Another Perspective

athenalogo.jpg I hardly recognize Northfield these days. For winter and summer breaks I return home from college, always hoping the town will be “the same”. While I recognize that everything must change, it has shocked and saddened me to see Northfield change so much. It’s the holiday season, and Northfield’s Christmas spirit is missing. The town is torn asunder, and it’s not the first time.

Over the summer, I witnessed the anger and division caused by the heroin outbreak. Northfield made front-page Star Tribune news then, and now it has again-for Mayor Lee Lansing. A shame that a town with so much to offer has of recent only come into the spotlight for such sad matters. But what saddens me more than the issues at hand has been Northfield’s reaction to them. With both the heroin news this summer, and now the situation with Lansing, I have watched Northfield react with bitterness, anger, and hurled accusations. We have become paranoid, fearful, and utterly divisive, to the point where it doesn’t matter what we’re dealing with; the main concern is not finding solutions, but dispensing blame.

The situation at hand is that of Lansing and a liquor store, and whether Lansing overstepped mayoral bounds when he tried to have the liquor store moved to land owned by his son. Were his acts criminal? I don’t know. What I’m really concerned with is how eager the town seemed to strike. The reaction suggested Lansing had done something unspeakably evil and secretive. This was no secret; those who know Lansing could testify that he’d wanted the liquor store there for years, well before he became mayor, and that he made no secret of it. The truth is, it would be a good spot for a liquor store. Lansing’s mistake was to step in where a mayor should not, but that doesn’t necessarily make him evil, or mean that he intends to trick and cheat us all. Why the witch hunt?

We are consumed with the idea of secret agendas. Did Lee have an agenda? Did former Police Chief Gary Smith? Did City Administrator Al Roder? It would be quite easy to say that I have an agenda in regard to Northfield politics: my dad works for the NDDC and writes for Locally Grown. He defended Lansing in a recent local podcast. My mom does woodworking; she knows Lansing through his hardware store. So yes, I have a personal investment in the issue. But when did “personal investment” become “hidden agenda”? When did our thinking become so paranoid? In a town where everyone knows everyone, it’s impossible not to have a personal investment in most matters. That’s a good thing about Northfield, and it’s why many people choose to live in small towns.

This isn’t a plea for Lansing. It is a plea for Northfield. Northfield of cows, colleges, and contentment. If what Lansing did was wrong, by all means punish him for it-but taking away his key days before Christmas? That goes beyond punishment; it is simply cruel. In Northfield, it shouldn’t have to be like that. This isn’t about selling watered-down drugs to third world countries. Politics is a dirty business, but Northfield is small enough-and personal enough-that it doesn’t have to be this mean.

My daughter wrote this piece. She had intended it as a letter to editor for the Northfield News. When I told her that letters were limited to 250 words, she rewrote quickly and effectively but I thought that it had lost some of its beauty. I then told her that she could try to submit it as a guest column but that it would probably be two weeks before it was published. She thought that the delay would undermine its effectiveness. Then I told her that there was a 10 day delay on letters to the editor. She seemed discouraged, so I suggested that I could post it on Locally Grown today.

I did not check this post with my cohorts at Locally Grown, the board of the NDDC, or my bandmates in the Blue Moon String Band. I take sole and personal responsibility for posting the views of my eldest daughter, Athena Borden Currier.

19 thoughts on “Another Perspective”

  1. Athena,
    What punishment would you suggest is appropriate?
    I’m not being flippant; for those who believe that Lansing has made mistakes, the question now is: how do we most appropriately respond to those mistakes?
    I’d welcome your thoughts.

  2. Thank you, Athena. Locking Lee out of his office before Christmas? Cruel, even sadistic.

    I found the book, “Dennison, Iowa” at Northfield Public Library on Saturday and have read a few pages. I figure I owe it to myself to read it. Iowans are aware of problems of various sorts in Denison when Roder was city administrator.

    Northfield News editor Jaci Smith posted a comment on this “other” investigation just today on her blog.

  3. Athena: It made me cry; not because of Lee, or for Lee, but for how we adults are forever “testing” our youth by spoiling their world.
    I am proud of how strong the “kids” are, and ashamed of how weak the adults are.
    Come back home, when you’re through with school, Athena, and help make this a better town.

  4. The other day my daughter was listening to my husband and I talk about the mayor mess (driving in the car, kids have to sit and listen, I suppose). She piped in, “I saw Lee Lansing walking the other day. He looked really bad.”

    That brings this mess in to perspective for me.

    Hey, here’s another for the steady diet of Bible quotes (well, it’s not exact): “Whoever is without sin can cast the first stone.” Mmm, that’s a good one, isn’t it, Bruce!

    Thanks, Athena for the good reminder. Happy Holidays

  5. Oh, and Patrick, I had a thought about your question:

    If you believe undue pressure for personal gain is enough for a recall, start to organize it? That’s what democracy is all about, I think.

    I’d like to see an organized effort as a result of factual information– but that doesn’t mean we should spread garbage on people’s lawns, or anyone forever. Let’s just get over it. And be wise about who we elect.

    And, something isn’t right at City Hall– this went too far before it was corrected, perhaps? Bureaucrats should answer to the collective group, too.

    We aren’t in the position to prosecute ciminal behavior, and so our only recourse is to hold elected officials accountable.

  6. Athena, I agree with your wish for more kindness, but remember that most people are getting no joy in this, just as you feel sad when a friend gets busted for underage drinking or a speeding ticket. There are good people on both sides of this issue, and we all hope for a speedy and fair conclusion to it.

  7. Dear Athena,

    Thanks you. I’m glad your hippie college hasn’t dulled your love and concern for your old hometown! The other day, Will (for whom you used to babysit) pointed out to me the new time-temperature sign at the corner of the First National Bank. He told me there was a Facebook group, now over a hundred members strong, started by high school students who miss the old sign. He said, “I love living in a small town like Northfield where people care about things like that.”

    Anyway, I think Mayor Lansing probably did some things that were unethical. But he’s not a professional politician. He’s a businessman, a father, a neighbor, a man who has an investment in his community. He was in a difficult position. The law in these matters, I guess, puts his ethical responsibilities as a government official first, and that’s how a lot of people are judging him. You’re wise to remember a man is not just a position or a role, but a human being. He deserves understanding and compassion, not just judgment.

    Unethical behavior in public officials is serious. I think we’ve seen a lot of it in the current administration in Washington. But I won’t go into that. This isn’t Washington. This is Northfield. Lee Lansing is a neighbor. I’ve bought a lot of good paint from him.

    Thanks for your words. I hope things have calmed down a little by the next time you come home on break.

    Love,
    Rob

  8. Your letter is well crafted and obviously heart felt. It seems to me to be, in essence, a call for civility. That is a worthy goal and one I will keep in mind.

    The city government is not functioning well. The city council has called for the mayor’s resignation and is refusing to work with him because of serious improprieties and/or ethical violations that the mayor has admitted.

    What would be the the least painful way for all the citizens of the town you love to begin to move past this crisis? I think it would be for the mayor to resign. Why he has not…I don’t know.

  9. Ross,
    Thank you for posting Athena’s letter. That she would take the time and energy to write with such heartfelt sincerity shows she has her father’s and mother’s love of this town and the people in it.
    We all should take heed of her sentiments. We are not in a position to judge. We need to ask ourselves, “if it were me or someone dear to me, how would I want others to view (judge) me?” “How would I ‘punish’ myself?” (Please, don’t jump to conclusions, I am not saying we don’t need justice for wrongdoing.) Let’s all walk a mile in Lee’s shoes and then answer the question. Do any of us know ALL the facts? No. Even with facts everyone’s perspective is different. Are we holding Lee to a different standard than others? Has anyone else in our city government done things equally ‘unethical’? Have any of us? Are we criminals?
    Are we the kind of community, country, world that is so quick to ‘linch’? We need to continually ask ourselves, “what if it were me?”
    Do people really believe that Lee, who has lived and done business in this community for years, knows most people by name, is a criminal? I hope not! Doesn’t his years of loyalty count for something? If the ‘scales of justice’ were used, how would it tip? I think we all know.
    Let’s start 2008 with open hearts, willingness to forgive, remembering that ‘golden rule’ “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

    Athena,
    Thank you. Please know that the world can be ugly, but people like you, our next generation to rule, remind us of how much beauty there still is in mankind.
    Julie

  10. William — I don’t think he should resign, unless its for personal reasons (that he’s worn out from all of this, and just wants to move on). It seems to me that we have a much more holistic problem with our city government — well beyond just the mayor and his actions relative to the liquor store site — and I’m concerned that his resignation would: a) lead Northfielders to think that’s not the case and lay the entire blame for this comprehensive mess on the mayor; and b) also lead folks to think the “comprehensive mess” has been resolved. To me, that’s a much more dangerous “resolution” than forcing the city council, the city administrator and the mayor to act like adults and govern the city the way we know it should be governed. As to Patrick’s question about what punishment is appropriate for the mayor — I know that was directed at Athena, and I’d be interested in her thoughts as well — but my thought is that the public shame and humiliation associated with his censure and the publicity of all of this is more than enough punishment, absent additional revelations.

  11. Mike-
    There might be a ‘comprehensive mess’ and more people than the mayor might be involved. I expect that the ‘mess’ will get cleaned up in time. Still, the mayor’s resignation would be the first step in resolving the mess. All the facts may not be in…all the facts may never be in. But some facts are in.

    The mayor attempted to use his office for personal gain. He may have been upfront about his agenda, but he was not upfront about how he advanced it.
    According to published reports, he suppressed an analysis that showed his site to be the least beneficial of six potential liquor store sites. As an interested party, he had every right to point out flaws that he saw in the analysis, but that’s not what he did. Instead he worked to suppress it. What if he had succeeded in ‘putting a lid on it’ and the liquor store had been built on his property? If the analysis then became public, after hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent on the wrong site, would an apology suffice?

  12. William: I am really encouraged by the fact that people move to town and become engaged in the community’s struggles with it’s issues.

    I did want to clear up one thing, however; the Mayor asked the city administrator to not present a report that he felt presented incorrect numbers until the numbers were verified. The city administrator did NOT present the report. So this might fall under the questionable title of “Two Wrongs Make a Right?” , but instead it has fallen under the title of “The Mayor did Something Wrong, but Mr. Roder’s OK”.
    One cannot have it both ways, i.e. “Ouch! I was pressured, so I gave in to the pressure!”
    I don’t think we have “waterboarding” in Northfield.

  13. Athena,
    Thanks for a piece that is quite poignant and should give us all pause as we contemplate where we are and where we need to get.

    There are still a lot of unanswered questions and there will likely be many, many unknowns after all the investigations are completed. At the end of the day, the City, as an organization, has suffered no financial harm. If 600 Division was the “wrong” site for the liquor store, somehow the system worked and prevented it from coming to fruition. The Mayor or his son have not attained any financial gain. The City Council has acted to censure the Mayor and have exacted every ounce of punishment within their power. While I was saddened by the timing and the seemingly petty nature of the Council’s punishment, I’m certain that these have been strenuous times for all the elected officials of our city and the Council members are humans, too, just like the Mayor. I’m thankful that our Council members and Mayor have been willing to be public servants. It’s not an easy job. And it doesn’t even pay well!

    Again, nothing financially big, bad and evil happened with the liquor store site. Hopefully once all the investigations have been completed, we will know enough so we can focus on what went right and make sure that procedures are in place to allow officials with conflicts of interest to still serve our community effectively and to prevent elected officials and city staff from applying undue influence in city processes. I like Athena’s ideals of small, personal and not so mean.

  14. Holly, I think in this situation I prefer “Blessed are the peacemakers”, or perhaps, “A child shall lead them”. Sometimes the young (sorry, I am extending the definition of “child” to cover the obviously very mature Athena) have a purity of heart that lets them state things so clearly because they are not burdened with the cynicism of age or jaded by long experience. I know Lee Lansing mostly as the individual who was always willing to take a moment to help me find just the right tools or products when I needed that help. Athena’s letter gently (and sometimes not so gently) chided us, asking us “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Wisdom comes of experience, and our written traditions represent thousands of years of experience, experience that we seem all to eager to ignore in our rush to judgement. Peace.

  15. Kiffi…

    Seems Mr. Roder keeps coming up when the discussion is about the mayor…maybe they are joined at the hip in all of this. Of course he should have spoken up when the mayor had him suppress the analysis of the sites. Was he worried about losing his job? No excuse to my way of thinking.

    Who ordered/paid for the analysis in the first place?

    It the financial conclusions of the anaysis were wrong, why suppress it? Get it out in front of the people and/or the council and debunk it. As it stands, I can not see the suppression of the report as anything other than self-serving behavior that was at odds with the interests of city of Northfield.

    As to the mayor not realizing any financial gain out of all this…Does inappropriate/unethical behavior have to result in financial gain in order for it to be worthy of serious consequences. That’s a slippery slope.

    One last off the wall question…Why did the last city administrator leave?

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