Iron John

A court ruling sets up the latest cliffhanger in the municipal soap opera starring scrapper John Isaacs

But the battle dragged on. In June 1996, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) completed the EAW, concluding that there were no significant environmental effects from the Kondirator; the city promptly sued the state agency contesting the opinion. In 1998, a judge directed the MPCA to reconsider the matter; that December, the MPCA reiterated its earlier position. Again the city appealed.

As it defended its project in court and at the Legislature, American Iron retained some of the best help money can buy. Records at the state Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board currently list five lobbyists registered as representing the firm, including John Isaacs and veteran Capitol operative Larry Redmond. American Iron has retained former Carlson spokeswoman Cyndy Brucato for public-relations work, and last year it hired celebrated political ad man Bill Hillsman to produce a 15-part serial ad, "Hearts of Iron," that chronicled the company's version of its "struggle against the manipulations of an urban bureaucracy."

Now, it appears as if American Iron's persistence may finally be paying off. Last month the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the MPCA had acted appropriately in giving the project the environmental green light. Three days later, the Minneapolis City Council voted not to appeal the matter to the state Supreme Court, and to "develop a schedule for prompt consideration" of American Iron's permit requests.

What exactly that language means is now a matter of considerable behind-the-scenes argument. American Iron has taken the position that officials should now issue a building permit for the Kondirator. The city, according to Biernat, maintains that the company simply has won the right to begin the application process. If history is any guide, resolution will be neither swift nor simple.

Biernat recalls the morning of the latest council vote as "without question one of my saddest days at city hall." He also says that he thinks things would be different if John Isaacs were not running the company. "I think if Johnny's father was still calling the shots, it's very possible that all of this would have been over years ago," he offers. "He's got a personal dislike for the city that just impeded the ability to form a working relationship."

"'Johnny,' he calls me, eh?" Isaacs sighs upon hearing that comment. His father, he points out, remains active in the firm, and the two discuss every major decision. "I'm sorry he feels that way. I don't know how he could ever come to that conclusion. I would have to say that he has misread the entire process." In Isaacs's view, American Iron has kept up the fight simply because it was forced to--and, he adds, because "it's hard to walk away when you're right."

While Isaacs often positions the struggle as a moral one, there is clearly plenty of money at stake. Isaacs says a current court order prevents him from discussing the firm's financial claims against the city in the still-pending 1991 lawsuit. But a 1993 document in the court's file on that case estimated the firm's potential damages at some $37 million--more than American Iron's sales for all of the previous year, which topped $23 million.

More than eight years after it was filed, that suit is currently scheduled for trial on July 6. Talks between the parties last year didn't produce an agreement; court filings suggest that one of the sticking points involved a confidentiality agreement. "I think we're definitely going to trial," Biernat maintains. Assistant City Attorney Peter Ginder declines to speculate on the outcome, though he notes that so far the city has spent "something over $600,000 on outside counsel" on matters relating to American Iron. And Isaacs says he would prefer to settle: "I'm hoping that we're going to be able to invest money in our company," he explains, "rather than [in] our attorneys."

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