Once the shame of the suburbs, Maplewood quiets its critics

Though not an official government building, the Maplewood Mall is still kinda close to a 'Welcome to Maplewood' sign.

Though not an official government building, the Maplewood Mall is still kinda close to a 'Welcome to Maplewood' sign. Gabriel Vanslette/Wikipedia

As she campaigned for mayor of Maplewood in 2013, Nora Slawik encountered a curious reaction from voters. Relief.

“They didn’t want it to go back to the way it was,” Slawik says.

Her opponent, Diana Longrie, had been mayor from 2006 to 2009. During that time, more than a dozen city employees were fired or quit.

Longrie canned the city manager, replacing him with a man with no government experience—and no work experience of any kind in the previous decade. His qualifications: He was a friend of Longrie’s husband, and had been active in the Ross Perot-aligned Reform Party.

A community center, supposedly breaking even, was later found to be running a $750,000 deficit.

At the time, City Pages suggested Maplewood was the “worst run city in Minnesota,” an assessment few residents cared to dispute.

Once out of office, Longrie and a small group of people continued to appear at council meetings to needle officials about taxes, spending, and crime.

After clashing with the group for years, Mayor Will Rossbach decided not to run for re-election. Longrie, meanwhile, sought a sequel to her chaotic term as mayor. Rossbach recruited Slawik, a Democrat who’d won seven elections to the Minnesota House. To the relief of residents, Slawik won with 67 percent of the vote.

She took over a different city than the one she’d moved to two decades before. Maplewood’s population had swelled from about 31,000 in 1990 to close to 40,000 in 2010.

A demographic shift also arrived in Maplewood, which lies north and east of St. Paul. About a third of its residents are now non-white, including sizable Somali and Hmong populations.

Tou Xiong’s parents spent 15 years in a Thai refugee camp before making it to St. Paul. They saved to buy a home in Maplewood, telling young Tou they wanted him to grow up like the kids in his favorite movie, The Sandlot, with a yard of his own, safe public parks, and good schools.

In 2015, Xiong, a graduate of William Mitchell College of Law, ran for one of two at-large City Council seats. Also on the ballot were Bob Cardinal, a former mayor, and Longrie, back for yet another election, this time campaigning to prevent the spillover of “crime & socioeconomic wounds” from St. Paul, with its “changing demographics.” The election was close, but Xiong and Bryan Smith, another progressive, prevailed.

Slawik and the new liberal cohort have passed a slate of progressive measures, ordering a study of police use of force, and joining a multi-city racial equity project.

The city’s critics are still out there, though they make less noise now. Longrie and others had regularly aired their views on cable-access television shows, cheaply produced affairs that existed principally to warn viewers they’d been forgotten by City Hall.

In a typical moment from 2014, host Bob Zick ran a clip of his own testimony before the City Council about the threat “low-life... sex offenders, criminals, gangs,” and other “outcasts from St. Paul” posed to Maplewood. Back in the studio, Zick then opened the phone lines for viewer comments.

In 2016, Maplewood withdrew from a multi-county cable commission, a move that took those shows off the air, diverting the $300,000 in annual fees toward government-produced media.

“They are likening it to an in-house [public relations] firm,” says Longrie. “They are using that money to craft their message, and only get out their message.”

Last year, Maplewood also cut the mic in City Hall, ending public comments at council meetings. A staff review of “visitor presentations” found the same speakers kept getting up, meeting after meeting, to rail against city officials, which Slawik contends was “intimidating” others from speaking up. 

Slawik says officials are readily available by other means. “I put my home number on the [city] website, and I do get calls.” She hasn’t heard complaints about the end of public comment.

Here’s one: “Seniors in the community, they think that is an absolute crime,” Longrie says. “It serves to isolate everyone in Maplewood, so they never have any concept what other people are thinking.”

That might be about to change. Maplewood has brought in Hamline Law School professor David Schultz, who received a grant to ask citizens what their local governments could do to “enhance governance, representation, accountability.” Schultz and his team have conducted efforts in Red Wing, Brooklyn Park, and Willmar.

The ethics expert couldn’t help but think back to a dozen years ago, when he’d been hired to consult with Diana Longrie’s new administration. Schultz’s report said council members were regularly violating open meetings laws, and that the city needed a conflict-of-interest policy. 

Perhaps even more important, Schultz wrote, the council demonstrated a lack of “basic civility and maturity.” As if to prove his point, the council dismissed Schultz’s report out of hand. Maplewood went back to making headlines for the wrong reasons.

If anything, Schultz says, asking what citizens want is even riskier than hiring an expert. “It’s easier to kick a consultant around than it is to kick your constituents around. I’m impressed by the fact they’re willing to take this kind of risk.”

The idea was city manager Melinda Coleman’s. Coleman worked for the city from 1995 until 2007, then left over concern for the “stewardship of the city.” She returned in 2013 to the shock of some who knew the city only by its old reputation.

“I would go to these meetings, and different county, and local, and state government people would say, ‘Why did you come back? Are you crazy?’ And I had to tell them, it’s different now. It’s better.”

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