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.

After the results were tabulated, it was clear major changes were on the horizon. With the mayor also serving on the City Council, the allies now had a 3-2 voting block. Old scores were about to be settled.

 

THE GRUDGE HAD BEGUN six years earlier, on December 28, 1999, at a party to honor three departing City Council members. Among the people who showed up were Inside Insight hosts Bob Zick and Kevin Berglund. "We wanted to go there and film this for the show," recalls Zick.

The duo was initially rebuffed because they refused to pay the $15 entrance fee, but they talked their way in. Zick and Berglund immediately became a nuisance, shoving their video camera into people's faces, several partygoers say.

"It was really interrupting the party," says Sherrie Le, then the city's human resources director. "People were visibly upset."

Eventually, several police officers tried to remove the film crew from the premises, but Berglund refused to comply. "They tried to escort him out and then he kicked the wall," Le recalls.

Berglund was arrested and charged with trespassing, fifth-degree assault, and disorderly conduct. The cops also confiscated the pair's videotape.

The confrontation continued to percolate through Maplewood politics for years. Berglund was eventually acquitted of all criminal charges. He and Zick filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that their constitutional rights had been violated, but in 2001 the case was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge David Doty. "The judge would not let us get in front of a jury," laments Zick.

Two years later, Maplewood officials took the extraordinary step of seeking a restraining order against Berglund to bar him from having any contact with city officials. According to court records, this measure was necessary because Berglund repeatedly made harassing phone calls to employees, called them disparaging names, and threatened them. Female employees, in particular, were fearful of his aggressive behavior.

Ramsey County District Court issued a temporary restraining order in September 2003, but subsequently modified it to only prohibit contact with four city employees. Ultimately, Ramsey County District Court Judge Michael Fetsch refused to grant a permanent restraining order. He ruled in July 2004 that Berglund's conduct "has never been intimidating, threatening, or assaultive."

Maplewood city clerk Karen Guilfoile, one of the employees who was the target of Berglund's ire, subsequently wrote to the judge expressing her displeasure with the ruling.

"I have had dealings with Mr. Berglund for approximately eight years," she wrote. "What the testimony failed to convey, or the Court failed to realize, is that Mr. Berglund's behavior had escalated to a point of brazen confrontation wherein I feared for my safety."

Since his wife was elected mayor, however, Berglund has pretty much disappeared from the Maplewood political scene.

Longrie is not the only current elected official in Maplewood with an ax to grind. In 2004, city officials became concerned that paramedics were shouldering too much work. The city hired an outside consulting firm, which determined that those duties should be shifted off of the police and onto the fire department. Maplewood had previously not employed any full-time firefighters, but this change would require hiring permanent workers.

This decision infuriated some pay-per-call firefighters, particularly Hjelle and George Cave (husband of Rebecca). They feared that this was simply a first step toward establishing a full-time fire department. At one particularly heated meeting on the subject, Fursman was repeatedly interrupted and accused of fudging his statistics on paramedic calls.

Human resources director Sherrie Le was brought in to investigate the behavior of the two firefighters.

"They were the most difficult people I have ever investigated," recalls Le. "Refused to come in, refused to answer anything, and would yell at me. They were very angry about it. They were angry that they were being investigated, they were angry that the findings were that they did something wrong, and they were angry about the discipline that they got."

Ultimately, Cave was suspended for 30 days without pay, while Hjelle was simply given a verbal reprimand.

 

ON JANUARY 11, 2006, JUST days into her tenure as mayor, Longrie sent a testy email to city manager Richard Fursman outlining several requests.

For starters, she wanted a photograph of the previous City Council and any references to her as the "mayor-elect" removed from the city's website. Longrie also asked why her photo had not yet been installed in the lobby of City Hall.

"Frankly, it is not my responsibility to be managing these routine matters but they have to be attended to," she chastised the city manager.

Fursman was bewildered by the complaints. After more than five years as city manager of Maplewood, he'd garnered a reputation as one of the most effective municipal administrators in the Twin Cities. "He was just a complete professional—competent and on top of things," attests former Mayor Bob Cardinal. "A very bright, competent manager."

But now Fursman was being chastised for his failure to promptly hang the mayor's visage in City Hall. "It'd been all of eight hours of work time since she'd been sworn in and she was wondering where her picture was," he recalls. "I was getting a pretty weird vibe."

After this rocky start, Fursman did little to ingratiate himself to the recently elected officials. At the very first meeting of the newly configured council, he presented a report pointing out possible campaign violations by Longrie, Hjelle, and Cave.

During the fall campaign, the trio had stuffed campaign literature together at a city fire station. Fursman was concerned that this constituted an improper use of a public facility for campaign activities. He punished Hjelle (still a city employee) with a one-week suspension. But by a 3-2 vote, the City Council rejected the city manager's report on the potential violations.

Fursman further annoyed the newly elected officials by pointing out potential violations of open meeting laws. In a March memo to the City Council, he described two different instances where the council may have run afoul of the law.

It was clear that the city manager was not long for Maplewood. The council first attempted to oust him just one day after they secured power.

Only a potential legal hurdle saved his paycheck. During the hearing, city attorney Patrick Kelly raised the question of whether Hjelle might have a conflict of interest, given that he also worked as a city firefighter. Hjelle would essentially be voting to fire his own boss, Kelly suggested. Fearing a lawsuit, council adjourned the meeting.

By the April 10 City Council meeting, that hurdle was removed. Just that week, Hjelle had resigned his post as a firefighter. In addition, just hours before the hearing, George Cave resigned from the city.

Fursman's supporters packed City Council chambers. To maintain order, Mayor Diana Longrie announced at the beginning of the meeting that there would be no public comments on the firing. Still, some spoke up.

"I believe that you're setting a dangerous precedent by firing somebody for doing their job well," testified resident Dale Tripler. "I would fully expect other excellent and valuable staff to look for employment elsewhere, fearing that they'll be next on your hit list."

BANG! BANG! BANG! Tripler was gaveled down by the mayor.

After more than three hours of standard City Council business, with the clock approaching 10:30 p.m., the council reached the agenda item that would decide Fursman's fate.

"We have been trying to work together," Longrie began the discussion. "And we do have actually a difference of vision. I know some of you don't believe that, but I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that that's all it is."

Then the mayor took a sharp left turn. Noting that the council is required by city ordinance to appoint an interim city manager, Longrie began introducing her choice for the post.

"This gentleman has a cum laude degree in political science from St. Leo University," she said, "and also has studied and has graduate education from the Hamline University."

Longrie passed out copies of a résumé to the four other elected officials. City Council member Will Rossbach, visibly bewildered, voiced the question on everyone's mind: "I guess, to put it simply: Who is this guy?"

A portly man in a dark suit appeared at the podium and introduced himself as Greg Copeland.

"Do you know this person?" Rossbach asked the mayor. "Do you know Greg? Greg, do you know the mayor?"

Beaming, Copeland replied in the affirmative. "It's okay to know the mayor, right?" he asked.

"Not necessarily," Rossbach said.

"Oh, not necessarily," Copeland repeated. "Oh dear."

As anticipated, the Maplewood City Council voted to oust Fursman by a 3-2 margin, with Rossbach and Kathleen Jeunemann casting the dissenting votes. The same measure simultaneously installed Copeland as interim city manager.

Longrie defends her decision, saying it was motivated by the fact that Fursman had covertly taped a private discussion with a City Council member.

"It's a break of trust when you find that your city manager acknowledges that he recorded a council member without their permission or consent, and that he's done that throughout his career," she says. "If you can't trust your city manager like that, what can you do?"

 

AT COPELAND'S FIRST STAFF meeting as interim city manager, he was asked whether he intended to clean house.

"I didn't bring a broom with me," he said.

As per city policy, Le asked Copeland to fill out a job application so that a background investigation could be conducted. The interim city manager, however, returned the application to Le with just the first and last pages filled out, accompanied by a résumé. After a few more go-rounds, Le felt compelled to get the city attorney involved.

"I was just trying to do what the ordinance and the policies said," she says. "He was not doing what needed to be done, which made me even more concerned. Why doesn't he want to fill out this application?"

Finally, at the behest of city attorney Patrick Kelly, Copeland filled out the application. But rather than enlist an outside agency to review Copeland's credentials, Longrie insisted that the investigation be conducted by Maplewood Police Deputy Chief John Banick. In essence, Banick was ordered to investigate his own boss.

"You never want to have somebody actually investigate their supervisor," says Robert Fowler, Banick's attorney. "Obvious retaliatory issues can arise. That was amazing to me."

Among Copeland's first actions was to organize a half-day retreat for City Council members. He hired Hamline University political science and law professor David Schultz to conduct a survey and interview staff members at the gathering.

Schultz summarized his findings in a 25-page report. Among his suggestions: adopt a conflict-of-interest policy for elected officials, review the state's open meeting laws to ensure compliance, and implement an email policy for council members and city staff. The report concluded with an appeal for civility: "The meaning of being a professional is placing personal animosities off to the side and learning how to work for a collective good," Schultz wrote. "I encourage all parties to take this advice personally, or consider leaving office."

The report, completed in June, was not well received.

"I was condemned in absentia at council meetings," says Schultz. "But nobody ever contacted me. The sense that I got was that they just dismissed the report and said, 'we're not interested.'"

 

INDEED, NONE OF THE POLICY recommendations made by Schultz have been adopted. And needless to say, the level of civility has hardly improved.

Later that month, Rossbach and Jeunemann called a special City Council meeting to discuss the findings of the long-awaited investigation into Copeland's background. Because the actual report was not deemed a public record, the pair wrote a summary of its findings. Even redacted to protect Copeland's privacy, it's a damning document.

The background check determined that the interim city manager had no previous paid work experience at the local government level. What's more, he had not held a full-time job since 1992. At that time, he had been president of Liberty Resources Corp., a consulting firm specializing in government relations. However, Copeland could only cite two clients of the business.

"He has no job experience that really in any way makes him qualified to be a manager of any type, specifically a manager of a city," says Rossbach. "He hasn't had what one would view as a normal job for a long, long time."

There were other red flags. Banick determined that Copeland had repeatedly been in arrears on his St. Paul property taxes. In addition, the report raised concerns about the level of personal debt accrued by the interim city manager. Finally, it pointed out that Copeland had longstanding ties to the mayor's husband—they were among the founders of a nonprofit corporation called the East Metro Reform Movement, which was dedicated to promoting Minnesota's Reform Party. "Certianly either Mayor Longrie or Mr. Copeland should have revealed that there was a financial and business relationship between their families in this matter," the report stated.

The background report concluded by suggesting that Copeland be replaced by the city's longstanding public works director, Chuck Ahl.

Not surprisingly, this suggestion was ignored by the ruling troika. In fact, on November 14, at the close of a City Council meeting that had dragged on for nine hours, Copeland was named permanent city manager.

"They had met continuously from 5:00 p.m. until past 2:00 a.m," recalls John Nephew, a local activist who is seeking to oust Rebecca Cave in this year's City Council elections. "I was the only resident in the audience. It was shocking to see how exhausted they all were."

 

SINCE THE NEW REGIME HAD taken over, the human resources director's job performance had been repeatedly questioned. So on May 9, Le approached the Maplewood city manager and offered to resign.

Le informed Copeland that in return for her resignation, she wanted six months of severance pay and benefits, as well as a guarantee he wouldn't fire any of her staff. Copeland instructed her to put the offer in writing.

Le wrote out a potential severance agreement, but then something peculiar happened. She was informed by Copeland that an outside investigator was being hired to look into allegations that she'd made a hostile work environment. Previously, Le had complained about constant criticism from her superiors, who saddled her with impossible tasks. In short, she worried she was being set up to fail.

It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Le's job remained in limbo for some three months.

"It was extremely stressful," she recalls. "I was losing weight. I looked terrible."

In the meantime, Le's colleagues weren't wasting any time in seeking new employment. First assistant city manager Melinda Coleman resigned to take a job with Target Corporation.

Then in mid-June, the remaining department heads, fearing for their jobs, petitioned to form a union. A month later, the law firm of Kelly & Fawcett, which had provided legal representation to Maplewood for 30 years, dropped the city as a client.

"We previously expressed our concerns and frustration of the communication regarding our legal opinions," wrote Patrick Kelly, in announcing the decision. "Specifically, recent actions have made it impossible for us to fulfill our ethical obligations to represent the city to the standards required by our profession."

Turnover continued at a clip more commonly associated with Wal-Mart greeters. Le was finally terminated in August. Veteran finance director Dan Faust announced that he was taking early retirement the next month.

The city's department heads voted to unionize by a 22-to-1 margin. In the ensuing weeks, a comprehensive reorganization of the city government was unveiled.

It just so happened that many of the people who had voted to join the new union were also the employees whose jobs would be eliminated. The cover sheet of the budget document boldly stated that the changes were being implemented because of the unionization drive. This document was subsequently changed after it was pointed out that such retaliation was a potential violation of labor laws.

Among those whose positions were eliminated were Parks and Recreation Director Bruce Anderson, Deputy Fire Chief Rusty Svendsen, and Deputy Police Chief John Banick.

"These are not randomly selected people, or people selected based on any budgetary need," argues attorney Fowler. "This is a retaliation against each and every one of them."

Banick, a 23-year veteran of the police department, appealed his firing through the Maplewood Police Civil Service Commission (PCSC), which is charged with overseeing all police personnel decisions. On February 5, the three-person panel unanimously voted to reinstate Banick.

"The remedy here is necessary to protect Mr. Banick and the 50-plus Maplewood police officers who rely on the PCSC to protect them from 'reorganization,'" the panel wrote.

But the city ignored the decision, and Banick remains out of work.

Banick is now suing the city in Ramsey County District Court. He's joined in the case by the city employees' union, along with another municipal union, the Metro Supervisory Association. The plaintiffs charge that the city violated numerous labor laws in implementing the reorganization.

But Longrie insists that this "global reorganization" was long overdue and that there was no retaliation involved.

"The council had workshops where we looked at every specific department," she says. "We are the only council that I know of in Maplewood that has ever done this, where we have totally analyzed every single department."

Hjelle insists that the extraordinary turnover during the last year is actually a positive development. "The vast majority of people who left were not serving the city," he says. "Finally, we're getting people off their asses to do their jobs around here."

 

ON A RECENT SATURDAY morning, every chair is filled in a conference room at Maplewood City Hall. Most of the 30 people in attendance for this monthly "mayor's forum" are old enough to remember when farms outnumbered strip malls in Maplewood.

These informal get-togethers were once sleepy affairs. Former Mayor Gary Bastion used to occasionally hold them in his backyard. Longrie's predecessor, Bob Cardinal, recalls that there were generally five to ten people at his monthly gatherings.

Like everything else in Maplewood, however, the mayor's forums have become a sideshow. It began when Mary Flister, a local gadfly, began tape-recording the meetings and posting written notes of the gatherings on a website, Maplewood Voices.

Some longtime attendees of the forum took umbrage, accusing Flister of somehow doctoring the digital recordings.

"The internet is evil," declares one gray-haired lady at today's meeting. "I do not want to be on it."

Mayor Longrie believes she has hit upon a potential compromise. Those citizens who don't want to be taped can meet with her privately, while everyone else can speak publicly.

"This is my office hours and my forum, and I'm going to run it the way I want," she informs the crowd.

But the details are never fleshed out, and eventually the taping issue dies down.

The discussion turns to neighborhood concerns. One woman details an upcoming gathering she's hosting to discuss the history of American Indians in Maplewood. Another is concerned about a recent shooting outside a Hmong funeral home.

Then the meeting is adjourned. Afterward, Longrie is in a hurry to get to another appointment. But she's ebullient about the large turnout.

"This is exactly what all elected officials talk about," she says. "They bemoan how there's so much citizen apathy. People aren't involved. I am so pleased by the fact that we have, I believe, gotten so many more people involved."

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