NSP City Council declares vacancy, plans to appoint new member

Mike Kuehn
Mike Kuehn
Scott Thorsen
Scott Thorsen
Page from Ramsey County Review dated Wednesday April 16, 1997
Page from Ramsey County Review dated Wednesday April 16, 1997

Appointed council member to start June 2, or later

Scott Thorsen's North St. Paul council chair inside city chambers has only been empty for a couple of weeks. Inquiries about who's going to fill the newly opened position, however, have already begun flooding City Hall.  

At the April 7 regular council meeting, council members officially accepted Thorsen's resignation letter and declared a vacancy. Everyone expressed remorse over having lost a youthful, capable voice at the decision-making table and agreed to move forward with plans to appoint a replacement for the duration of his term.

"Scott's gonna really be missed," council member Jan Walczak said. "He brought a perspective to the council that was [from] a different generation than what we are. He was our future, and we'll miss him. I'll miss him."

Acknowledging his own role in spurring Thorsen's resignation, Mayor Mike Kuehn said, "I know my loss of temper led to his decision. I sincerely did apologize. I wish he would continue with us, but I also know he's pretty resolved."

Resignation letter

As stated in his March 17 resignation letter, Thorsen announced he was stepping down "in the best interest of the city," because he didn't see how the council could engage in open, honest debates after the events of the March 3 workshop.

During a discussion on liquor ordinances, Kuehn had lashed out at Thorsen, and the two men had left the room to pursue an argument. Despite Thorsen alleging Kuehn made physical threats, no one reported fists being raised. But the incident was enough to sour Thorsen's appetite for local politics.

"Violence and the threat of violence is something that should be taken seriously, and a zero-tolerance policy is the industry standard, but apparently not in North St. Paul," he wrote in his resignation letter.

Thorsen's resignation letter was included in the March 7 council agenda. To read it in its entirety, visit ww.lillienews.com/articles/2015/04/08/north-st-paul-city-council-begins-dispute-resolution-process-thorsen-stays.

A police report on the incident is reportedly still in the city attorney's hands and has not been released to the public.

Need to change ordinance first

In order to start the process of filling the vacancy, city manager Jason Ziemer reviewed the constraints imposed by the existing city ordinance (No. 671), established in 2008 after the death of longtime Mayor Bill Sandberg. It indicates that a vacancy with more than 120 days remaining on the council term must be filled by special election.

Since Thorsen's term doesn't expire until Dec. 31, 2016, Ziemer explained that, under this scenario, the city would be required to invest resources in holding an election that complies with state statute — including managing absentee ballots, meeting notice and publication requirement and hiring and training election judges. In all, it would take about 16 weeks and cost the city an estimated $13,000.

The council voted unanimously to instead appoint a new member.

That means repealing the ordinance put in place when Sandberg died — see sidebar — so the council asked staff to prepare a repeal action for the ordinance, which will then be adopted at the next regular meeting on April 21.

Once the existing city ordinance is repealed, the council will default to state statutory guidelines, which will allow the council to appoint an interim council member.

Beyond saving money, Walczak pointed out this is not a regular election year.

"I think the turnout would be too small to justify the election," she said.

Previous council vacancies have been filled by appointment as well. Councilman Terry Furlong was appointed in November 2008 for a two-month period. He went on to secure a term during the regular elections cycle for that council seat.

In the 1980s and '90s, the late architect Ralph Corwin had been the council's go-to for filling vacancies. First elected to a series of terms in the 1970s, Corwin was appointed at least twice after that to fill vacancies, finally racking up more than 22 years on the council.

Preparing for the search

Presenting a proposed timeline for the appointment process, Ziemer suggested holding a two-week application period, followed by a review of all applications the first week of May, and selection of candidates by the city council. Council members would then interview candidates and select a finalist for appointment as early at June 2.

"The dates are just suggestive. It's basically a two-month process," he said. "It'd be tough to expedite it any more. You certainly want people to consider applications."

Furlong requested that the suggested application period be extended by a week or two, to allow candidates even more time to prepare.

For more information on the application process follow this link.

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

Why was city ordinance No. 671 established in the first place?

The North St. Paul City Council wants to avoid holding a special election to fill Scott Thorsen’s council seat.
In the expressed interest of saving time and money, the council members prefer to appoint an applicant. But, first, they’ve got to revisit a city ordinance (No. 671) that was revised not that long ago, in May 2008.
Ordinance No. 671 was revised to state that an election to fill a council vacancy should only coincide with the regular election cycle when 120 days or fewer remain on the term. When more than 120 days remain, the council should hold a special election prior to the regular election cycle.
While no one seems to be able to recall why this revision was adopted, a look back at the rush to fill the late Mayor Bill Sandberg’s vacant seat in the summer of 2008 offers some context:

• April 20 — Mayor Sandberg died of complications from acute leukemia at age 76, after serving as the city’s mayor for 30 years. Sandberg’s term didn’t expire until Jan. 3, 2011.
• November — Regular city council elections were scheduled for that fall because council members Paul Anderson and Jan Walczak had reached the completion of their elected terms. Despite the possibility of adding the mayoral seat to the November slate of elections, the council decided to hold a special election immediately. Former city manager Wally Wysopal had told the Review the council felt the mayoral seat needed to be filled as soon as possible.
• May 6 — The council adopted revisions to ordinance No. 671, dictating the existing terms of holding a special election.
• May 14 — The city published a notice of filing dates for the special municipal election for mayor.
• May 21 — The seven-day filing window closed at 5 p.m. In all, 10 candidates applied.
• July 1 — The city held a special mayor election, pulling in about 1,750 votes. Mike Kuehn won with 791 votes. Candy Petersen came in second with 355 votes. Jan Walczak came in third with 290 votes.
• April 7, 2015 — Looking to avoid holding a special election to fill Thorsen’s seat, as required by the existing city ordinance, the council voted to repeal the ordinance and appoint an applicant.

Council member demanding he or mayor resign: a familiar challenge?

A council member issuing an ultimatum to a mayor that “either you resign, or I will” sounded familiar to long-term Review staffers, and it has happened before.

This time, Mike Kuehn was the upstart North St. Paul City Council member, arguing with the late Mayor Bill Sandberg in April 1997 about repairs that had been done on Helen Street the previous fall.

For those who don’t remember the Helen Street repair project as a huge political flashpoint, the street’s asphalt apparently had been compacted at a lower density than the city required, and after just a few months of a Minnesota winter, was already cracking and potholing.

Kuehn had asked a friend who worked in paving what he thought was wrong and at a council meeting presented the friend’s findings.

Sandberg took issue, saying he was “a bit surprised” Kuehn had “brought in a consultant” instead of asking city staff his questions.

Kuehn fired back that he didn’t “bring in a consultant” and had just looked for an expert opinion in order to be a better-informed council member.

At that point, frictions between the two seemed to reach the boiling point.

Kuehn told Sandberg, “Maybe one of us should resign.”

Sandberg returned, “Maybe one of us should,” before continuing with the meeting.

A few minutes later, Sandberg stated that simply because he and Kuehn disagreed on an issue, it didn’t mean someone had to resign from the council.

Then-council member Leon Lillie, now a state legislator, later downplayed the dispute, saying each council member had different views on how best to do their jobs.

— Holly Wenzel



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