In Orono, Minnesota's most expensive town, a tough new mayor takes over

People pay a pretty penny for lakefront properties in Orono. Should they expect good government?

People pay a pretty penny for lakefront properties in Orono. Should they expect good government?

City leaders in Orono don’t have a lot to worry about. Except for other people’s yards.

In recent years, the chic western suburb has seen homeowners do jail time for a messy front lawn and an illegal wind turbine.

A year ago, the hottest debate before the city council was whether they should crack down on “living walls,” trees or plants that obstructed a neighbor’s view of Lake Minnetonka. It was too controversial, and the motion was tabled.

People here shell out a lot to look at the lake. An analysis found an average price of $1.4 million for a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Orono — ninth highest in the country.

Oronoans don’t ask much. Keep taxes low — Orono’s are as low as they go in Hennepin County — and leave them alone.

So it’s curious that a land of prosperity has become home to pugilistic politics. And the blame seems to fall to one guy: Dennis Walsh, soon to be Orono’s new mayor.

Over his two years on the city council, Walsh, a real estate developer, built a reputation as a micromanager, needling Mayor Lili McMillan and city employees about purchasing details.

At one meeting, Walsh was pissed that staff hadn’t alerted him to a public works project up for bid. As a developer, Walsh has “guys” for all kinds of construction jobs. He wanted a tip off when they’d be eligible for city business.

“I feel like I’m talking to my children who won’t ever do what I tell them to do,” he told the city administrator and engineer.

Councilwoman Lizz Levang can’t recall staffers being “publicly shamed and humiliated” prior to Walsh’s ascendancy. But the new mayor prefers getting things done the combustible way. “If you’re asking if he has attempted to intimidate me, and to intimidate staff, the answer is yes.”

Collegiality retreated further when Walsh decided to run for mayor. The Ivy League-educated McMillan fit the city’s profile: conservative on property taxes and bright green on the environment. (Lakefront property’s no good when the water turns a chemical hue.)

Walsh flooded the suburb with campaign ads that were “mostly personal,” says former Mayor Jim White, outspending McMillan seven to one.

Perhaps even more effective were publications like “Orono Watch 4 U,” which appeared anonymously in mailboxes and depicted Walsh’s enemies with black bars blocking their eyes. Walsh has repeatedly accused his foes of plotting in secrecy. Levang and McMillan suspected he was involved in the attack, but couldn’t prove it.

All three candidates targeted lost their elections, including McMillan.

Walsh undoubtedly drew from a voting pool that fell for another brash real estate developer. His 2,551 votes were one fewer than Orono gave Donald Trump.

As with the president-elect, it can be hard to tell where Walsh’s business ends and his government service begins. Recent ads for Denny Walsh, developer — “looking out for your real estate needs, at any price” — prominently list his city council job, as if this made him better qualified for your business.

Walsh’s offer to find his own “guys” for city projects becomes more unnerving in the absence of an experienced professional staff. Following the election, City Administrator Jessica Loftus and City Planner Mike Gaffron, perhaps the two most important government employees in town, both resigned.

Loftus held her position for almost seven years; Gaffron was on the job for decades. Insiders say Walsh forced them out, though others say they preemptively quit on their temperamental new boss.

Gaffron declined comment. Loftus’ “public reasoning” is that she wants to spend more time with her three young children. She acknowledges that phrase means there’s also a “private reasoning,” though she demurred on what it might be.

Walsh might still figure it out. Last month, the council rejected his proposal to raise a road tax levy by 8 percent. McMillan and two others said that increase was too sudden and unnecessary, since the city could borrow money, low-interest, as it had always done.

The stakes were rather minimal — about half of Orono’s roads are privately owned — but the egos weren’t.

Walsh took losing badly, calling the vote one “last shot” by outgoing officials, who were now “looking to handicap the people of Orono.”

A few days later, Walsh filed a data practices act request on his foes, asking for all of their emails during the six weeks before that meeting. Loftus called the mayor-elect and asked if there was something in particular he was looking for. Maybe she could spare him (and city employees) the trouble of combing thousands of emails.

She didn’t get any answers. Neither will you. Asked for an interview, Walsh said he had a “busy work day” and would answer questions by email. He didn’t respond to those either.

The real question for Orono is whether Denny Walsh will be any more magnanimous now that he’s running the show.

Orono’s absurdly healthy housing stock is actually a problem, as far as the Met Council is concerned. The city of 7,000 is supposed to generate more than 300 new “affordable housing” units by 2020, no mean feat in a place where empty lots routinely sell for six figures.

Its leaders on that quest will be rookie council members and brand-new staff, all of whom will answer to Denny Walsh and his “guys.” For the sake of the city, it’s probably best that they — like departing staff — don’t always do what the mayor says.

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