Last Call

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

To reinforce his case, Naumann took out his cell phone and called the mayor. Smisson, meeting with his "prayer team" at a friend's house, encouraged Stai to come clean.

Accounts of what happened next differ. Smisson and Naumann assert that Stai tearfully admitted to taking a bribe; Stai denies it. Whatever the case, Naumann left without the written confession he'd come for.

Undeterred, Naumann filed an election-tampering complaint with the state. A few days later, he and Stai had a teleconference with administrative judge Eric Lipman, who scheduled a hearing for the end of the month.

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 Naumann wouldn't wait that long to spread the juicy story. Just two weeks before the election, he leaked the story to the two newspapers that cover Harris.

"Harris resident being investigated for dropping out of mayoral race," screamed the October 25, 2006, front-page headline in the Cambridge Star, which quoted generously from Naumann's complaint while neglecting to mention his role as the mayor's campaign manager.

Five days before the election, a three-judge panel dismissed the bribery charges as groundless. Noting that Naumann had produced only statements from himself and Smisson, the judges ruled that he'd "failed to put forward sufficient evidence."

But the ruling came too late to make the pre-election papers.

On election night, after weeks of door-knocking and a futile, last-minute effort to send out postcards to everyone in Harris announcing the election-tampering charges had been dismissed, Nelson's team of volunteers gathered at his house to await the results.

After a few tense hours of munching on pizza and potato chips, a phone call came from the election office. The room fell silent as Nelson took the call. When his face dropped, everyone knew. The final tally: 297-278. Mayor Smisson had won re-election off a 10-vote swing.

Standing in the corner with Kabanuk, Shelander couldn't contain himself. "We should get an injunction and get this thing stopped!" he bellowed.

Nelson disagreed. "The people have spoken," he said. "Let's not be sore losers."

Lisa Jorgenson, who volunteered for Nelson's campaign, has little doubt the scandal was a factor in the outcome.

"If I didn't know firsthand what was going on, and picked up a paper talking about bribery and shenanigans, you'd better believe it would have a very profound impact on my decision," she says.

AT STAI'S PLACE, things are now much quieter. A couple of months ago, Smisson and the City Council voted to shut down his track for good.

"I can see telling me I can't have 30 people out there," Stai concedes. "But to tell me and my wife we can't ride in our own yard? I wish I'd never stopped in this town."

Big Daddy's owner Todd Havisto, deciding the bar was more trouble than it was worth, recently sold it to new owners. And after 12 years in Harris, Ken Kabanuk has also given up on the town, moving his family across the river to Wisconsin.

"After all that happened, I just wanted to get my kids away from here," Kabanuk says. "It's time for a fresh start."

In the spring, he filed lawsuits against Smisson, Naumann, and the city of Harris. To date, those suits have gone nowhere, as he doesn't have the money to pay a lawyer. "Put that in the paper, that I'm looking for one," he says.

Sitting in a suburban Dunn Bros. coffee shop on a recent afternoon, dressed in a pinstriped suit and sipping a caramel milk steamer, Mayor Smisson looked very much in his element. Two months ago, Smisson quit Best Buy to peddle his "efficient and effective" system for wading through complex accounting rules. After a day spent pitching his business solutions to prospective clients, he settled down to talk about his tenure as mayor.

Things are going great in Harris, he announced enthusiastically. Yes, the real estate market is tanking. And yes, the payments on the $5 million sewage plant will start to come due next year. But the mayor hinted he has something big in store: A 300-plus-acre development that would transform the rolling fields just east of downtown into a sprawling, revenue-generating commercial district. Although mum on the specifics, the mayor says that the project will include Naumann's adjoining 17 acres.

"The city is ready for the future!" Smisson says, his voice rising in excitement. Even his detractors are coming around, Smisson proudly declares. "They don't say it to me," he says, his neglected steamer growing cold in front of him. "But even the people who were against me are really happy with the outcome."

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