John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Friday, July 31, 2009

Mary Mackey's Parks Commission Interview

City council candidate Mary Mackey is a current member of the Maplewood Parks & Recreation Commission. She applied for the commission earlier this year, and the city council interviewed her during our workshop on January 12, 2009. She was appointed at a later meeting, after all the interviews for the commission were complete.

Here is her interview:

Ms. Mackey's application and resumé were included in the 1/12/09 workshop packet (pages 3-4).

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Resolutions of Support

Last night I attended a meeting of the Central Committee of the Senate District 55 DFL. The SD55 DFL was considering whether or not to give resolutions of support in the city council and mayoral races.

A resolution of support is not an endorsement, and there are important differences. For example, endorsements are limited in number (up to two council candidates could be endorsed, since that's the number of seats up for election, and only one mayoral candidate); they require a convention (inviting all delegates who were elected to the 2008 SD55 convention by their precinct caucuses); candidates must receive 60% of the delegate votes to be endorsed; and they allow a candidate to advertise the endorsement in campaign literature. In contrast, the resolutions of support were decided by the Central Committee (which includes precinct chairs, Senate District party officers, etc.). They can be given to any number of candidates. A simple majority is all that is necessary to receive a resolution.

So if it isn't an endorsement, what is a resolution of support, and what does it get you? In essence, it's a statement that you are regarded as a "good Democrat" -- the party recognizes you as one of its number, and supports giving you limited access to certain party resources.

Written questions and questions from the floor understandably focused on the party activities of the candidates. What DFL-endorsed candidates have you actively campaigned for (or against)? What party activities have you participated in? After brief speeches and audience Q&A, the nine credentialed Central Committee members cast their votes, yes or no, for each candidate under consideration.

Ten of eleven city council candidates came to ask for resolutions of support: Julie Binko, Mark Bradley, Rebecca Cave, Dave Hafner, Kathy Juenemann, Jim Llanas, Robert Martin, Delray Rokke, Dick Seppala, and Elizabeth Sletten. The only candidate who did not come was Mary Mackey.

Five of seven mayoral candidates appeared: Marv Koppen, Diana Longrie, Will Rossbach, Ken Smart and John Wykoff. Not appearing were Fran Grant and Bob Cardinal.

The candidates who were given resolutions of support were Marv Koppen and Will Rossbach for mayor; Jim Llanas and Dick Seppala for city council.

The candidates I am supporting are Jim Llanas, Kathy Juenemann, and Will Rossbach. Of course I was disappointed not to see Kathy get a resolution, but I was pleased to see the party's recognition of Jim and Will, both of whom have put in a lot of work for DFL candidates in the past. Both Seppala and Koppen have long records of DFL involvement, so I have to agree that it was appropriate for them to get resolutions.

One interesting twist of events was that Robert Martin did not receive a resolution of support. Robert has done a lot of hard work as a DFL volunteer, and was even one of the Central Committee members casting a vote. However, he has become more and more associated with Diana Longrie and her efforts to recast herself as some kind of Democrat -- something that does not sit well with DFL activists. The vote on Martin probably would have been different a few months ago, when he would not have been perceived as part of a team with Mayor Longrie and her allies.

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Mark Bradley and Foreclosures

At the February 9, 2009, Maplewood City Council meeting, city council candidate Mark D. Bradley Sr. made a visitor presentation about foreclosed residential properties. Here it is:


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Reading Comprehension

Last Saturday, I posted a video clip of city council candidate Julie Binko at the July 20th meeting continuation. This prompted an e-mail that she sent to me and 51 other e-mail addresses on Monday. It reads:

Date: Mon, 27 Jul 2009 17:02:08 -0500
Subject: Thanks for the PR
To:; [51 other To:/CC: addresses redacted]

Mr. Nephew:

In these hard economic times, when we are looking for any exposure. As I am running a fully independent campaign and not part of the Binko-Longrie Show as you seem to be manifested on. I have to thank you for your efforts to highlight me in my candidacy for city council -- obviously your issue and not mine!!

For those of you who do not read Mr. Nephew's blog you and go to:

Of your your little article failed to included that your "resolution" most likely violated Observances Ch 10.60 and Fair Campaign Practice Statues 211B. Imagine a council person proposing a resolution and knowingly pulling the city council into a legal issue and which is against city code Sec.1-25.. I am not surprised you do not get more legal actions in this city with these type of irresponsible knee jerk reactions.

But hey John, continue on in your land of lost logic with a broken moral compass!!

Again, thanks for the pr.

Dr. Julie Binko

If I am correctly deciphering her grammar, which is oddly reminiscent of Chinese Viagra spammers, she references three laws that she thinks the Council Corner suspension would have violated.

Minn. Stat. 10.60: This is a law that regulates the content of government websites and publications, and is basically intended to limit or prevent elected officials using taxpayer dollars for campaigning and political self-promotion. It also (Subd. 5) "does not prohibit a state agency or political subdivision from adopting more restrictive standards for the content of a Web site or publication maintained by the agency or political subdivision." In other words, it explicitly enables a city like Maplewood to pass a resolution like the one I proposed.

Minn. Stat. 211B (the Fair Campaign Practices Act): Among other things, 211B.09 says "An employee or official of the state or of a political subdivision may not use official authority or influence to compel a person ... to take part in political activity." I suppose that if a mayor/councilmember compels the city staff to publish their campaign messages in the city newsletter, this might provide a basis to bring a Fair Campaign Practices complaint against them. Or, an article promoting a candidate may be seen as a violation of 211B.05 Subd. 4 if it lacks an "Editorial" disclaimer. In any case, this statute's restrictions on campaigning seem like another argument in favor of suspending council columns, to avoid any risk of running afoul of the Fair Campaign Practices Act.

City Code Section 1-25: This portion of city code states that city approvals or compliance with city codes does not remove liability from a builder/landowner for damage to persons or property, nor does it create liability for the city. How Dr. Binko thinks building codes apply to the city's newsletter, I have no idea.

Besides grammar, reading comprehension does not seem to be one of Dr. Binko's strong points.

On Friday morning, there will be a hearing in conciliation court for a small claims suit brought by Dr. Binko against Maplewood and the Friends of Maplewood Nature. She seems to be claiming a proprietary interest in the idea of applying for grants concerning the city's greenways. After seeing her legal misinterpretations above, I'm looking forward to seeing her innovative legal theories about intellectual property. Maybe she'll cite Article VII of the Constitution, or the Law of the Sea?


Robert Martin and the First Amendment

During the June 13-14, 2009, discussion of the proposal to suspend the Council Corner editorials during election season, city council candidate Robert Martin read a prepared statement opposing the resolution. Remarkably, he suggested that to limit elected officials' taxpayer-funded communications with voters would be unconstitutional. Denying Mayor Longrie her newsletter column (she is the only incumbent who had not said she would voluntarily abstain from writing), he warned, was likely to bring a lengthy and expensive lawsuit against the city.

Here's video of his statement and the ensuing discussion:

The court case that Martin reads from concerns an alleged violation of the Texas Open Meetings Law. An article summarizing the decision explains that, "the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) held that elected officials have First Amendment rights to speak to each other in private. As a result, open meetings laws that prohibit private speech between elected officials have to pass stringent constitutional muster, the court said."

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

John Wykoff and Secession

At the May 28, 2009, council meeting, mayoral candidate John Wykoff read a prepared statement at visitor presentations, updating the council and audience on his efforts to break away southern Maplewood into a separate city that he would name Innovation.

Here is his presentation:

This presentation may give us an idea of Wykoff's platform and motivation, now that he's a candidate for mayor. Here are the conclusions I draw from the specific issues he highlighted:
  • He opposes the city's Comprehensive Plan, which is required by state law.
  • He opposes ordinances to protect the environment (wetlands and trees).
  • He opposes the city's enforcement of the drinking age at liquor stores.
  • He opposes the city's enforcement of stormwater regulations, which are mandated by state and federal law.
  • He opposes regulation of construction on private land or enforcement of building and fire codes.
  • He would run his city of Innovation with a staff of five, and thinks anyone could run a city like Maplewood.
  • He believes we should “punish the police."
  • He really doesn't like fellow mayoral candidate Will Rossbach.
Obviously, Wykoff is anti-government and anti-regulation in general. The big exception is his neighbor's retaining wall. In that specific case, he is upset that the government is not aggressively intervening to regulate or dictate his next-door-neighbor's use of their private property.

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Elizabeth Sletten and the Plague of Woodchips

City council candidate Elizabeth Sletten is a regular at city council meetings, offering her opinions on a variety of subjects. One of her issues is her belief that composting is a major health threat. She brought her concerns to the city council at our meeting of March 10, 2008, when the city was considering a conditional use permit for Xcel Energy.

Every year, the power company trims tree branches that are too near their power lines. Among other things, the permit allows them to store the trimmed branches and brush by their County Road D substation. Several times a year the brush is chipped on site, and then hauled away. Ms. Sletten believes that this collecting of branches and brush, and its chipping, presents a major health risk for the community.

Sletten provided the council with a large packet of information prior to the meeting. It seemed to be an impressive assembly of scientific research to buttress her claims, unless you actually read the documents, and saw that their key conclusions were essentially the opposite of what she claimed they were.

This video includes two excerpts from the long discussion:

In spite of Ms. Sletten's dire warnings about the public health consequences of allowing wood chipping in Maplewood, the council voted unanimously to approve Xcel's conditional use permit.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

James Llanas on Restoring Confidence

In this year's city council race, it's already clear that Jim Llanas is one of the hardest-working, smartest and most determined candidates. I was looking at his web page today and saw that he's also a leader in taking advantage of technology to reach out to voters. Here's a YouTube video he posted on his blog to introduce himself and his platform:

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Dave Hafner and the Nazi Threat

My first encounter with city council candidate Dave Hafner was memorable. At the time, I was taking meeting notes for Maplewood Voices and making plans to run for city council myself. I attended the February 3, 2007, Mayor's Forum, where Hafner had some opinions to share. He was very concerned to make sure that Mary Flister, who was recording the Mayor's Forums at the time, saved his comments for posterity.

In Mr. Hafner's view, citizens who were monitoring the actions of the Longrie-Copeland regime and writing about them on Maplewood Voices were comparable to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. If the "good, decent, honest citizens" of Maplewood were not alerted to this threat, he feared that "these organizations with their computers will raze our cities just like Berlin in the early 1940s." He also stated that residents can't trust what they read in the newspapers, but should call Mayor Diana Longrie, Councilmember Rebecca Cave, or Councilmember Erik Hjelle in order to get the truth.

I'm not making this up! And as it happens, I have a copy of the digital recording. (If you don't want to listen to it all, skip ahead to the 4:10 mark for the start of the good stuff. You can also still read my notes from the meeting.)

At the end of the mayor's forum, Mr. Hafner came back to share more of his thoughts, working himself up into something of a rage:

(Direct links to audio, if those embedded players don't work for you: here and here.)

According to Mr. Hafner's certified Election Candidate Information Form, he is running as a team with Delray Rokke and Ken Smart. No word yet on whether or not they share his concern about a looming threat of National Socialism that hangs over Maplewood.

Also no word on whether Mr. Hafner still thinks as highly of Ms. Longrie and Ms. Cave as he did two years ago. I suppose the fact that both are candidates, but he is now running on a slate without either of them, speaks for itself.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Binko-Longrie Show

The Maplewood Review has an online update to the story about the Council Corner, entitled "Maplewood Council Corner Columns a go." The article describes at some length the unusual, off-agenda presentation from city council candidate and outspoken Longrie supporter Julie Binko on July 20. For those who have not seen Dr. Binko in action, I thought I would share a video clip of the exchange.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Calling the Question

The council meeting on July 13th was very long. Even after tabling many agenda items, we didn't adjourn until nearly 2 AM on the 14th. One reason for this was the unreasonable and unnecessary length of time spent on many agenda items.

As an example, the discussion of the Markham Pond retaining wall ran for more than 40 minutes. This included 22 minutes of one resident (a long-time supporter of the mayor, it may be noted) recounting the history of his family, which used to own the land in question, and its legal disputes with the school district and the City of North Saint Paul prior to the incorporation of the City of Maplewood. Most of the other discussion was irrelevant or a rehash of points argued at numerous previous public meetings as the city sought to resolve this particular issue.

Eventually Will Rossbach called the question, asking that we vote on the matter and move on already. Unwilling to simply call the vote, Mayor Longrie insisted on a formal procedural motion to call the question and a vote on it. After the motion to call the question passed, Mayor Longrie proceeded to ask if there was any further discussion on the main motion!

This whole meeting demonstrated Maplewood's need for a new mayor. Part of the extreme length of this specific meeting was, I believe, Mayor Longrie's wish not to see a timely vote on the Council Corner issue. But in any meeting, she seems to lack the desire or ability to use her authority as chair to keep the meeting on track -- for example, by courteously insisting that residents keep their remarks brief and relevant to the issue under discussion.

I think that in Longrie's view, this "talk as long as you want about whatever you want" approach demonstrates her supposed commitment to openness in government. I'm sure that's what she's saying on the campaign trail. The problem is that while she repeatedly gives the podium camera to some people with axes to grind, the result is to make government less accessible to others -- the people who have actual business before the council. These residents and businesses are forced to sit through long and irrelevant tirades, sometimes from people who are not residents of the city (but who know that the way Longrie runs meetings lets them generate a lot of footage of themselves for their cable access TV shows), before we get to real business.

If you want efficiency and good government from your city council, we need a new mayor.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Council Corner Issue Tabled

Our discussion of the Council Corner did not finish on the meeting of July 13-14. The mayor's delaying tactics -- running the clock out as long as possible on every item that night, keeping the meeting going into the wee hours, even attempting to continue discussion on an item after we had voted to call the question -- worked. Kathy couldn't stay around to the end of the meeting. A vote on the resolution was delayed until this week, at which point the mayor's own article had gone to press. Will and Kathy both indicated that they would voluntarily not write their scheduled columns during the election campaign. So for this year the issue was a bit moot.

This past Monday, I read the following statement into the record and withdrew my support for my own resolution:
I hereby withdraw my second for the resolution in item L5 to suspend the Council Corner column. To explain my decision, I am submitting this statement for the record. I ask that this statement be included in the minutes in its entirety.

I still support this resolution in principle. However, I can no longer vote for it in good conscience, because to do so would mean giving an even greater advantage to the person who manipulated the rules and her authority as chair for her own benefit, to prevent it from being passed a week ago.

This episode makes clear to all observers the power that a mayor holds simply by being chair, even if she has a minority of support on the council. I believe that, by keeping last Monday's meeting running long into the night, inhibiting its progress at every step, even going so far as to spend twenty minutes reading an extended version of the lengthy letter she wished to publish in the August newsletter, she purposely delayed a timely vote on this resolution.

The result of the delay, as I am sure was intended, was that the August newsletter already has gone to press with her article included. To pass the resolution now would only serve to magnify her unfair advantage over others.

As individuals, councilmembers may choose not to run columns as they are scheduled this fall, if they feel it is inappropriate. I believe both Will and Kathy indicated at our last meeting that they would voluntarily abstain from writing in the newsletter during their campaigns. They should be given the opportunity to make that choice and to receive credit for doing the right thing, just as the mayor made her choice to get her taxpayer-funded campaign message out by any means necessary.

In the place of the original motion, I would like to offer a substitute motion to table this resolution until January 2010. At that time the council takes up its annual review of council policy and procedures. Long ahead of the next campaign, the new council can engage in a discussion about what is or is not appropriate use of the city newsletter during election season.
After I withdrew my second, Will withdrew his motion for the resolution. The substitute motion to table passed 4-1. While the resolution was blocked for this year, my hope is that we can adopt this as a standing policy for the council newsletter editorial in future election years.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

More Media on Maplewood

Beside the Pioneer Press story I referenced this morning, a few other Maplewood-related news articles are in circulation today.

The "new media" takes a look at the Maplewood elections, though the byline is a familiar name for those who have followed Maplewood over the past few years: Paul Demko now writes for the Minnesota Independent, with a preliminary survey of the candidates. Demko's "Welcome to Maplewood" article from City Pages, March 2007, remains an indispensible introduction to the Longrie-Copeland era.

Meanwhile, the local weekly Maplewood Review has two front page articles related to the city council in this week's issue. One covering the Council Corner editorial discussion is not yet online as I write this. [Update, 7/23: It's now online.]

The other article discusses a deceptive flyer that was brought to the council's attention at our July 13th meeting, and which witnesses report was being distributed by the mayor's husband in the neighborhood affected by the Holloway/Stanich Highlands street project.

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Candidate Line-Up

Yesterday the filing period closed for this year's city elections. This morning's Pioneer Press includes an article surveying the field of candidates.

It will be interesting to watch the campaign unfold, as voters get the chance to learn more about all these people who have chosen to put themselves in the public spotlight (or under the public microscope, as the case may be) as candidates.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Newsletter Lies, Example #1

At last night's meeting, Councilmember Hjelle took exception to a comment I made at our previous meeting, suggesting that Mr. Hjelle has a history of lying in his newsletter column.

He apparently intended to read every single newsletter column he has written in his four years on the council (to follow Diana's lead in further delaying any vote on the resolution to suspend the Council Corner editorial during the campaign season), and sidetrack discussion into a long and irrelevant argument about whether the statements in each were accurate or not.


Here's the official record. November 28, 2005, city council minutes, page 21:
7. Moving Visitor Presentations to Beginning of City Council Meeting

a. City Manager Fursman presented the report.

b. Councilmember Rossbach presented specifics from the report.

Councilmember Rossbach moved to approve moving visitor presentations following item D (Approval of Minutes) and limit the total time to 15 minutes. with the time being divided equally among the people who wish to speak.

Seconded by Councilmember Bartol

Ayes-Councilmembers Bartol, Juenemann and Rossbach
Nays-Mayor Cardinal and Councilmember Koppen
Absent from the list of votes: Councilmember Erik Hjelle, who would not be sworn in until January 2006.

It would be a major project to document all the false statements in Erik's columns over four years (to say nothing of the whoppers I'm sure will be coming in his October letter), but the fact that (a) he lied within the first few lines of his very first one, and (b) is utterly convinced that what he wrote was true in spite of the record (haven't we been here before?), gives us an idea of what to expect.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Fear of Basketball

At the July 13th council meeting, we awarded bids for work in a couple of city parks, including resurfacing a basketball court in south Maplewood. Councilmember Hjelle suggested that we should just remove the basketball court entirely, because of the sort of people it attracts. In his own words...

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Assessment Interest Rates and Deferrals

At our July 13 meeting, the city council voted 4-1 to move forward with the Holloway/Stanich Highlands project. This is a project that we are accelerating -- the economic downturn has meant low prices on construction work, as many contractors are desperate for work and their bids show it. Federal monetary policy and record-low interest rates have also meant amazingly low interest rates this year for a highly rated government borrower like Maplewood, even while many private sector borrowers continue to face difficulty borrowing money from skittish banks and lenders.

The same economic conditions that make borrowing and building attractive for the city right now are making more residents than usual anxious about assessments. The city staff and council have taken a couple of steps to alleviate these concerns.

The first has been that on two accelerated projects we are deferring assessments for all residents for two years, interest free. With the low interest rates and low construction bids, we'll be saving more than enough to carry the interest on the assessments. The result will be that the streets are done a little sooner than originally planned, homeowners won't be paying assessments any sooner than they would have on the original CIP schedule (unless they choose to) and will actually pay this year's assessment rate rather than higher future assessment rates, and the savings mean that the ultimate long-term debt of the city will be lower than projected.

The second step we took was to adjust the interest rate charged on assessments this year. In the recent past it was 6%, but given the lower interest rates from our bond sale earlier this year, we unanimously approved a resolution at our May 28 meeting to reduce the assessment interest rate on 2009 projects to 5.4%. The same resolution sets a policy going forward of tying assessment rates to the city's actual borrowing costs plus 2% for administrative expenses.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Website Update debuted on February 13, 2007, when I announced my intention to run for Maplewood City Council. It began as a candidate website, a way to introduce voters to me and my positions on Maplewood issues.

Since taking my oath of office on January 7, 2008, this website has continued as a journal of my experience as an elected official. The perspective has changed from that of an observer to a participant, and the subject matter has shifted away from campaign matters toward the city's current events, policy issues, and political maneuvering.

So I've reorganized the site a bit. The most obvious change is to make the current blog posts my front page. A related change is a reorganization of the tags on posts, and which tags are listed in the right-hand column under “Blog Posts by Topic.” I think most visitors are interested in ongoing policy topics rather than, for instance, endorsements from the campaign of two years ago.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Council Corner Conversation Continued

We didn't get around to voting on it, but we had a lengthy discussion in the wee hours of the morning about my proposed resolution to suspend the Council Corner column during the election campaign season.

The people who stayed around long past midnight to address the city council on this topic were almost all opposed to the resolution. I was amazed that a recurrent theme was their mistaken belief that suspending the Council Corner would be a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. (There seems to be confusion about the meaning of "free" as in "unrestricted" versus "paid for by someone else," i.e., taxpayers.) One resident called my resolution "censorship," and compared it to Russia. I think I remember another speaker even suggesting that the city should be required to mail a letter on behalf of the mayor to all residents of Maplewood, at taxpayer expense, if she wished to during the election campaign.

Since some people considered it unthinkable that government would not fund currently elected officials' communications during their reelection campaigns, I thought it might be instructive to look at the franking privilege for members of the United States Congress.

Specifically, Congress has set rules for itself to prohibit taxpayer-funded mailings during election campaigns (quoting a 2007 Congressional Research Service document):
Senators are currently restricted from mass mailing during the 60 day period prior to federal elections, and during the 60 period prior to primary elections in which they are a candidate for any public office. The restriction for Representatives is 90 days prior to federal or primary elections in which they are a candidate for any public office.
Note that this prohibition on using the franking privilege at all during a reelection campaign is in addition to the regulations on content of franked mail at any time (including a prohibition on mailings that "relate to political campaigns, political parties, biographical accounts, or holiday greetings").

If somebody really thinks this poses a constitutional problem, perhaps they should let the U.S. Congress know.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Council Corner

One of the items I submitted for the agenda of Monday's council meeting is a resolution that would suspend the city council column in the city's newsletter through the election campaign season. This is in response to a citizen petition submitted to the city council at our last regular meeting. (I've uploaded my agenda report to this website.)

I admit that I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, I recognize that the blatant use of city resources for campaigning, as we saw in the 2007 election season, is unseemly. On the other hand, I also remember how each monthly newsletter with the writings of Longrie/Hjelle/Cave/Copeland would bring my campaign fresh volunteers and unsolicited contributions from angry residents. Residents continue to tell me about their visceral negative reactions to the mayor's cloying prose and Erik's frothing, paranoid hyperbole. So I find myself a little torn between the sense of what is proper, and the political value of giving Diana and Erik the rope with which to do her reelection campaign the most harm possible.

In any case, it seems only fair to put our citizens' request in front of the whole council for a vote. I figure the result is pretty good either way -- either we make the city newsletter less of a source of resident anger during the campaign, or the council votes down this resolution and then Erik writes a rant that's even more over-the-top than usual, which is sure to help motivate people to get out and vote against his ally, the mayor. (Assuming, of course, that he's still afraid to run for reelection himself.)

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Friday, July 03, 2009

July Newsletter Column

I wrote the Council Corner column in the July Maplewood Monthly, which should be in homes all over the city by now. In case you missed it, I extracted the page and archived it here in my website.


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