No change on Forest Lake council after vacancy vote fails

Area residents packed the Forest Lake City Council chambers Oct. 2, filling it for the first time since the contract law enforcement discussion, to see the outcome of a special meeting called to discuss the possibility of declaring a vacancy on the council. Ultimately, the council’s membership remained the same, with the council coming to a 2-2 tie on the question of whether to declare vacant the seat currently held by Councilman Michael Freer.

Councilwoman Mara Bain and Councilman Sam Husnik voted in favor of the resolution to declare vacancy; Councilman Ed Eigner and Mayor Ben Winnick voted against. Freer abstained.

The council does not typically hold meetings on the first Monday of the month; this meeting was scheduled at the request of Bain and Husnik following allegations made by resident Matt Arntzen at the Sept. 25 meeting that Freer lives in a home in Maple Grove, not at the empty Forest Lake home on 4th Avenue Southwest that is on Freer’s current driver’s license. After the Sept. 25 meeting, the owner of the 4th Avenue property, former Mayor Stev Stegner, told The Times that Freer had agreed to lease the home after moving out of his old Forest Lake home at the end of June. However, he added that a pending insurance claim to recoup water damages at the house had prevented the start of remodeling work, forcing Freer to temporarily live elsewhere. For more information about both sides’ claims regarding Freer’s residency, read the story “New round of residency allegations surface.”

At the Oct. 2 meeting, Freer’s attorney Kevin Shoeberg spoke further on the topic of Freer’s residence and intentions. Shoeberg presented council members with a two-year lease for the 4th Avenue home that he said Freer had signed in June. He said that Freer had intended to move directly into the 4th Avenue home, but after it was unavailable, he had to quickly move to find temporary housing elsewhere. He added that Freer intends to move back into city limits as soon as he can find a residence, noting that Freer is currently seeking alternate local accommodations in case the Stegner property is not remodeled or remains uninhabitable for an extended period of time (the house, which Stegner said he plans to demolish in a few years as part of a tax increment financing district plan to build a medical office building, had a building permit pulled on it that expired in February of 2016. Stegner told The Times he was unaware that the permit had expired and planned to pull a new one).

“Because this issue has been raised, Mr. Freer is looking for another house, because he intends to be a resident of Forest Lake and thought he had that covered when he entered into the lease with Mr. Stegner,” Shoeberg said.

Shoeberg also cited multiple examples of instances where council members in other municipalities had been unexpectedly forced from their cities of residence due to unforeseen circumstances, including fire and divorce.

“You’re not being faced with something that hasn’t happened before, because it has,” he said.

Key to Shoeberg’s argument is the idea that state residency requirements are based both on location and intent. Since Freer’s plans to remain in Forest Lake were spoiled, he said, the council member was forced to seek temporary residence elsewhere, but he argued that factors like Freer’s continued regular meeting attendance, his lease with Stegner, and even his continued local choice of medical care showed that the councilman fully intended to return to the city once a suitable home could be found.

Residents who spoke at the council meeting were split on the issue. Some who talked were mainstays of the discussion over whether to use the services of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, instead of the Forest Lake Police Department, for police protection earlier this year, and they made reference to that debate in their remarks – including their view that the residency issue and the police issue were linked in their lack of transparency. Some accused Freer of being symptomatic of a problem with the council as a whole, or with the frequent majority of Freer, Eigner and Winnick.

“Mike Freer is only a bad tooth in a mouthful of decay,” said Don Shipp, a member of the city’s Airport Commission.

However, Freer had his fair share of supporters, some of whom held signs that read “We like Mike,” in an apparent riff on U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s old campaign slogan. A common theme among his supporters was the thought that the residency issue had been contrived as a revenge attempt for Freer’s contract law enforcement votes.

“I think the real issue here has been, we’re on a witch hunt, and I think certain people haven’t liked what Mike has said or stood for,” Tom Schaal said.

The crowd was frequently lively; members from both sides of the issue sometimes heckled those from the other side while they were speaking, and a couple of outbursts were gaveled to silence by Winnick.

After Shoeberg finished addressing the council, members discussed their thoughts on the validity of Freer’s intentions and the legal consequences of either removing him from the council or keeping him on. Winnick and Eigner were hesitant to abrogate the results of the 2014 election, with Eigner reminding the council of the controversial decision to fund the YMCA that was made with the appointed, not elected, Councilwoman Molly Bonnett as the deciding vote in 2014.

“Councilmember Freer was elected by the people of Forest Lake, and I want them to have their voice, and I don’t think as a council [that] we have any right to take that away,” Winnick said, adding that state statutes leave the city in a “gray area” regarding the limits on physical location and intent (the primary statute referenced by the council during this discussion was State Statute 200.031).

Bain and Husnik worried that 3-2 council votes made since Freer moved out of town could be invalidated in a legal challenge should a court rule that a vacancy exists. Bain said that she likes Freer as a person and a colleague but that her position was not a personal one, adding that she found the explanation for his current address outside of the city to be suspect and that she wanted to know when Freer would be back in town.

“The law requires both physical presence and intent, and I’m not seeing either one,” she said.

She also questioned why Freer participated in a vote related to the Cornerstone TIF district in June if he was ostensibly going to be living on part of the property, and she wondered why Freer’s lease didn’t contain language involving repairs that would be made to the home, which appears uninhabitable in its current state.

“You want us to believe that there is a legal and valid lease in existence on a house that is not eligible for occupancy?” she asked Shoeberg.

Toward the end of the discussion, Eigner offered a personal perspective, noting that he found Freer’s story to be credible because he too was forced to live outside the city for seven months after a fire in his home late last year.

“I tried through my insurance company, I tried to stay in Forest Lake,” he said. “That was my first thing, ‘I want to stay in Forest Lake.’ Believe me, on a short-term basis, it is very very difficult to find something in Forest Lake.”

After the meeting, Freer spoke to The Times and reiterated Shoeberg’s statement that he was planning on either moving into the 4th Avenue home once Stegner had finished a remodel or finding an alternate place to move that is within city limits. He and Shoeberg were unsure as to how local residents learned what his Forest Lake and Maple Grove addresses were, but Shoeberg said the matter was being looked into. The Times also asked Freer if he owned or had purchased the home in Maple Grove or if he was living there through another arrangement, but he declined to comment.

A frequent topic of discussion during the open forum was the question of why Freer hadn’t told the council or the public before now that he would temporarily be living out of the city while remodeling work was done. Freer said that after Bain had asked him during the council’s Aug. 28 meeting to discuss his residency privately with City Attorney Jay Karlovich, he had spoken with both Karlovich and City Administrator Aaron Parrish about his living situation.

“The city administrator was well aware of the address, as was the city attorney,” he said.

He added that that he’d also disclosed during those conversations that he was living outside the city.

“They are also aware that I have a valid lease in Forest Lake,” he said.

Parrish did not confirm or deny the remarks about his knowledge of Freer’s living situation, commenting only that he and Karlovich hold private conversations with individual council members to answer questions or offer counsel when they are called upon.

As to the public interest in declaring his seat vacant, Freer’s thoughts on the motivation for the move were short and to the point.

“In my mind, this is political retribution for the police vote,” he said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

Following the vote, Husnik told The Times that he was unhappy with the way the meeting turned out.

“I’m disappointed in the outcome because either you are a resident, or you’re not, and he has not proven that,” he said of Freer, adding that in his opinion, the available evidence suggested that Freer’s move out of town was permanent.

Husnik said he had no immediate plans to continue pursuing the residency issue after the council vote, but he believed the topic would resurface at some point.

“I don’t think it’s over,” he predicted.