Tucked away in the northeast reaches of the Twin Cities metro area, the city of Lake Elmo unassumingly plugged along for years. Life was sweet and uncomplicated. When developers came along seeing greenbacks buried in the undisturbed dirt, all became much more muddled.
A development comp plan was drafted. Infrastructure got buried in the ground awaiting neighborhoods of above-ground, 3,000-square foot masters with two-car garages. A third of the citizens were psyched about what they viewed as progress. They welcomed a growing tax base. Another third backed unhurried growth. The remaining third pushed back against what they perceived as becoming another Woodbury.
Now, everything has gone to hell. And in the middle of the little city with growing pains is Lake Elmo City Council member Anne Smith, who seems to leave behind a scorched earth in all that she touches.
Over the past year, Smith appears to be the one constant in the incessant piss fight that has overrun the city's political scene.
Early last September, the four other city lawmakers that make up the council banned Smith, the three-term politician, from talking with city staff unless another council member was present. The move came after city bureaucrats complained about how Smith had treated them. Although details have never been made public, they're alleged to involve charges of verbal abuse, intimidation, and harassment.
Just weeks later, Smith was in the throes of another controversy.
It was pushing midnight on Oct. 7 when Smith approached Stillwater Gazette reporter Alicia Ann Lebens. A council meeting had just wrapped up. Smith was supposedly chaffed about a previous story Lebens had written. According to an account written by Lebens after the incident, Smith aggressively confronted her "waving her hands at my face."
"In her right hand were her car keys, and she had them near my face," she added. "I continued to step backwards."
Lebens' system was reportedly so rocked by the encounter that she asked to be escorted to her car after future meetings.
Mayor Mike Pearson was among those who witnessed the incident.
"It was shocking, unusual and telling to me," he told the Pioneer Press last fall.
In the aftermath, the city council met for an hour. It had censured Smith the month prior for her alleged mistreatment of city staffers. A second like-wrist slap was discussed. Ultimately, no action was taken.
Smith, for her part, never voiced any contrition let alone responsibility for the way she treated Lebens.
When contacted by City Pages, Lebens declined to comment about the incident. A message left for Smith yesterday went unreturned.
Things stayed quiet in Lake Elmo through the holidays. Then in February, city administrator Dean Zuleger filed a complaint against Smith.
He accused the councilwoman of poking, slapping, and yelling at him during his three years while working for the city.
Zuleger also said Smith had created a "hostile work environment."
A month later, Smith, along with council members Julie Fliflet and Jill Lundgren, voted in the majority to get rid of Zuleger.
If the dismissal was a retaliatory move, Smith would soon eat her lunch. Bowing to citizen pressure, the council reinstated Zuleger just weeks later.
The carnage continues to follow Smith.
Just days ago it was announced that planner Nick Johnson had submitted his resignation, joining the list of five other Lake Elmo city hall staffers to abscond in recent months from the 8,000-plus resident locale located on the eastern outskirts of the Twin Cities' metro area.
If Smith is the reason behind the chaos in Lake Elmo, nobody in the city's political circle is saying so. Phone calls yesterday to city council members and various city staffers all went unreturned. A handful of residents were willing to talk about the situation, but only off-the-record.
According to these residents, ego and legacy power Smith's acrimonious leadership style. Smith, they believe, wants to be remembered as the people's champion, the person responsible for saving Lake Elmo from becoming another sprawled-out, strip-malled Woodbury. They also think the self-styled righteousness of Smith's cause effects the way she treats people.
"I think she wants a park named after her," says one insider.
In addition to her starring role in Lake Elmo's current state of political disfunction, Smith was a force in the election of fellow council members Fliflet and Lundgren. Rarely is there a vote where the trio doesn't unite. The trifecta also happens to be the voting bloc that shuns growth.
Ed Gorman, who's owned Gorman's Family Restaurant for 35 years, calls the current political climate "the highest level of disfunction I've ever seen. With all the people quitting at city hall, I don't know if there's going to be anyone left answering the phones there."
Gorman believes the agenda of the anti-growth voting trio is crippling Lake Elmo politics — and its ability to wisely navigate the waters of progress and expanding a much-needed tax base.
"Personality conflicts are getting in the way of an honest discussion," he says. "It doesn't have to be that way because progress has to be made here."
As for Smith, one insider says she's become so wrapped up in "the path that she thinks is right, I don't know if she can even tell you what the end goal is anymore."
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