Lake Elmo council members' bad behavior just got very expensive

St. Paul's most dysfunctional suburb is now in its sixth city administrator in the last seven years.

St. Paul's most dysfunctional suburb is now in its sixth city administrator in the last seven years.

For a small St. Paul suburb, Lake Elmo harbors big hostilities. But it turns out that nonstop acrimony can be very expensive.

Case in point: the Insurance Trust Board of the League of Minnesota Cities has raised Lake Elmo's deductible for personnel-related claims from $500 to $200,000. Because city officials just can't play nice. 

The city council's history of scorched unkindness dates back at least two years.

In 2014, councilwoman Anne Smith allegedly slapped city administrator Dean Zuleger.

The following year, colleague Justin Bloyer made a point of publicly embarrassing finance director Cathy Bendel when her answers about discrepancies in two revenue reports were deemed insufficient in Bloyer's mind.

After the incident, in which Bendel was brought to tears, other members censured him, prohibiting Bloyer from speaking to staff during official meetings. Mayor Mike Pearson jumped in to defend Bloyer. He called Bloyer's critics "the worst kind of bullies."

Cancerous relations among the five members rolled unabated into 2016. Professional help was summoned. Almost 100 hours of training proved to be a waste of time. The "communications facilitators" quit due to discouraging progress.       

Smith, who denies Zuleger's allegations, is leaving the council at the end of this year after three terms. She ascribes the toxicity to the suburb's ongoing debate over growth.

The trickle down of officious bad karma has affected staff. City Hall employs 25 core people. Eight workers have left since spring 2015. Lake Elmo is now on its sixth city administrator in seven years.          

It's that kind of volatility that makes its insurer think the city is fertile for personnel suits.

Smith says the reputation for dysfunction is legit. But she'll be damned if she can pinpoint why there's meanness so regularly among council members who earn just $4,500 annually.

"Oh, I don't know," she says. "Maybe some people are just mean. Maybe it has to do with power and ego."