Last Call

A small-town mayor with big-city ambitions sets off a major brouhaha in Harris

To all outward appearances, the bucolic town of Harris, 45 miles north of Minneapolis, has changed little in the 130 years since it became a stop on the St. Paul-Duluth Railroad. Much of its 20 square miles of fertile soil, once planted with potatoes, still offers healthy yields of beans and corn. And although a trickle of Twin Cities transplants have in recent years checkered the landscape with their own five-acre chunks of the American Dream, the town's population remains a modest 1,200.

Indeed, nothing about its softly rolling countryside or rundown three-block downtown—which extends from the uninviting country store to the converted garage that functions as City Hall—betrays the central fact of this sleepy hamlet on the outer edge of the metro area: It is on the verge of big things.

Newly equipped with a shiny water-treatment facility and an under-construction, multimillion-dollar sewage plant, the town is slated to start sprouting enough McMansions and beige town homes to double its population within 10 years. "Harris is joining the 21st century," gushes Rick Smisson, Harris's proudly pro-growth mayor.

Nick Vlcek
"Harris is joining the 21st century," says Mayor Rick Smisson
Jonathan Kaminsky
"Harris is joining the 21st century," says Mayor Rick Smisson

But while the mayor and his like-minded majority on the City Council have championed progress—one councilwoman recently sold her 70-acre farm to a developer for $1.3 million—their efforts to drag the town kicking and screaming into the modern age has exposed a deep rift in the community. The battle for Harris's soul has turned ugly, with accusations of bribery, denying the constitutional right to free assembly, and manufacturing a scandal to help secure an election victory.

Patrick Tepoorten, a veteran reporter who covers the region north of the Twin Cities for the East Central Minnesota Post Review, says he's never seen anything quite like the ugliness in the small town off Interstate 35.

"Harris," he says flatly, "has become a punch line."

RICK SMISSON'S REASON for moving to Harris was simple: He wanted to live in the country. The devout family man with a small frame and a square jaw yearned for a place where his two home-schooled children—taught by Jenni, his prim wife—could participate in 4-H and "do those wholesome things."

As an efficiency-minded accountant, cost was also a factor. "We started looking down in Hugo," he recalls. "But the land prices were outrageous. We went up one exit, and one more exit, and pretty soon we were in Harris."

At the end of 2001, Smisson bought five and a half acres of subdivided farmland a half-mile from the freeway. In the following months, he had a large, white, modular home trucked in and assembled.

He settled comfortably into country life. After long days at Best Buy, where he oversaw the company's compliance with cumbersome post-Enron accounting rules, Smisson had no desire to get involved in local politics. "I wanted peace and quiet," he recalls, "to put up a swing on the front porch and sit and enjoy life when I got off work."

All that changed when he got his first property tax bill. Before moving to Harris, Smisson lived in Linwood, a white-bread, exurban township in Anoka County. His property taxes there amounted to about $1,200 a year. Although he had more acreage in Harris, there was little in the way of amenities—he lived on a dirt road, with no municipal sewer or water, and no city schools. At worst, he figured, his taxes would double. Instead, he discovered he owed roughly $5,400 a year.

Outraged, he called a meeting of concerned citizens at the local American Legion hall. A couple hundred people showed up. Dressed in a sports coat, Smisson delivered an impassioned lecture on how high taxes depress the value of their properties. "Government needs to be run more like a business," Smisson told the gathering. "It needs to be efficient."

After that meeting, Smisson recalls, people approached him on the street, pleading with him to run for mayor. Once he'd talked it through with his wife, Smisson declared his candidacy in the fall of 2004, just before the filing deadline.

His platform, which he took door-to-door, consisted primarily of riffs on his dual mantras: "Taxes are too high" and "Government should be run like a business."

His two opponents, both longtime Harris residents lacking in political chops, were no match for the charismatic anti-tax crusader. On the same day George W. Bush was reelected to the White House—he carried Harris easily—Smisson outperformed the president, winning more than 60 percent of the vote in the three-way race.

On his first day in office, Smisson gathered the town's two employees, the clerk and the maintenance man, and gave them notice that a new era had dawned in Harris. He handed them a two-page list of his expectations.

"'Close enough for government work' can never be the standard," it warned.

A FAIR-HAIRED, blue-collar Anoka native, Ken Kabanuk moved to central Harris nearly 12 years ago with his longtime girlfriend and their two kids. As a rural town within reach of the Twin Cities, it seemed the ideal place to both raise a family and grow his roofing company.

But in early 2004, when the owners of the bar down the street wanted to sell the place after a fire, Kabanuk saw a different sort of business opportunity. He persuaded a childhood friend, Todd Havisto, to buy the property. With Havisto living two counties away, Kabanuk would be the one running the bar.

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