John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Friday, March 28, 2008

Erik's Reaction

On Wednesday the Pioneer Press ran a major front page story about Maplewood, with particular focus on the tenure of former City Manager Copeland and the financial issues from his time in office that have since been coming to light.

The morning that the article appeared, a flood of e-mailed Data Practices requests started coming from Councilmember Hjelle. At last count, I think I saw 24 separate e-mails. (It's worth noting that Mr. Hjelle has in the past been known to rant about how much staff time is, in his view, wasted responding to Data Practices requests.)

For an example, here is his first e-mail in the series:

From: Erik Hjelle []

Sent: Wed 3/26/2008 10:49 AM

To: Chuck Ahl

Cc: Karen Guilfoile; City Council

Subject: Data Request

City Manager Ahl,

I have cc'd these Data requests to include the council and Ms. Guilfoile.

1). I am requesting the entire Telephone data log of internal and external telephone calls made by Mr. Ahl since June 1, 2007.

2). I am requesting every e-mail sent or received by Mr. Ahl since June 1, 2007.

3). I am requesting every e-mail sent or received by any member of the MCSA/Department Head or equivalent, since June 1, 2007.

4). I am requesting copies of Mr. Ahl's day planner, written or computer since January 1, 2008. If Outlook (or similar software) is used, I expect the .pst back-up file in addition to the hard copy.

5). I am requesting the telephone logs of telephone calls made or received from a city telephone, and the home telephone numbers of Councilmembers Rossbach,Councilmember Juenemann, and Mr. Nephew as both a councilmember and private citizen (include Mr. Nephew's home, business lines, and cell) since June 1, 2007. Include ALL business extension lines of Rossbach Construction and Cell Phones. I am sure that Mr. Rossbach and Ms. Juenemann will be happy to provide that information.

Please promptly advise of any concerns or questions that this request may present. As an elected official, I expect that any items considered "private" or "priviledged" will not be excluded. If the City decides to exclude any items, I expect a written explanantion as to why, and dates and times of said document.

I will also advise the city that I will be requesting a forensic audit of the city by an outside body. Any ommissions from this request will be evidenced. I also assume that the City has saved ALL documents in its' possession and will continue to do so.

Erik Hjelle
Maplewood City Council

The scope of these demands is breathtaking.

First of all, let's be clear that the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act does not give Mr. Hjelle access to all the information he is demanding. Being an elected official does not lawfully grant Mr. Hjelle unfettered access to all non-public information that the government may possess. It certainly does not give him the ability to demand information that the government does not possess – such as my personal home, business and cell phone records going back to before I had filed as a candidate for office. (I know he's been reading up on the constitution lately, but perhaps Mr. Hjelle missed the Fourth Amendment?)

You would think that Mr. Hjelle would know this, after two years in office, but it makes one wonder what kind of access to non-public data he may have become accustomed to when Mr. Copeland occupied the city manager's office?

Second, consider the scope of what he is looking for that is public data under the MGDPA. For example, “every e-mail sent or received by any member of the MCSA/Department Head or equivalent, since June 1, 2007.” These individuals deal with a great deal of non-public data – private data about members of the public, private personnel data about city employees, etc.

Let's offer a made-up example. Suppose a city employee needed to take sick days because of a family member's health. The employee may have had to provide a copy of a doctor's note to his or her supervisor in order to justify the sick leave taken. This would be private medical data, and it would be illegal for the city to hand that communication over to Mr. Hjelle.

Fulfilling Mr. Hjelle's sweeping request for “every e-mail” is not as simple as copying a folder from the e-mail server. Appropriate city staff will have to carefully review every single e-mail to determine if any of its content is non-public, and if so to redact that content so as not to violate the Data Practices Act. I'll be interested in knowing how much that staff time costs the city, when all his requests have been filled.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Front Page Pioneer Press

Today's Pioneer Press features a story about Maplewood. It's a long story (especially long for a metro daily's coverage), and in the print copy I picked up on the way to work it's featured as the front page story with the headline above the fold (it takes up more than half the front page and then is continued inside, where it occupies more than half of another page).


Monday, March 24, 2008

Conversation Delayed

Our planned city council goal setting session did not actually take place.

While the notice of the meeting was posted on the city website and notices were mailed to the list of people who have requested such mailings, this one meeting among the several called for today was inadvertently not posted on the bulletin board in City Hall three days in advance as specified by the Open Meeting Law (see Minnesota Statute 13D.04 Subdivision 2).

The city attorney had advised the council earlier in the morning that due to the unintentional nature of the oversight, the fact that people were generally notified via the website and mail (a newspaper reporter and a private citizen with a video camera were even in attendance), and because the meeting was being audio recorded and the recording would be available to the public upon request, his opinion was that the meeting could proceed in spite of the clerical error.

Once we were gathered at the Maplewood Room, Mayor Longrie stated that she would not participate in the meeting because of this error in notice. I agreed that it would be better to err on the side of caution. I also felt that it was important to have full council participation in order for the session to be useful.

We all pulled out our calendars, and rescheduled for Saturday, April 12th.

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City Debt and Public Improvements

This afternoon we will be meeting at City Hall for a "City Council - City Manager Goal Setting Session." One of the topics on the agenda is the city's long-term debt.

This is a topic of particular interest to me. In preparation for our conversation, I put together a simple spreadsheet comparing the road projects I am aware of from 2007 and the ones we have approved or are considering for 2008. Consider this spreadsheet a work-in-progress -- for the 2007 projects I note which meeting minutes I got the numbers from, but in general those numbers were from around the time of the public hearing or feasibility study, and the final numbers for each project may have changed along the way. Likewise, for this year I have included the most recent numbers I'm aware of (many of them from the council packet for tonight's regular council meeting); in the case of the Upper Afton Road project, we will be discussing its feasibility study tonight. We have yet to see how close the engineers' estimates are to the actual bids we will receive. I also omitted projects that were fully assessed (e.g., new streets that a developer paid for in their entirety).

As the spreadsheet makes clear, we have a wide range of financing sources for our road projects. Most of the money comes from dedicated sources -- Municipal State Aid funds, the Sewer fund, special assessments to property owners who benefit from the improvements, etc. As a steward of the city's finances, the number that concerns me most is the "General Tax Levy" column -- this represents borrowings that will be repaid out of the general operating budget of the city. Unlike the various dedicated funds (which must be spent on road construction or stormwater management or what have you), these monies could otherwise be spent on just about any of the services that the city provides. Too much of this kind of debt limits the future financial flexibility of the city.

The good news is that, even as Maplewood continues to do more road construction than usual (taking advantage of the weak construction market and lower costs while we can -- we may as well spend the dedicated funds now when we can get 20% more road for our money, rather than next year when the new gas tax revenues start increasing the demand for road construction all over the state), we are on track to assume far less general levy debt in 2008 than we did in 2007 -- almost 80% less.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Wetland Ordinance

A major item on the agenda for Monday's regular council meeting is the first reading of a revision of Maplewood's wetland ordinance, something our Environmental & Natural Resources Commission has been working on for quite some time. In case you'd rather not download the entire (20+ MB) packet for the whole meeting, there is a page on the city website just devoted to the proposed changes to the wetland ordinance. There you can find maps of the city's wetlands, and a helpful redlined version of the proposed ordinance (indicating what is the same and what is changed from current city law).

From reading the proposed ordinance, I gather that there are really two major aspects to the changes. The first is a reclassification of Maplewood wetlands, to bring our city's nomenclature in line with the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District's. This standardization would have several benefits, including cost savings for city staff time. (If we piggyback on RWMWD's classifications, then we don't have to go out and classify all the wetlands ourselves according to our own separate system; we can use the work that the Watershed District has already done.) The ordinance also would create an "A+" classification, for the special wetlands that are already at the highest rating from the Watershed District, but are so valued that they need additional protection (larger protective buffers). The city has not yet identified which specific wetlands meet this standard, but it's believed that many of them already are on public land (for example, wetlands within the Priory neighborhood preserve).

You can also read a newsbrief about the wetland ordinance on the Maplewood Review website.

Like our community as a whole, I believe our city council has a strong shared interest in protecting our environment. Updating our wetland ordinance is one of the ways we can come together to do that.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Eagan Considers a Third Way

The Star Tribune has an interesting article today about a proposed ballot referendum in Eagan. That city has been embroiled in a lawsuit with a developer who wants to turn a former golf course into a housing development. The city had rejected their plans, which resulted in a lawsuit, that still grinds on in its fourth year. The referendum seems to be offering residents a third possible outcome, in addition to the previous options of giving in to the developer's wishes or rolling the dice in court.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008


This week's Maplewood Review features an article by Alex Davy about the verdict in Sherrie Le's lawsuit against Maplewood. It provides a good recap, if you're not up for reading the entire decision itself.

In the article, Councilmember Hjelle, who had previously characterized Judge Gearin as misinformed and "stupid," suggested that the judge was biased against the city because of the recent arrest of her sister. Her sister was illegally operating a business in Maplewood, Wipers Recycling, without a certificate of occupancy. Maplewood observers may recall that Mayor Longrie, former Councilmember Cave, and Councilmember Hjelle himself touted the relocation of this business to Maplewood last year (Cave described her role as "instrumental"). If Mr. Hjelle had any concerns prior to the trial about possible judicial bias in favor of Maplewood, because of the defendants' relationship to this business, I am not aware that he ever brought them forward.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Weekend Reading

For those who are interested in the details, I've uploaded a PDF of the judge's decision in the case of Sheryl Le vs. City of Maplewood et al.

Monday, March 03, 2008


Saturday's Pioneer Press:

Reached Friday evening, Hjelle said that the judge was misinformed and that he had recused himself from the votes.

"This judge was simply lied to ... I'm sorry that a judge was stupid enough to believe (Le). But I guarantee you no one will hold (Le) accountable (for alleged perjury), because that's how things work around here," he said.
The motion and vote he's talking about, at the 4/24/06 city council meeting:

Edit: The 3/6/08 Pioneer Press followed up with an article entitled, "Council member wrong on vote facts," correcting the record on Mr. Hjelle's assertion.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Public Ownership Option

[This is an e-mail I sent yesterday to a mailing list of commissioners, activists, and other interested citizens. Councilmember Hjelle had previously sent a message laden with inaccuracies to this list, and several of the recipients had forwarded it to me. I thought it would be good to post my message here as well, for anyone interested to see.]


Apparently some false information is being spread around by Councilmember Hjelle.

Among other tall tales, Mr. Hjelle wrote, “The sad reality is that our new council majority has no interest in addressing the concerns of the Moratorium and the area impacted by the COPAR development. That is why the issue is efectively [sic] dead, and why the moratorium is being allowed to simply end.”

The moratorium is ending because the city council lacks legal authority to extend it further. I brought this up at the January 28th council meeting, specifically because I was concerned about development occurring between the expiration of the moratorium and the adoption of any action based on the study findings.

In case anyone needs proof, I went back to the DVD of this meeting, excerpted the relevant portion of the discussion, and put it on YouTube:

You can see me ask, and Mr. Ahl and Mr. Kantrud answer quite clearly that we have extended the moratorium as far as the law allows. You can also see on the video that Mr. Hjelle was present to receive the same information. You'd have to ask him why he would lie to you all about this.

In terms of my interest in addressing the concerns of the moratorium area, I hope it's obvious that Mr. Hjelle does not speak for me and fails to accurately depict my views.

As I learned about the issues in the moratorium study area, I became interested in ways to preserve ecologically sensitive land there, and I came to appreciate how highly valued the land is in the eyes of the members of the original open space task force as well as south leg neighbors. I also am aware of the issues of property rights, ongoing litigation, and the complexities of land use planning. Finally, I worry that the solution some favor – of keeping 2-acre minimum lots – is no solution at all for the long term, even if it is something the city could maintain. Do we really want all those septic systems uphill from Fish Creek?

The only way to really preserve the ecological value of the land around Fish Creek is public ownership. This is not something the city could pay for out of petty cash, especially with the financial situation we've inherited. The original open space referendum money, of course, was long ago spent on other land. This means that the city would have to issue bonds. A referendum would be required and a majority of voters would have to support the borrowing.

I am asking city staff for information on the process by which such a referendum could be accomplished. In the meantime, interested folks can get a start by reading a section of the Handbook for Minnesota Cities, Chapter 24: Debt and Borrowing (look at “Voter Approval” on pages 7-8 of this document).

If certain members of the council are interested in actually doing something for Fish Creek, rather than just trying to exploit it as a political wedge as they did last year, then we might get the votes in the council necessary to authorize a bond question on the ballot.

Then it's up to the citizens. The League of Minnesota Cities warns, “City officials should be careful not to endorse or campaign in favor of the bond election. Any published materials should be confined to factual statements about the project to be financed. Campaigning should be left to citizen’s groups.” (This comes from an Attorney General's opinion.) Fortunately, we may already have such a citizen's group in the form of the Fish Creek Initiative.

While bonding to buy more open space may be a tough sell with the electorate, especially in this economic downturn, we do live in a community that puts a very high value on our environment, our parks, and our neighborhood preserves. A ballot question would give citizens and activists who want to protect Fish Creek and its environs the chance to take their case directly to the voters, to persuade them that this is an investment that is worth making for Maplewood's future.


John Nephew, Councilmember

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Sherrie Le Decision

Yesterday the district court's decision was issued in the case of Sheryl Le v. City of Maplewood et al.

An article in this morning's Pioneer Press describes the verdict. Demonstrating the tact and restraint we've all come to expect from him, Erik Hjelle is quoted in the article as calling the judge who ruled on the case "stupid."

I took time last night to read Judge Gearin's ruling in its entirety. Her findings of fact spell out a damning narrative of last year's council majority and their right hand man. The judgement against the city ($185,000 plus attorney's fees, costs, and more) is only the latest bill we taxpayers have been handed to pay for the previous council majority's malice and incompetence.

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