Playing Hardball

A fight over the fate of a public park turns ugly in Anoka

Such sentiments from a city official frustrate Loes, Handrick, and their allies. But it is the city council's actions that have galled them most. After learning of the plans for a new library, built on a ten-acre parcel of parkland donated by the city, Protect Our Parks petitioned the council to perform an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW). Among other things, the activists cited a provision of the Minnesota Environmental Protection Act that requires an detailed examination of projects involving 100 or more parking spaces. Because the original architectural drawings for the library lot showed 167 spaces, Protect Our Parks figured they could force an EAW. But shortly after they submitted their request, the library board revised its parking-lot design to include just 92 spaces and, without debate, the city council chose to ignore the petition.

Aggravated, Loes decided it was time to take a closer look at city files concerning both the library and the rest of Rum River Park North. He submitted a written request for the data and, last May, received a signed letter from City Manager Mark Nagel confirming that the files were available for review. Two weeks later Loes and his lawyer examined the documents. Among other things, the paperwork contained sketches from a city consultant, Hakanson Anderson Associates, Inc., detailing how the park property could be developed with townhomes, apartments, and detached houses.

That, Loes says, was "the last straw"; proof that the library was just a politically palatable way to grease the skids for more commercial development. And so the doctor-cum-activist made what he now calls "an agonizing decision" to sue the city. Because some fellow members of Protect Our Parks, which includes a handful of former city council members, were staunchly opposed to litigation, Loes submitted the suit under the name Preserve Our Parks. Six days later, on May 25, 1999, Loes marched up to the city planning office to obtain a copy of the files. There, he says, Anoka City Planning Director Carolyn Braun turned him away, saying that the documents were no longer available because of "pending litigation."

Dr. John Loes, on the banks of the beloved but threatened Rum River
Dr. John Loes, on the banks of the beloved but threatened Rum River

An hour later Loes returned to Braun's office to try again. This time he saw the files he wanted sitting out in plain view. "What happened next I definitely wouldn't do again," Loes recalls with a slight blush. "But I grabbed the files and I put them in my bag with the intention of copying them. I'd brought a camera along for that purpose. But then Carolyn just kind of went ballistic. We had a little tug of war and she claimed I assaulted her. It was really kind of hokey."

Hokey or not, Anoka police were summoned to the office. Loes returned the files after receiving assurances from City Manager Mark Nagel that he would be given an opportunity to review them in the City Attorney's Office. "[Nagel] offered his hand to me, I shook it, and he said, 'We are not going to file charges,'" Loes recalls. "So I asked the police officer if I could go and then I left."

A few days later, though, Loes received a certified letter informing him that he was being charged by the city prosecutor with disorderly conduct, attempted theft, and fifth-degree assault. The charges had serious implications for Loes, whose license to practice medicine would be jeopardized if he were convicted of theft or assault. So last February the doctor entered into a plea bargain, pleading guilty to a single count of disorderly conduct. In exchange the city agreed to drop all other charges. "I think my crime was one of impoliteness more than anything," he says now. "I guess the question is, 'When is it acceptable to be rude to a public official?' And the answer, in Anoka at least, is 'Never.'"

Brian Bates, Loes's attorney, believes that the city's decision to press criminal charges smells of retaliation. "This whole thing is just absurd," Bates says, adding that he takes offense at the city's recent motion to collect legal expenses in the continuing lawsuit. "For a municipality to act this way is extraordinary. And I think what's happening here goes beyond Dr. Loes and the future of Rum River Park North. I believe the city is trying to send a message that anyone who challenges the city on environmental review is taking a grave risk."

City Attorney William Hawkins declines to discuss charges filed against Loes or anything else pertaining to the possible development of the park. "The pleadings speak for themselves, and I really don't have anything else to add," he says. Anoka Mayor Peter Beberg also refuses to address the issue: "We are in litigation and our attorneys have told us not discuss in public." Planning Director Braun did not return City Pages' calls seeking comment regarding her altercation with Loes.

Meanwhile, a ruling on the city's motion to dismiss Loes's lawsuit, along with its motion to collect legal fees, is expected by mid-July. The park's future remains uncertain. "Right now we don't have diddly planned for [the park]," says city council member Freeburg. "So nothing is gonna happen for a while."

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