Rixmann says his firm is considering its options, which could include legal action. "We feel that we have been wronged, so it would be unwise for us not to explore that alternative. We have really been singled out." Rixmann says Pawn America's outlet at the corner of University and Fry in St. Paul opened June 26 after the company invested $1.1 million in the site. Its newest store opened just a few weeks ago, without incident, in Bloomington.

The case in favor of pawnshops even got a boost from the St. Paul Police Department, in the form of a letter from Chief William Finney to Mayor Coleman on October 2 that began, "I would like to express my support for the licensing of new pawnshops, which have evolved from businesses that were perceived as seamy, 'fly by night' operations dealing with criminals, to clean, bright retail outlets comparable to Best Buy or Circuit City." The letter went on to say that police have recovered $19,500 worth of stolen goods this year thanks to the Automated Pawn System, and recounted a 1996 incident that led to the recovery of a laptop computer stolen from Sen. Paul Wellstone's car.

As for the Mayor's call for getting the study completed quickly, Rixmann says that in his experience, government efforts to expedite the process never seem to pan out as promised: "In all of our dealings with government," he concludes, "that is really never what occurs." He says he won't be surprised to see the moratorium dragged out to the end of the maximum time period.

Kasella notes that while Pawn America has the resources either to wait out the moratorium or to go after the city in court, he can't afford to do either. He says he doesn't want to get the city "ticked off" at him, because he'd still like to open his shop on West Seventh, but he can't help but feel like he's been caught in political pincers that weren't meant for him.

"This is going to probably put me out of business before I even get into business," he says with a rueful chuckle. "I basically gave my life to the city and now I can't open a business in the city."

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