The meeting began as a cozy affair. Seven people occupied a table as New Brighton Mayor Val Johnson led the congratulations. Days earlier, Councilman Brian Strub had run a ten-mile race.
Strub voiced satisfaction with his finish, which was received by smiles from fellow council members Mary Burg, Gina Bauman, and Paul Jacobsen. But the marathon work session on this October evening would not sustain a neighborly atmosphere.
Late in the evening, the discussion turned to the greatness of the suburb wedged between 35W and Columbia Heights.
Johnson gushed about "how great we are." She cited the parks system and New Brighton's convenient location. Still, Johnson was convinced the suburb could do better.
To that end, she pushed for the formation of a task force. It would reach out to those members of the "underserved community." People of color in particular.
She'd spoken to some who felt unsafe. Some who were reticent to have conversations outside their immediate community. This troubled the mayor. Others said they were mistrusting of law enforcement. Not New Brighton police, but Ramsey County Sheriff's deputies, Johnson emphasized.
New Brighton had the potential to be the beacon on the hill.
"Let's share that greatness with everybody," she said. "I'm proud of this city.… I want to make sure everybody who's living here has had a chance to feel proud about their city."
Some of her peers weren't so quick to jump aboard.
Councilman Jacobsen said he wasn't keen on devoting focus to one component of the population.
Councilwoman Bauman failed to understand the task force's purpose. She wanted clarity of cause, not a group of people looking like they were doing something just because.
Panelist Burg would bring up the term "white privilege." She intimated how everyone in the room was incapable in walking in others' shoes.
That's when the conversation took a tense turn. Bauman said she "resented" Burg's talk of privilege, as if the life she had somehow required no effort.
"Because I'm white, you think I was privileged my whole life?" she asked. "Are you kidding?"
Johnson's voiced changed. She said Bauman was "the exact reason" New Brighton needed a task force. If Bauman didn't understand white privilege, the mayor continued, she was handicapped in representing the community in its entirety.
"What you have just said," Johnson said, "is the most racist — "
"Excuse me?" interrupted Bauman. "Don't you ever, ever accuse me of that. You have no basis to say something like that in public."
The mayor offered clarification: "Let me rephrase it. That statement was one of the most racist things I've ever heard.… That statement that you're not feeling the white privilege thing."
They started yelling.
"You're interrupting me! By golly, I'm running this meeting!" said Johnson.
Bauman shot back that she probably knew more people of color than the mayor.
"You're out of order!" Johnson said.
"And you're out of line!" retorted Bauman.
The exchange simmered when Johnson got teary-eyed: "Goddonnit, Gina! I'm passionate about this! I'm so passionate about hearing all sides of the story and for you to disregard the fact that white privilege exists is beyond me."
Things chilled when City Manager Dean Lotter diplomatically intervened. He didn't want to lose sight of the fact "that everyone around this table" has the same goal "to know people feel good" about living in New Brighton.
Johnson could not be reached for comment. Repeated messages to council members were not returned.
(Click here to access the October 3 meeting video. Fast forward to about the one hour and 55 minute mark.)
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