Mayor, former mayor debate municipal campus

Citizens, First Amendment sidestepped by city

Stev Stegner
Guest Writer

Open letter to Mayor Chris Johnson on the Northland Mall Project:

I helped gather over 1,000 signatures for a petition to ask the City Council for a referendum on the new city hall. I would like a mediator to review the facts to see if what you have done is honest and forthcoming.

I am not saying this is not the correct project, nor am I against a new city hall. What I am saying is that the First Amendment gives each and every one of us the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

What I have heard from the City Council is that because you have engaged the Economic Development Authority (EDA), that somehow that relinquishes you of honoring the spirit and intent of the U.S. Constitution by not allowing grievances to be redressed.

You and the EDA are essentially the same entity, with overlapping members. The city has asked the EDA to do the project so you are not bound by city rules. This does not feel right.

Mayor, you of all people should be intimately familiar with the concerns of the people on this issue. Your law firm was engaged by the citizens of Wyoming to require the same referendum of the Wyoming City Council on new city facilities. With your legal wizardry, somehow you feel you have gamed the system by strong-arming the residents of your community on the same issue you protected the residents from in Wyoming. This makes little sense to me.

If referendum was right for the citizens of Wyoming, then why is not right for your own community?

–The writer is a former mayor of Forest Lake.


Informed decision made in good faith

Chris Johnson
Guest Writer

In response to Stev Stegner’s open letter, I want to assure all that the process leading up to, and the decision on, the Northland Mall redevelopment/Public Safety Building/City Hall was done openly and honesty, and in accordance with all rules.

In early 2012, during the Community Conversation series, we heard clear messages asking us to address the blight on Highway 61, specifically the Northland Mall site. Many requested we address our long-standing facilities needs. We listened. My goal has never been to attempt to please everyone. Rather, I simply try to make the best decisions for the city.

Some have wrongly claimed it unusual or improper to use EDA lease/revenue bonds for this project. In just the past five years, over 20 other cities in Minnesota have used such bonds for projects that were in part or entirely public developments. I understand Hugo funded its fire hall with such bonds. Our project is a private/public redevelopment of the entire Northland Mall site. It includes private redevelopment, private new development, a new parking lot and the city facility.

Mr. Stegner states that, though he is not necessarily against the project, he wants to ensure that the citizens have the right to petition their government and he asserts that this decision should have been put to a referendum. The citizens did submit a petition to the City and it was received. Nothing has been done to infringe on the First Amendment right to so petition.

As to why not a referendum, I don’t believe a referendum is a good decision-making model. Nearly all decisions by corporations, organizations and governments in this country are made by elected boards that consist of relatively few people. We’ve evolved to this model for good reason. Such boards are able to make deliberate and well-informed decisions and, in so doing, provide a vision for the organization and leadership to get it there.

This recent cry for a referendum is new. During Mr. Stegner’s four years as mayor, all decisions were made by council, without a single referendum. In fact, shortly before he became mayor, the first space-needs study for this project had just been completed with recommendations very similar to our 2012 study. He and his council decided to not move the project forward, and made that decision without a referendum. In the meantime, the project costs likely did increase.

I sense that the push for a referendum is not about process. Rather, it is project opposition. I understand that many don’t agree with it. We cannot please everyone. I know that, after many hours of study and deliberation, the EDA and council members voted what they thought was best for this city. After considering all facts and input, eight of the 10 people on the EDA and council, including me, believed that this project was the right move for the City of Forest Lake.

–The writer is mayor of Forest Lake.


  • Sally Swanson

    Excellent Mayor Johnson, I commend you.

  • Lynn Dufresne

    Thank you Mayor Johnson for this clear response to Mr. Stegner. And thank you, the City Council and the EDA for voting for progress in Forest Lake.

  • Matt

    This is about Minnesota state law regarding the issuance of capital improvement bonds, the required public hearings, and the right of the public to petition for a referendum. Instead, the EDA is heading up the project, receiving “rent” payments from the city, taxpayer money passed from one hand to the other, thus “revenue” will be used to pay back the bonds, and therefore the EDA is issuing revenue bonds instead, avoiding the requirements of Minnesota state law. This is certainly a convoluted interpretation of state law, and in the very least it is breaking the spirit of the law. If the mayor and his cronies prevail, at a minimum the state law needs to be amended to prevent such schemes in the future to avoid public hearings and referendums for huge public projects costing tens of millions of dollars.

    The mayor cites similar projects throughout the state as justification – clearly, this alleged “loophole” in state law has been used before – still doesn’t make it right or even legal. It doesn’t surprise me at all that other politicians in other cities want to do what they want to do without following the law, without holding public hearings, with no risk of the public petitioning for a referendum, and spend tens of millions in the process.

    I love how he says he didn’t take away the public’s right to petition the government. He accepted the petition, and had someone dutifully file it away, I suppose, never to be seen or given a second thought again. What good is a petition if it has no force of law behind it? The contempt and disdain for the public on display is incredible.

    But, you voted for this guy again, Forest Lake, so you get what you deserve. Hopefully the law will prevail and protect you from yourselves.

  • Steve

    Thank you Chris for all that you do. I wish all of the nay sayers would move to a diferent city!!! We need someone like Chris to move this city forward. Not leaving it to be the same dump the south end(entrance). Trust that you have all of the support of the younger more progressive people of this town.

    • Cameron Piper

      Progressive =

      Thank you for clarifying where the support of this project is coming from.

      Careful in assertion that the “younger” generation is behind this project as a general statement. Two of the personally named plaintiffs in this lawsuit are under the age of 35 – hardly ready to check into the nursing home as your comments suggest.

      • Matt

        Progress is good, right Cameron? Thus, being a “progressive” must be good too! Progressing towards what is the question. People like Steve will neither bother to research the history of progressivism, nor will they believe it if someone tells them the awful truth. I’m with you, and I’m just north of 35.

  • Eugene Huerstel

    Could it be the Mayor Chris Johnson is ready to as some say move forward ( code word for higher taxes) with many other projects? Will he try to go for the community center just after the next election in two years? Could he try for the Dog Park? When will he move forward toward a new million dollar park? When will he let everyone know the plans for the maintenance building? What else will he give away in Forest Lake? Isn’t there a time when the government has made enough? Its our money. Not just your money Mr. Mayor. Let us vote you can depend on the people to do the right thing? Eugene Huerstel

  • Jeff Carpenter

    I attended the “community conversation” regarding the Northland Mall project. 80% of the people in attendance were strongly opposed to spending $23,000,000.00 on a project built on a swamp. This same majority of people are in favor of rational improvements at a price affordable to the average tax payer that does not have an attorneys income. It was ironic to see the remaining 20% in support were cops, fireman and government employees.
    I have been a resident of this city for 35 years and have felt the services rendered for the tax base has been fair to all until now. I have never seen such a sneaky mayor and his regime work the system behind the backs of the residents they are suppose to represent. Disgusting!
    Residence beware we already lost democracy next is your wallet ! Jeff Carpenter

  • Danny

    Mayor, I noticed you never addressed the issue that you represented Wyoming residents to protect them from their City doing a similar action. Is this a flip flop or does your position just adjust to fit your need?

  • Karen

    Mr. Mayor,

    How many people did you appoint to the EDA, thus making it a stacked deck for passing this project?

    I guarantee this project will cost way more than 22.5 million dollars and “We The People” will be paying ALL of the overrun costs.
    If you want to talk about a blighted area just drive north on 61.Why don’t you just renovate where you are and save the taxpayers about half the cost?

  • John

    Matt – I appreciate your thoughts about the matter. If you’re interested in donating to the effort, you can drop a check off at Rapid Press or mail it to Lakes Area Business Association, 6838 167th Ave, Forest Lake. We’ll need quite a bit to meet the deep pockets of the city and every donation helps.

  • Eric Langness

    What’s absurd about this is the fact the newspaper has chosen to not give both an opportunity to write why they believe their views are correct but rather they allow the current mayor to respond to the former mayor. You’d have a more credible article if neither author knew the contents of the other prior to printing.

    • Clint Riese

      Thanks for your input, Mr. Langness.

      Mr. Stegner presented those comments at a City Council meeting and they were also printed in another publication prior to ours. The Times did not provide Mayor Johnson with Mr. Stegner’s letter. Upon receiving both, I felt it made sense to run them together. It is common practice for this newspaper to allow for responses, especially from elected officials.

      -Clint Riese, editor

  • Eugene Huerstel

    Being the fair editor you are, I’m sure you will give former Mayor Stegner another chance to respond to Mayor Johnson’s criticism of his predecesser’s record. Thanks for being more fair Clint. Eugene Huerstel

  • Samuel

    Mr. Carpenter – the conversation series was last March. You are thinking of the more recent facilities tour conversation. This year’s conversation series should be coming up soon so you can visit with the “regime” as you call it. Too bad about democracy being lost, I guess I missed the memo.

  • Peter

    Take a good look at what (Progressive) elected and non-elected City officials and their pocketed EDA cronies did to a neighboring city. You don’t have to look far to find North Branch, slogging through its 60,000,000.00 million, in taxpayers debt obligations presented to a cities future generations. Taxpayers who originally were not given proper disclosures, choices or even the vote of referendum, in having to own up and pay millions in interest on debt for decades to come. It is immoral and constitutes theft and abandonment of the public’s trust in local government.