Welcome to Maplewood

The Twin Cities' Most Dysfunctional Suburb

This was supposed to be a banner year for Maplewood, the 50th anniversary of the inner-ring suburb directly northeast of St. Paul. To commemorate, elected officials and city residents planned numerous events, from a kickoff celebration last month to the White Bear Avenue parade in July.

The suburb of 35,000 residents would seem to have reason to cheer. It's home to 3M's headquarters—the company's sprawling campus dominates the southern end of the town's border at Interstate 94. Blocks of modest, post-World War II bungalows line White Bear Avenue, while more lavish housing developments continue to sprout up along cul-de-sacs on the city's eastern end. The suburb also burnished its hipster credentials with the 2005 opening of Myth, a multilevel nightclub with capacity for 4,000 patrons.

With an average household income of more than $50,000 and a population that's nearly 90 percent white, Maplewood would seem to be your prototypical sleepy suburb, the kind of place parodied in movies like American Beauty. But beneath this veneer of affluence and tranquility, Maplewood has been undergoing the most tumultuous period of its 50-year existence.

In the municipal elections of 2005 and 2006, residents elected a trio of neophyte politicians—Diana Longrie, Erik Hjelle, and Rebecca Cave—who promised change.

They delivered in spades, though not in the way voters had hoped. Holding three of the five seats on Maplewood's City Council, they've effectively become a ruling troika, in the process earning the nickname "The Gang of Three."

Since their rise to power, at least a dozen key municipal employees have resigned, been fired, or had their job eliminated. Those lost include the city manager, human resources director, city attorney, finance director, assistant city manager, deputy police chief, deputy fire chief, and parks and recreation director.

"We've lost over 200 years of experience," says Kathleen Jeunemann, one of the two dissidents on the City Council. "It's the total unraveling of government and it's really scary."

In addition, Maplewood has been sued at least five times in recent months. Four of the lawsuits involve personnel matters, while a fifth deals with a recently enacted moratorium on development in the southern part of the city.

"Maplewood has become the laughingstock of local government," says attorney Robert Fowler, who's handling one of the cases currently pending against the city. "I really do believe the public has just been betrayed."

This is the story of Maplewood, quite possibly the most dysfunctional city in Minnesota.

 

ON PAPER, DIANA LONGRIE would seem to be the perfect mayor. The 48-year-old battled rheumatoid arthritis as a child, and the struggle lives on in her malformed hands and feet. She grew up poor in Grand Rapids, and her dad died when she was young. Despite these difficulties, Longrie went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota and earn a law degree from Hamline University. Along the way she developed a passionate interest in the politics of her adopted hometown, Maplewood.

In 2004, Longrie divorced her first husband and married Kevin Berglund. Her new husband was a notorious figure in Maplewood politics, for years co-hosting the hot-blooded public-access television show Inside Insight, which regularly pilloried city officials and staff. The show had gone so far as to allege that city manager Richard Fursman, whose wife is from the Ukraine, had purchased a mail-order bride with city funds. (Needless to say, Fursman maintains this is not the case.)

After the 2005 election, Longrie joined Erik Hjelle and Rebecca Cave on a slate of candidates promising big changes to the municipal government. Hjelle's bright red lawn signs encapsulated their message: "Change and Common Sense."

Among the key issues motivating voters was debate over the long-gestating Gladstone redevelopment. A panel of residents, business representatives, and city staff had developed a plan calling for 800 new residential units in the center of the city. But many of the existing development's residents aggressively advocated for a scaled-down plan. Longrie, Hjelle, and Cave ran campaigns promising sympathy for their concerns.

After two prior unsuccessful runs for City Council, Longrie was considered a long shot. But after knocking out incumbent Mayor Bob Cardinal in the primary, she went on to best Will Rossbach—who retained his City Council post—by 330 votes. "This little lady who had arthritic hands and seems kind of strange kicked his ass," says Hjelle. "That must have been really hard for the guy." For his part, Hjelle was the top vote getter among City Council candidates, succeeding in his first run for public office. Cave, however, fell 49 votes short of securing a seat on the council. Participation in the off-year election was anemic, with 76 percent of registered voters staying home.

But Cave wouldn't have to wait long to get another shot. Council member Jackie Monahan-Junek resigned midterm, necessitating a special election on the last day of February. This time, Cave was the runaway winner, securing 64 percent of the votes cast. Turnout for this midwinter contest was even more feeble, with just 12 percent of registered voters showing up.

Even so, Hjelle argues that the results were a mandate for change. "The vast majority of taxpayers in the city of Maplewood were sick and tired of having a government that didn't listen to them," he says.

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