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.

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.

After replacing the roof and repairing the smoke damage, Kabanuk went about adding a touch of class to the interior. He replaced the tired wood paneling with knotty pine and stocked the jukebox with Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and Garth Brooks. He even helped come up with a new name befitting the desired ambience: Big Daddy's Bar & Grill.

"He made it beautiful inside," recalls Kim Hugger, a friend of Kabanuk's. "Before, it was really dark and dingy. He made it someplace you could go have a sandwich with your kids."

Kabanuk had the bar up and running by early 2005. That June, he went to a City Council meeting to renew the liquor license. Expecting a routine hearing, Kabanuk instead watched as the new mayor and his allies on the council threatened to shut down Heart Breakers, a strip club across the street from his bar.

The mayor turned the floor over to Henry Gregoire, a born-again Christian who nursed a barely concealed rage. A week earlier, Gregoire said, he'd driven past Heart Breakers late at night and seen an unruly mob surrounding a man on the ground getting pummeled by the club's bouncers. "They were wearing G-strings," Gregoire recalled. "And waitresses were going around serving drinks."

A police report filed in connection with the incident paints a different picture. According to the cops, the crowd had gathered to see a man who'd been sucker-punched in the abdomen by an unidentified assailant. The victim refused medical treatment, didn't want to pursue a criminal case, and, as the officer wrote, "merely wished to go home." The report makes no mention of drinks served outside, nor of violent, G-string-wearing bouncers.

Dan Walton, a burly, plainspoken taxidermist who'd served nearly a decade on the council, wasn't buying Gregoire's story. "You're a damned liar," Walton thundered. "I'm calling your bluff."

But the mayor and his council allies agreed that the incident was symptomatic of a serious problem, which they said included beer bottles and spent condoms strewn across the sidewalk, as well as the regular use of neighbors' lawns as urinals. They voted to restrict Heart Breakers' liquor license, the equivalent of putting it on probation.

Kabanuk took the message personally: The mayor didn't like bars, he reasoned, and with only two of them in town, his would be next on the hit list.

On a crisp Sunday three months later, Kabanuk put on a daylong fundraiser at his bar for a young girl whose face was horribly disfigured after she was mauled by a pit bull. A couple hundred people spent the day drinking cheap beer, eating burgers and brats, and listening to a country band cover Roy Orbison and Toby Keith.

A few days after the event, a bartender at Big Daddy's got a call from Doug Chaffee, a councilman who'd ridden Smisson's anti-tax coattails to power. Chaffee said he had credible information that people at the event were snorting lines of cocaine off the bar.

Kabanuk showed up at the next council meeting to confront the charges. Full of nerves and anger, Kabanuk accused Chaffee of wrecking his good name. "You slandered our business and I would like to know what information you have," he seethed.

Chaffee didn't back down. Saying he'd been tipped off by two people who were at the benefit, he denied starting any rumors. "I didn't spread it all over," the councilman said defensively. "I called you."

Chaffee declined to comment on his allegations to City Pages, but Walton, who at the time lived next door to Big Daddy's, says it was at best a silly misunderstanding. "My three-year-old had some Sweet Tarts candies," he recalls. "I crushed them against the bar with a beer bottle so I wouldn't have to worry about him choking."

The new regime's attitude toward the bars agitated Walton, but it was the mayor's plan for a new sewage plant that had really riled him. Before Smisson's arrival, the town was in talks to hook up its antiquated sewer system to North Branch, its larger neighbor to the south. Instead, shortly after taking office, Smisson and his council allies announced that Harris would build its own treatment plant. While more expensive—it would cost at least $5 million—the plant would allow the town to grow more quickly.

To Walton, abandoning the pipeline to North Branch was sheer folly. "The moron mayor pissed an opportunity down the tubes," he says. Fed up, he tendered his resignation from the council in a letter published in the local newspaper. "You need to be involved," the letter admonished Harris residents. "Otherwise, be happy with what three individuals may decide for you, and be prepared to pay for it."

 

WALTON'S PARTING SHOT became a rallying cry. In spring 2006, Kabanuk held a meeting above his bar to discuss how to take back control of the town. A mustachioed firebrand named Marcus Shelander took the lead. "We need to get these guys out of office," said Shelander, one of Smisson's two opponents in the previous mayoral race.

Before the meeting could go any further, Steven Thorp, the town's imposing part-time building inspector, burst through the door, red-faced and barking orders.

"Everybody has to leave," Thorp shouted, adding that the upstairs of the building wasn't licensed for public use and that he would arrest anyone who didn't obey.

Not wanting to wind up in jail, the group grudgingly filed out of the bar. "We didn't quite understand why he could do that," said Lisa Jorgenson, a paralegal who attended the meeting with her husband. "We're law-abiding citizens, and this is the United States of America."

But the meetings continued, albeit not at Big Daddy's. By early September, the group had settled on a candidate to take on Smisson: Larry Nelson, a graduate of Mankato State and a seasoned grant writer for the Department of Agriculture. Kabanuk was certain the bespectacled, mild-mannered man had the right stuff to beat the mayor.

But another of the mayor's foes, unaware of Nelson's candidacy, decided at the last minute to enter the race. Marv Stai's reasons for running were personal. A beefy recovering alcoholic in his mid-40s, he'd bought his five acres in Harris a decade ago to get himself and his family away from the bad influences and inconveniences of life in St. Paul. That, and to enjoy his primary passion: riding four-wheelers.

Shortly after moving to Harris, Stai transformed his backyard into a motocross track, a lunar-looking obstacle course full of hairpin turns and 10-foot jumps. Eager to share his pastime, he opened it up, free of charge, to anyone who wanted to ride.

But Stai's neighbors weren't exactly thrilled with the incessant noise and dust. They found a sympathetic ear in Mayor Smisson, who forced Stai to dismantle his favorite jump and water down the course to keep down the dust. As a complete shutdown loomed, Stai decided to take matters into his own hands.

"That's the problem with this friggin' town," he says. "Everybody complains, but nobody wants to step in and be the muscle."

In early September 2006, he filed papers to run for mayor, but doubts quickly crept in. An auto parts salesman with limited education, he worried that he wasn't up for the challenge. Then, just two days before the deadline to withdraw from the race, Stai got a late-morning visit from Kabanuk and Shelander.

"Are you running for mayor?" Shelander asked.

"I signed up," Stai said. "But I'm thinking of getting out."

Sensing an opening, the two men gave Stai their pitch: They were supporting Nelson. He was an educated, qualified candidate who would give Smisson a real run for his money. And if elected, Nelson would have better things to do than nitpick over Stai's backyard. But, Shelander added, "A three-way race hurts him."

Stai asked the men for a few minutes to think it over. When they came back, he told them he'd made up his mind. "I'm dropping out, and I'll support Larry Nelson," he told his visitors.

Shelander told Stai he should think about applying for the planning commission or the park board, both of which are appointed by the council. "I'm sure Larry and the council would consider you," he said.

Kabanuk was pleased. "But I feel bad for all the time and money you've put into this," he told Stai. As a consolation, Kabanuk told Stai he'd help defray Stai's campaign costs. A few hours later, Stai's roommate collected an envelope with $400 from Big Daddy's. Within two days, Stai officially dropped out of the race.

"I was telling everyone about it," Stai says. "I even told my mail lady. But then she mixed the whole thing up."

 

A WEEK LATER, Mayor Smisson got a phone call from Susan Morgan, the town's mail carrier, according to a statement he later gave to the state's Office of Administrative Hearings.

"If someone convinces someone with the promise of a future political appointment and favorable zoning, along with a payment of cash, to drop out of a race for mayor, would that be illegal?" she asked, according to Smisson.

"Yes!" Smisson said emphatically.

Following up on this promising lead, he dispatched Kurt Naumann, his friend and campaign manager, to Stai's house.

Naumann, a heavy-set blond, runs a small farm outside of Harris. He is also an aspiring real-estate developer, with a 17-acre plot surrounded by farmland and open prairie half a mile outside of town.

Shortly after becoming mayor, Smisson helped Naumann get his land rezoned for high-density housing. But without the sewer plant hooking up to his property—without Smisson elected to another term—Naumann would likely be unable to build the high-profit, high-density housing he'd planned. (Naumann declined an interview request.)

When he showed up at Stai's house, Naumann was coy. "My son wants to ride on your track," he said, his voice friendly and warm.

"No problem," Stai responded, and fetched the legal waiver he made all riders sign.

But then Naumann took the conversation in a different direction. "Actually," Naumann said, his voice cooling, "I'm here for two reasons. I also need you to sign a statement."

This statement, he explained, was an admission that Stai had accepted a bribe to quit the mayoral race. Naumann then pulled out a "penalty matrix"—a list of possible punishments for Stai's alleged crime. If Stai confessed, Naumann said, he'd do what he could to keep Stai out of jail.

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.

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."

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Minnesota Concert Tickets
Loading...