Maplewood Follies

John Nephew's election in November shifted the balance of power on Maplewood's notoriously tumultuous City Council
Jana Freiband

The morning after his first Maplewood City Council meeting, John Nephew discovered a disturbing truth. The six-plus-hour gathering, which didn't adjourn until after 1 a.m., has been known to cause a debilitating hangover. "I felt like I had drank a case of Night Train," he says.

The neophyte politician will have to grow accustomed to the uncomfortable feeling, because there is a lot of work to do.

At least a dozen top city officials—including the city manager, human resources director, and city attorney—quit, got fired, or saw their jobs eliminated under the reign of Mayor Diana Longrie and her allies on the City Council, Rebecca Cave and Erik Hjelle. Most notably, the trio installed Greg Copeland—a longtime political ally of the mayor, with negligible administrative experience—to be Maplewood's new city manager. ("Welcome to Maplewood," 3/14/07.)

Last year's municipal elections brought regime change, with Nephew joining existing members Will Rossbach and Kathleen Juenemann to form a new majority. They viewed the election results as a mandate for reform in the inner-ring suburb.

At the first meeting of 2008, by a 3-2 margin, the new council voted to place Copeland on paid administrative leave and hire an attorney to provide advice on firing him. The move drew assorted catcalls from the packed council chambers. "The audience votes no!" bellowed one woman.

The council then took a 10-minute break so Copeland could turn over his keys and exit the building. "That's what 'immediately' means," Juenemann icily explained.

But the ouster of Copeland hardly brings an end to his role in Maplewood politics. During his rocky tenure, there were several requests by residents seeking a copy of his employment contract. City officials repeatedly insisted no contract existed. But shortly after Copeland was clipped, the paperwork suddenly surfaced. Signed by the city manager and Longrie, and dated November 13, 2006, it included a clause that bewildered city officials. Under the terms of the agreement, City Council members were not allowed to make derogatory remarks about Copeland. The city would be forced to pay $100,000 to Copeland if the non-disparagement clause was violated.

Mayor Longrie insists that the contract is entirely legitimate. "With regard to why it didn't surface, I really wouldn't know," she says. "I'm not in charge of keeping documents."

The City Council voted to refer the matter to an outside law enforcement agency to investigate whether any laws were broken.

While investigators hash out the legal niceties of Copeland's firing, the city's public works director, Chuck Ahl, has been installed as acting city manager. He has begun to sift through the rubble of Copeland's nearly two-year tenure, and the initial findings aren't a good sign for Maplewood taxpayers.

In an email sent out to all City Council members earlier this month, Ahl detailed a chaotic financial situation. Budget data for 2008 had not been entered into the city's financial software system. Bank statements for the previous 13 months had not been reconciled. Fluctuations in the value of the city's fixed assets, such as squad cars and computers, hadn't been tracked. Which means nobody could say with any degree of accuracy what the city's financial state is.

"We're kind of swinging in the dark at this point," says Rossbach. "I find it very concerning."

One initial conclusion that Ahl reached is that the city's community center ran a significant deficit last year. In the email circulated last week, he estimated the revenue shortfall to be $750,000—which is quite a bit off earlier claims that it was $16,000 in the red.

"It seemed too good to be true," says Nephew. "Well, it turned out it was."

The city also continues to wrestle with legal liabilities left over from the Copeland era. Former human resources director Sherrie Le sued the city for wrongful termination after she was ousted from her position in 2006. A civil trial took place in December and a ruling is expected within the next two months. If the city loses, it could be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

The climate in Maplewood is unlikely to mellow any time soon. A proposed reorganization of the city's department heads, drafted by Ahl, promises to be a brawl. Then there's the suggestion by Rossbach to limit "visitor presentations" at council meetings; they've been open forums where the city's most venomous critics hurl accusations at public officials. The Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, put on notice by Hjelle, has already written a letter expressing concern about the proposal's constitutionality.

"We don't need another lawsuit," says Hjelle, "and we certainly don't need to be limiting people's First Amendment rights."

Hjelle seems to be relishing his newfound role as an outsider. He scoffs at the new City Council's decision to hire a lawyer to provide advice on firing Copeland. "It's just mind-boggling how incompetent these people are," he says. "That's a complete waste of tax dollars. Jesus, God! Just fire the man."

And Mayor Longrie argues that the new ruling trio shows no sign of changing the city's polarizing politics. "It's more of the same old gravy, just warmed over."

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