Council rift hits 'low'Area News
-- For more than 45 minutes at a recent meeting, the increasingly fractious Cottage Grove City Council argued — not about a major building project or budget issue, but over meeting minutes, the usually mundane summary of previous council discussion and actions.
By: Jon Avise , Pierce County Herald
For more than 45 minutes at a recent meeting, the increasingly fractious Cottage Grove City Council argued — not about a major building project or budget issue, but over meeting minutes, the usually mundane summary of previous council discussion and actions.
The topic of disagreement was new — the meeting bogged down over bickering about parliamentary procedure — but the tension was not. Rather, it highlighted what has been a persistent and seemingly growing rift among council members. Some even said that the recent fight marked the bottoming-out of an increasingly deep divide on the five-person council.
The council spent the better part of an hour at its March 21 meeting debating how votes and comments made at previous meetings should be recorded after council member Derrick Lehrke objected to how city staff had recorded a vote and portions of the minutes summarizing a February council meeting.
Lehrke questioned and challenged staff during the 45-minute discussion, to the visible frustration of fellow council members. The episode was the latest in a number of council discussions in which Lehrke has questioned city actions, and one that council member Dave Thiede publicly called a waste of time.
"I was just frustrated. I felt I had to say something," Thiede said later in an interview, referring to his seemingly exasperated comments at the March meeting. "Derrick, as we know — I'm not saying anything new — likes to grandstand a little bit."
Since his election in November 2010 — a campaign he ran focused on his opposition to the city’s plans to construct a new city hall that will open this fall — Lehrke has said he views himself as an outsider on the council. Often the lone dissenting vote on an array of issues, his actions as a council member have often clearly delineated that divide.
“Any time I say something they look at it through those rose-colored glasses,” Lehrke, now running for a state House seat in the fall, said of the council disagreements. “And, clearly, I’m not innocent of it, either.”
Thiede said he would prefer to hear proposed solutions, not just disagreement.
"I really feel the council is a team," he said. “You've got to go with the decision that is made by the group, and support it and make it work to the best of your ability."
The most obvious rift on the council is between Lehrke and Mayor Myron Bailey, who pushed for the $16 million city hall project and has championed its passage as an important council achievement. Lehrke said last week he had considered a run for mayor before announcing his legislative bid.
The fissure even extends beyond the two council members themselves — the mayor’s wife accused Lehrke’s mother, who is part of a group that attends and speaks out at many council meetings, and another Lehrke supporter of calling her names during the March 21 meeting. The three then engaged in a verbal confrontation following the meeting.
‘Absolute low point’
Bailey said he believes the increasingly sour tone of the council’s relationship can be traced to the city hall issue, something he says he wishes the council could move past to work constructively together. He called the meeting late last month “rock bottom.”
“That was the absolute low point that I’ve ever seen on the council,” Bailey said. “Quibbling over meeting minutes, to me it was — frankly — embarrassing and disappointing.”
The next day, Bailey said he sent an email to city staff apologizing for the lengthy arguments that extended the meeting to nearly four hours in length. It was a “mentally and physically draining” experience, he said.
Council member Jen Peterson, in-part, pointed the finger at a group of residents who attend most council meetings and align themselves with Lehrke as a large contributor to the negativity and eroding sense of cooperation.
“What I would truly like to see is I’d like to see people who come to the council meetings display more civil behavior,” she said. “I think that’s a big part of it.”
Peterson said she hopes Lehrke will ask his supporters to tone down their behavior at meetings in an effort to improve the tone at the twice-monthly council meetings.
Will the council’s relationship improve, or will the more four-versus-one dynamic continue?
Lehrke said recently he believes the council can work out its differences. He also said he doesn’t think his House run as a Republican will impact his relationship with other council members, despite Peterson’s former role as a DFL legislative candidate, and Bailey and council member Justin Olsen’s support of Cottage Grove police officer Dan Schoen’s DFL campaign against Lehrke in the coming election.
“While I think both parties need to work on it, I’m going to at least do my part,” Lehrke said.
Olsen declined to comment for this story.
Despite his recurrent opposition to numerous council initiatives backed by the other four council members, Lehrke said he doesn’t want the disagreements to turn personal and expressed disappointment that the negativity had spilled over into comments made on Facebook by some on the council. With the exception of Dave Thiede, all council members have turned to Facebook to comment on council activity.
Bailey said he agreed the council dysfunction could improve. Otherwise, both the mayor and Peterson said, things on the Cottage Grove City Council could continue to deteriorate and residents interested in getting involved could be deterred.
“We all ran for the office that we are in to make our community better,” Bailey said. “And this bickering and complaining doesn’t do anything to better our community. If anything, it turns people away.”
Jon Avise is a reporter for the South Washington County Bulletin.