Council butts heads over residency request

Right at the end of the public portion of the Forest Lake City Council’s Aug. 28 meeting – just a few minutes before the council retired to closed session to discuss labor negotiations – two councilmen got into a brief but forceful exchange during a discussion about council member residency, after Councilwoman Mara Bain and Councilman Sam Husnik requested that Councilman Michael Freer present evidence to the city that he still lives within the Forest Lake city limits.

After the meeting, The Times met with Freer, who presented The Times with his current driver’s license. The Times verified that the driver’s license has a Forest Lake address that is different from both his previous Granada Avenue Court address and his old address on Birch Drive, where he lived when he filed with the city to run for council in 2010 and 2014, which indicates that he is not using one of his old addresses on the license. The Times is not releasing the address publicly because Freer is concerned about privacy and safety issues.

The discussion was the first public acknowledgment by the council of a rumor that began circulating among residents opposed to Freer and his council actions earlier this year, while the contract law enforcement discussion was at its height in the city. It had become public knowledge that Freer had moved from his old address on Granada Avenue Court in Forest Lake, and it was also public knowledge that he worked in St. Cloud. The rumor began to circulate online and in private that Freer had moved out of Forest Lake to be closer to work.

Every time The Times has encountered the rumor, it has not been backed up by any evidence that Freer no longer lived in Forest Lake. He has maintained that he moved to a different address within Forest Lake.

A data practices request was recently sent to the city by a resident regarding council member residency. The city requested each council member to provide their current address, but Freer (along with Mayor Ben Winnick) did not provide his to the city at that time.

“For safety and privacy concerns for my family, I wish to keep my address private,” Freer told The Times.

The Times has observed verbal threats being used against Freer by council audience members during passionate moments in the contract law enforcement discussions, and he has previously spoken publicly about threats and harassment brought against his family while the debate was raging.

At the Aug. 28 meeting, Councilwoman Mara Bain brought up the questions about Freer’s residency during her council comment segment of the meeting. She asked Freer to speak to City Attorney Jay Karlovich to see if a way could be found to satisfactorily clear up resident questions about whether or not he lives in the city while still meeting his comfort level for privacy. Freer did not respond at that time, but shortly thereafter, Husnik brought up the topic again and asked if the issue could be cleared up. Karlovich said it was his opinion at the time that if Freer submitted his address to the city, it would be a matter of public information, also noting that he did not know if the city had any kind of legal authority to compel Freer to submit his new address.

The council is the body that would have to determine that residency requirements are not being met.

“I have no problem talking to the city attorney because there is no legal issue here,” Freer told Bain. “There is no issue. My address is in Forest Lake, period.”

“Prove it,” Husnik shot back. “The citizens of this city deserve more.”

“Than you? Correct,” Freer replied.

After the meeting, Bain told The Times that she respected Freer’s desire for privacy, which is why she suggested that he talk to Karlovich about finding a solution. She said it would be enough for her to know that the city had verified Freer’s residency privately, without releasing his address to the general public, but she said she wasn’t certain it would satisfy residents.

“I would hope that Councilmember Freer would put forth the effort to satisfactorily resolve the questions of his residency,” she said.

Husnik made a Facebook post on his public page the evening of the meeting that did not identify Freer by name but referenced the situation, chalking it up as “another shenanigan” on the City Council. He told The Times he was unclear of the legal implications surrounding whether or not the address could be kept private, but he said he shared Bain’s opinion that the public might not be satisfied with private residency verification.

“The acceptable outcome is [to] prove that you’re a resident,” he said.

An address is not the only requirement for residency, according to Minnesota State Statute 200.031. The statute lays out several specific guidelines used to help determine residency, including a requirement that a person’s residence is where his or her family lives (unless he or she establishes a separate residence), a stipulation that someone who temporarily leaves home to live elsewhere doesn’t void his or her residency, and other rules.

In addition to discussing his driver’s license and privacy concerns with The Times, Freer also said that he has a right to have his information kept private once he shares it with the city because he contends that council members are legally considered to be employees of the city. Freer, who works as a human resources officer, said that council members (who are paid $5,500 annually in Forest Lake) are required to fill out tax information when they begin their term at the city, are eligible for Public Employees Retirement Association benefits and are also issued W-2 forms, which employers use to report wages paid to and taxes withheld from employees. Freer cited the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act prohibitions against revealing employees’ home addresses.

City Administrator Aaron Parrish told The Times that the city’s initial review of its rules indicates that council members are considered employees for the purposes of worker’s compensation but not for the purposes of the Government Data Practices Act. However, he added that the city would continue to review information regarding the matter.

Karlovich did not respond to a request for comment before press time.