Wrestlemania at City Hall!

The Northfield City Hall tensions among Councilors Jon Denison, Kris Vohs, Mayor Lee Lansing, and City Administrator Al Roder hit the front page of the Northfield News today. Reporter Suzi Rook has a story in today’s paper titled: Tension behind push for charter change.

A power struggle between City Administrator Al Roder and Mayor Lee Lansing – particularly prevalent in meetings between the two – is hurting the city, Denison said, keeping councilors and staff members from doing the city’s business. Roder says things have been difficult between the two since March, when Lansing asked the city administrator to resign. Under the city’s organizational structure, only the council can fire a department head… Councilor and Mayor Pro Tempore Kris Vohs, at Lansing’s request, has sat in on the last few agenda-setting sessions. In those meetings, he said, he’s seen the tension and its impact on putting the agenda together. Lansing has been extremely difficult, Vohs said, demanding Roder take action, but giving him little guidance.


  1. When we see statements like this being made in the News article…

    “Roder says things have been difficult between the two since March, when Lansing asked the city administrator to resign. Under the city’s organizational structure, only the council can fire a department head.

    “After the mayor told me he didn’t want me working for the city any more things became much more contentious,” he said.

    Lansing disputes he sought Roder’s resignation.

    “That is not true,” he said. “I think he’s doing a great job. I hope he’s there for a long time.”

    … someone’s lying.

    People obviously can see the same event differently, but it’s hard to imagine how these two opposite views can have bubbled up from the same incident. Yes, I know the blind-men-and-the-elephant story, but, last I checked, both these men should be able to see the whole elephant – so to speak.

    It’s sad that such a power struggle appears to be taking place. It means that the council and city staff, who probably feel great pressure to “take sides”, are distracted by agendas and requests based on vindictiveness and scoring points rather than the best interests of the city.

    They were elected or hired to serve Northfield, not wage war against each other. If that nonsense continues, and it doesn’t matter who is at fault, then perhaps, it would be in the best interest of the city for both men to step down.

    September 26, 2007
  2. Anne Bretts said:

    Finally, after months of hinting and sniping and gossip and government paralysis, someone finally points out what has been obvious all along. To borrow Brendon’s elephant under canvas analogy, this is one pachyderm who has knocked down the tent and run wild through town, while people duck and hide. They can see clearly but choose to avert their eyes.
    I wouldn’t presume to judge this case, given the seemingly incompatible versions of the story. The councilors know what’s going on, and it was their civic duty to deal with this the very first time it surfaced. Too much time has been wasted waiting and hoping it would go away. And continuing to avoid the obvious solution only prolongs the misery for all concerned. Now it is too late for mediation or even Dr. Phil.
    Too bad that the council doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. The councilors were elected to take sides on tough issues. It is imperative that they straighten their spines take a stand now. They should state their reasons publicly, then vote either to ask Roder to resign or ask the mayor to do so. Of course, the council can’t force the mayor out, but if he refuses, the council needs to close ranks, support Roder and isolate the mayor. If Roder loses the vote, he should leave. If the council is split, then lock everyone in a room in closed session until they work it out. We deserve better.
    No business would have tolerated this behavior in front of clients and investors. And citizens are both clients and stockholders in this city. This playground fight is an embarrassment to both men and the council. It doesn’t mean either man is inherently evil, but the combination of the two personalities seems toxic.
    Once this is resolved, the council needs to reach some kind of solid concensus on process so they can reassure the staff and avoid a repeat of this with each election cycle and staff hiring decision.

    September 26, 2007
  3. kiffi summa said:

    Well, thank you Ms. Bretts………you got it 100% right.

    There’s just one little part of this sickening mess that you left out.

    If Jon Denison were really concerned for the city, as he states in the article, he would have not have gone to the Charter Commission, as a single council voice, or as a “messenger”, and suggested that we change the intent and concept of how this community is governed. The strong/mayor council structure we have dictates a city administrator which is in all actions “responsible to the mayor and council” (see city code 7.4 )

    Mr. Denison should have realized that we had a referendum just a few years ago, brought to the citizens by the charter commission, on changing to a City Manager, which then pairs with a weaker mayor and council. The referendum was soundly defeated; the voters obviously cared to keep the control in the hands of their elected officials, not the hired staff.

    Mr. Denison should also have realized that the appropriate process on something this serious, suggesting changing the basic structure of our local gov’t, was something which he should have held a ward meeting about, consulting his constituents as to their views. This is, after all, a representative form of government. His NOT doing that, is what leads me to question if he was acting as the “messenger”.

    I say this council, and the city administrator, all owe this community a sincere apology, and a promise to try to do better. Are they big enough to do that ? or are they going to continue to subject the town to elephants running rampant in the streets?

    September 26, 2007
  4. Anne Bretts said:

    Hold on a minute, Kiffi. I was hoping we really did agree, but I’m not asking for any apologies. I don’t care what Mr. Denison did, or should have known, or whether he was a lone eagle or a carrier pigeon or just a plain pigeon. And you’re not exactly without a conflict of interest on this one, so I’ll take your comments with that in mind.
    The charter process is much more complicated than Mr. Denison making a request, so the achingly slow bureaucracy and public kvetching would have protected the status quo just fine. But even the status quo doesn’t seem to fit the administrator as butler job description some people appear to want.
    And Mr. Denison isn’t the issue.
    It’s clear you’re part of the Roder-Rooter effort, ready to flush him down the drain. I wouldn’t rule it out, but as I said, I’m not ready to judge this just yet.
    I see a lot of reason for concern all the way around. The liquor store debacle still has an aftertaste worse than warm beer. And if there is just one memo from the mayor to staff or one mention of the topic between the mayor and staff in a staff meeting, he overstepped the role of a concerned private citizen (who wouldn’t have such access) and should have been censured at the very least. (In the interest of disclosure, I oppose municipal liquor stores in general and the Division Street location in particular for a number of reasons.)
    An argument can be made that the mayor is the old cattle baron who tried to bully Roder and threatened his job in private in an effort to save his ranch from change, and Roder is in the Gary Cooper role of outside gunslinger turned sheriff, protecting the weak councilors and townsfolk. The argument for Lansing is that Roder rode into town and pulled his gun first, forcing the mayor to don his white hat and fight for justice. I’m not clear what Roder’s motive would be, other than an outlaw power trip. Alienating the council would mean losing his job, so there’s no monetary incentive. Getting fired at his age would destroy his career. I’m not ruling out the outlaw power trip, just trying to understand another possibility.
    But we’re past talkin.’ It’s clear people want political blood. We need to avoid a lynch mob, but it does seem like the boys at City Hall ought to borrow the dusters and guns from the James Gang and settle this once and for all. Load ’em with paint balls, or tranquilizer darts or skunk capsules so we all know who wins and the losers still can slither away. And the townsfolk can get the public showdown they’ve been pushing both sides into for months.
    And when the dust settles, the locals need to decide whether they want to have a real, modern government , or just want to continue bringing in gunslingers and then gunning them down.

    September 26, 2007
  5. kiffi summa said:

    Poor Cleopatra! How foolish she was to welcome the viper unto her breast!

    Please take me out of your so-called Roder -Rooter gang………..I have urged everyone, including my friend and neighbor, a city councilor, to stand back, see what’s up, or down, before choosing sides, and especially before choosing sides between ( 1 ) a colleague and a city employee, or ( 2 ) two city employees………….wait to see what facts come out in this unbelievable mess. Unfortunately, it appears that many of what may be the most pertinent facts will never see the light of the Northern Sun!

    Now, re: conflict of interest……….. are you actually suggesting that no one who has a non-blood, but marital relationship with a person who has run for city office, can ever , past that point, have a political life?

    Surely, you jest!

    September 26, 2007
  6. Anne Bretts said:

    OK, the Cleopatra bit ups the dramatic ante, so you get points for that, but the very thought of you in a toga and me anywhere near your breast may be a little too much for the sensitivities of this fine group. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld says). Maybe you can think of some kind of Victorian betrayal, something with a little more clothing and some poisoned tea.
    Glad to know you’re keeping an open mind, however (I went a little over the top, but I really liked that Roder-Rooter imagery — I think that demonstrates a problem in another thread).
    Of course, you can comment on anything (not that you need my permission, God knows), it’s just that all our experiences color our perspectives and views.
    This is all fun and games. But frankly, this whole City Hall spat is not a noble fight or even a noble western, but a petty and pathetic bit of personal bickering that continues only because too many of the talented and smart and passionate people who could make a difference choose to do it outside politics. We need to support the people on the council, but it’s hard to do when they won’t share the issues with their constituents. Sadly, I’m reaching the point where I just don’t care. And if policy wonks like me are fed up, it means most normal folks tuned out a long time ago, writing off city government as irrelevant in their lives.
    And that’s a real tragedy.

    September 26, 2007
  7. Christine Stanton said:

    I remember when I was young and my little brother used to do something that irked me. While he sat behind my parents with a smirk on his face, I would be the one reprimanded, because, as my parents explained, I made the most noise. That memory makes me wonder who would be my little brother and who would be me in the Roder/Lansing battle.

    Mr. Vohs said he attended a couple of the agenda setting meetings with Lansing and Roder recently, and he felt that Lansing reacted unfairly. It seems that Roder might have already pushed Lansing’s patience beyond the limit before Mr. Vohs was invited to participate. Yes, Lansing should be able to manage his temper, but Roder seems a little to calm about the situation.

    One thing that stood out to me in the NN article is that Roder said that he did not have as much trouble with agendas in the other places he has worked. Could it be that because our charter differs from those other places and, it is because he is accountable to the mayor in Northfield that he seems to have this problem?

    The calmness that Roder seems to exhibit also makes me wonder about the source of the “leaked” info. from city hall. (I know. Because it is not based on any facts, that statement might be pushing the guidelines of this blog.) People that come accross as a little to calm or smooth make me wary.

    With all the dirty laundry that has been aired about Lansing, I am eagerly waiting to hear more about the investigation that our on-leave, Chief of Police, Gary Smith started. How can we get Suzi Rock going on that one?

    I believe that Lisa G. said we would have word on the Roder investigation shortly. Before any major decisions are made about city hall and its governance, I would like to hear more about that report.

    September 26, 2007
  8. kiffi summa said:

    Interestingly enough,”normal folks’ have not tuned out; Iowa is not the ONLY politically involved state……..although Denison IA has a weak mayor governance system (mayor doesn’t even vote with council); therein may lie some of the agenda setting problems.

    Re: NF’ers being tuned in or out, I have not heard as much on the street, in the coffeehouses, at the Cow, discussion/speculation about city activities since the great “T” debate; and from young and old. Just reread Christine’s previous post. This malfunctioning is very disruptive, it appears, to people’s general state of being. Can’t have your Federal and Local Gov’t all screwed up at once………Where’s the guy booking Moon Colony excursions? I think he’s missing an economic opportunity.

    There are either serious issues, or there are not; regardless of perceived legality, I have never found smart attorneys lacking in ways to get out the information they want the public to hear. The community deserves to hear something about the status of the various investigations……….And, what’s with the “special investigator”? Am I correct…He’s investigating alledged actions of elected officials and staff, and he’s reporting to council and staff? Something wrong with this picture?

    Maybe we should set up bleachers again in Bridge Square, have the special investigator report from a podium in front of the Eagle monument, to the people who should be reported TO. Let’s see what the “banditos” have been doing.
    Council and Staff may attend if they like………….

    September 27, 2007
  9. When all is dissembling and prevarication, when there seems to be a distinct lack of accountability, when everything is factless and tactless, when it quacks like a duck but tastes like a chicken, and when I want to hi-jack Griff’s site with my adolescent ramblings and playground poopie jokes, I write a list. A list with a tenuous, but, in the way of all satire, perhaps more-grounded view of the situation. You can judge for yourselves.


    September 27, 2007
  10. Christine Stanton said:

    Even though they are not elected officials, maybe the Charter Commission should be involved. I would feel much better if the status of the investigations were being followed by someone other than those that are being investigated. Are there any “rules” for how to handle situations like this? Maybe that is something we need to add/change in our charter.

    By the way, does anyone remember the restaurant the city financially supported that was housed for a very short time in the Carlson Companies building? I believe the deck overlooking the river was built at that time. Didn’t the city learn something from that venture? Why did we agree to get involved in The Crossings?

    When I first heard how much the units at The Crossings were going for, I could not imagine that Northfield would have enough buyers at that income level. Then, I thought, the developer must know something I don’t. Now, I see that my uneducated opinion might have been more realistic after all.

    The idea and concept of The Crossings is wonderful. But Northfield is not downtown Minneapolis. Idealism in Northfield has never been lacking. That can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on whether or not it is balanced with reality. The old saying “form follows function”–form being idealism and function being reality–applies here as well.

    Maybe it is because I am a dreamer and idealist that I am so concerned about reality. Because I am well aware of those tendencies in myself, I try to make sure I curb them with a dose of reality. Sometimes that is disappointing, and other times it is necessary for survival.

    Yes, Kiffi, I also have a good imagination, though I do not believe it has reached the point of being “malfunctional” or affecting my “general state of being.” I am still “tuned in,” but there is balance. Hmmm… Maybe the reason some of us feel the need to imagine is beacuse the realities facing our local and federal governments are so harsh right now.

    “Hey, and unlike the Hippies, we can do it without mood altering chemicals”, she said as she took a drag on her cigarette.

    September 27, 2007
  11. victor summa said:

    Christine wrote:

    “Even though they are not elected officials, maybe the Charter Commission should be involved. I would feel much better if the status of the investigations were being followed by someone other than those that are being investigated.” etc.

    I’d say all the better – the Charter not being elected etc., then their role in an investigation is likely to bear some sense of finality. The Council’s majority vote on what seems to be a cover up is likely pinned on the fact that they don’t want generalities waved about as overarching process. Hence: “We’ll do it ourselves!”

    Less likely criminal acts… more like little kids, not wanting their parents’ help in getting milk from the refrigerator… then spilling it… THEN in fear of reprisal… blaming the parent!

    Christine also wrote regarding Paulina’s Restaurant, the ill fated effort in the now Carlson Management space overlooking the River, asking:

    “Didn’t the city learn something from that venture? Why did we agree to get involved in The Crossings? “

    What the city might have learned from Paulina’s was a need for better oversight of financial transactions. Northfield had made the project a loan – about 40 K as I recall – and when the business failed… (and due to our bad record keeping, legal filings, etc.) the city came up short on the defaulted loan to the tune of about $25,000.

    “Learned something” perhaps. A loss for sure… But the aging building, replaced by what stands there now overlooking the river, is not an expensive way to eliminate blight.

    Bigger cities push around millions in the name of urban renewal. $25,000 for the better look on Bridge square… NOT A BAD EXCHANGE in my opinion.

    As to the Crossing – while this project is on hold – due to a depressed housing market – and a raging war-like action in the middle east… there’s no proof that it (The Crossing) won’t rebound. Overpriced or not, the full sale of units will take place. Certainly it is the bigger risk for the developer than for the City.

    What was the City’s Investment? – To move forward on that project the developer sought and received TIF in the amount of 3.8 million (if my memory is close to accurate)

    I can’t guarantee the city will get all its money back – but the plan was as follows:

    N’fld floats 3.8 M (G O Bonds) to support the massive reclamation of the site… moving of utilities, hazardous materials clean up, correcting flooding issues, etc.

    The theory is the developer can’t make it work w/o that financial help.

    Pay back, in round figures, when fully built out will be $450 K annually in improved property tax revenue. $350 K of that is allocated annually for 17 years as debt service retiring the G O bonds. The 100 K excess, goes directly to the city to be spent by the city, for various ongoing maintenance etc. in the TIF district.

    This 100 K replaces 29 k that the site brought in as tax revenue in pre-development terms. A net gain of 71 K.

    Additionally, the blighted site is razed, replaced with the Crossing.

    Grant it, due to market slo-down, the gain may be slower… and the City may briefly have to eat some losses… but not all that bad when compared to fully funding the cost to remove the blight with no pay back… just a cash layout… or living with the blight on the highway to a main entrance to downtown.

    As I said, there’s no guarantee the city will get all its money back – but that’s the plan.

    September 27, 2007
  12. Ross Currier said:


    Your comment on the source of the “leaked” information is fascinating to me.

    In my voracious reading of biographies of ancient persons, I find that identifying patterns in an individual’s behavior can often be helpful in “filling in the blanks” or “connecting the dots” in a story…at least hypothetically.

    I’m also glad that I’m not the only citizen of Northfield who is still wondering about how that information was leaked.


    September 27, 2007
  13. kiffi summa said:

    I agree, Ross; WHY isn’t important to the city Council to find out who leaked the packet ??????
    It’s a violation that if done by a city employee carries the threat of immediate suspension without pay, and then dismissal. I can’t believe the council is either protecting someone, or just doesn’t care. Considering all the street talk about who did deliver it from city hall to the newspaper, if those speculations are just misplaced gossip, then why not clear it up , or get ONE of the people causing trouble out of the game.
    And, I’m afraid the name of the game is: ARROGANCE.

    September 27, 2007
  14. Anne Bretts said:

    I can’t believe people are more concerned about the person who leaked the information than the important information it contained. I talked to a legal expert familiar with the case and the only way to force the city to release the packet in full is to take the city to court, an expensive process that lets cities hide all kinds of things that should be public.
    As for the packet the paper received, once the documents were released to the paper, the paper was free to use them, even those that might be considered confidential. The paper obviously didn’t use all the material available.
    I haven’t seen the papers, so I can’t judge whether their release was a an attempt at a smear or a brave whistle-blowing effort.

    September 27, 2007
  15. victor summa said:

    Tell us Anne: You’re the one with the seemingly lengthy background in journalism. In your opinion, is it legal to leak confidential government documents? Is it legal for the media outlet involved to accept these illegally leaked documents. If there was a conspiracy to taint an individual and a person of some authority imposed the responsibility to carry the illegal documents to the media outlet on another, is that action a worthy one of persons sworn to uphold the constitution of the state and the country?

    What is the point of your remark: “I talked to a legal expert familiar with the case and the only way to force the city to release the packet in full is to take the city to court…”

    Seems to me your expert and my opinion seal the deal. It is illegal! Only a court’s action could find otherwise.

    If the sealed information is damming to the Mayor… and the Administrator and/or a Council member are involved in the leak… the illegal act… is that a reason to be concerned about the persons involved in leaking?

    Many of us have read the redacted material… I can tell you that the spaces on these memos that contain redacted information… are over balanced with statements that illustrate the attempts the Mayor made to act within the boundaries of propriety.

    Repeatedly, his words point out his intention to not overreach propriety and not to inappropriately use his authority.

    Just as in the damming words voiced by Roder concerning his reaction to the Prayer ladies being outed were an outrage – his remarks and methods on the Mayor seem equally tainted.

    Using the book “Denison Iowa” as a benchmark of propriety, one can see a pattern in Iowa, being repeated in Minnesota.

    You say: ” once the documents were released to the paper, the paper was free to use them, even those that might be considered confidential….”

    I believe the paper’s use of these documents carries with it the responsibility to authenticate them. Regardless of journalistic privilege… the paper is obliged to act responsibly.

    September 27, 2007
  16. kiffi summa said:

    Here’s some food for thought: MN Statutes, Gov’t Data Practices Act (General Section)13.01-13.90…………
    13.09 Penalties. “Any person who willfully violates the provisions of this chapter is guilty of a misdemeanor. Willfull violation of this chapter by any public employee constitutes just cause for suspension without pay or dismissal of the public employee”.

    So, A point is the fact that if it were known who delivered , or sent who, to the NFNews with the packet of info, at least one, or possibly two, of the bad actors in this drama would be cleared off the stage.

    Its not just the information in the packet; it’s the persons who are conniving to exert their will, but haven’t the courage to do it an open political conflict, or an overt power struggle.

    On another point, what do you want to bet that the resolution that the Charter commission sent to the council never sees the dubious light of a council agenda number?

    September 27, 2007
  17. Christine Stanton said:

    Victor, thanks for the clarification about The Crossings and Paulina’s. I hope the city’s bookkeeping is better on The Crossings project than it was on Paulina’s. There is much more money at stake and I am not sure it could be rationalized as easily if lost.

    September 27, 2007
  18. john george said:

    Christine- you said (and I’m not even going to try messing with those blasted block quotes!), “The calmness that Roder seems to exhibit also makes me wonder about the source of the “leaked” info. from city hall. (I know. Because it is not based on any facts, that statement might be pushing the guidelines of this blog.) People that come accross as a little to calm or smooth make me wary.”
    I’m not sure smoothness or calmness in the face of threats is necessarily a sign of moral flaws. I can think of One innocent person who remained calm in the face of baseless threats. Now, I know that Al Roder is not He, but there may be a more common relationship here than any of us know. For that reason, I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt.
    As far as the “redacted” information, do any of us know that this was positively confidential information? Are there other legal reasons for this information to be concealed at this time? It seems that the city attorney could clarify this.
    One thing I have a problem with in this whole mess is the position that the media has some right to be the judge and jury of people involved in governmental affairs. It is unfortunate that we cannot find morally sound people to run our government. (Which one of us has always done everything right?) If this was so, then the Watergate affair would never have happened. That is what started this whole landslide of investigative reporting that questions everything done publically and drags any public official’s dirty laundry out if they fall into question. And I don’t think I need to cite ANY political party in this respect.
    I think we are very fortunate to have ANYONE be willing to open themselves up to this kind of scrutiny and try to lead in government. I also think it is very fortunate that we have three people willing to pray that this process might actually be successful. It has been said that the only way for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Now we need wisdom to know what needs to be done.

    September 27, 2007
  19. Christine Stanton said:

    John, I did think about the “One” you were referring to after I said that. Still, I do not think being wary is a bad thing. The wisdom that I think we are all seeking requires more information. Right now I am giving both Lansing and Roder the benefit of the doubt because I do not feel that we have the whole picture.

    As far as Roder’s relationship with his faith, the same might be said about Lansing. Yes, good people make mistakes, but when they are illegal, our judicial system also requires some form of restitution. If their actions are morally wrong, ethically, I would hope they find a way to make restitution for that as well.

    September 27, 2007
  20. john george said:

    Christine- All excellent points. I agree completely. I think that anyone who has had a propaganda analysis course in college is suspect of everything they read in the newspaper or see/hear on TV or radio. It is unfortunate that so much sensationalism has invaded all our news media. We are subjected more to speculation about events rather than reporting of events, but I’m assuming that does not sell newspapers or warrant advertising dollars. It’s unfortunate that relationship differences in the city government have been aired before they can be resolved. I just don’t believe these disagreements should be out in the public unless there is substantiated evidence of wrong doing. At least we have Victor and Anne out digging around. I just don’t have the time to devote to my own investigation, and my own conclusions are still going to be biased to my own convictions.

    September 28, 2007
  21. Anne Bretts said:

    A late response to Victor: no, as usual we were close to agreeing but we don’t.
    I never said it was illegal to release the information to the paper or for the paper to accept it. I said cities frequently refuse to release information that should be public, knowing that the only way to force them is expensive legal action. Usually the newspaper finances the fight, but in this case the News got lucky and got the info without going to court for it. It would have forced the release of nearly all the info in a few weeks if it had challenged the city in court.
    If the information in the files was damning to the mayor, then the problem is his behavior, not that it was leaked. If the redacted information supports the mayor, so much more reason to release it.
    We don’t need investigators to figure this out. The councilors know exactly what has been happening, whatever it is, and they just need to do something about it. First, release the darn file. Then get busy solving the city’s problems.

    September 29, 2007

Leave a Reply