The Oak Park Heights City Council on a 3-2 vote Tuesday night decided to contribute $3,000 from city coffers to the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing.
Council members Mike Runk and Les Abrahamson dissented.
“I don’t see what exactly the purpose is, because basically all that is mentioned is a possible lawsuit and the funding is not permissible for use in that,” Runk said.
The Coalition facilitates a lot of the communications between MnDOT, businesses and various governmental agencies, Council Member Chuck Dougherty said.
“I have no problem with that,” Runk replied. “But when we had issues, it almost seemed like a case where they were trying to lobby us, rather than assist us.”
“I think the Coalition did a very nice job in achieving its goals, but there were occasions where I was frustrated with the Coalition when it relates to the city of Oak Park Heights meeting its goals,” Abrahamson said. “I don’t think we were always supported to the affect I would have liked.”
During a work session, former Mayor David Beaudet simply asked for a letter of support recognizing that the issues—that are now resolved—were valid, Abrahamson said. “We couldn’t even get a letter to come back from the Coalition, before it passed in Congress, and it is for that reason I won’t support this.”
Chad Kulas clarified that the Coalition would not be involved in the litigation if legal issues with the bridge arise, but the Coalition can be helpful in garnering legislative support, as it did by lobbying for a federal exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
The funds would also be used by the Coalition to “provide advocacy, educate the public and hosting a ceremonial event as an educational opportunity to help the community better understand the positives of the project,” Kulas said.
“Let me point out that should be the responsibility of the bridge owner, and in that case, it is the state,” Abrahamson said.
The project team is aware of the Coalitions intent of doing a ground-breaking event as an educational opportunity, Kulas said. “They are supportive of us, and have no plans of doing one on their own.”
The Oak Park City Council will take up a request from the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing to contribute $3,000 out of city funds to “help keep the (bridge) project on schedule.”
Last month, the council tabled the vote so staff could look into the legalities of the request.
In a memo to the council, city staff writes that a contribution to the Coalition would seem to be a viable public expenditure if it benefits the community as a whole, relates to the functions of government and does not have a primary objective to benefit a private interest.
Chad Kulas, a representative for the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, told the council last month that public contributions are needed to fend off potential legal challenges and host an open house celebration when construction of the bridge project is complete.
“While we remain optimistic construction can begin, opposition still hopes for delays, as in the past when we have repeatedly seen efforts to replace the old lift bridge get stopped at the last minute,” a letter from Coalition Co-Chair and Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki to the Oak Park Heights City Council reads. “Stopping things now would increase both costs and the chances the project never occurs.”
Other than stating the fear of an “activist judge,” Coalition members have not indicated what potential threats or legal lawsuits may pose a challenge for the project.
“In our view, the Coalition would not have the legal standing that would allow it to participate in any litigation should that ever present itself, relative to the bridge, as it has no legal standing in the issue,” a letter from Oak Park Heights City Attorney Mark Vierling to the council reads. “Consequently, the anticipation of capital building for litigation or legal defense in my opinion would be an illegal gift.”
As for the grand opening celebration, Vierling wrote, “I assume those would be MnDOT sponsored and funded and the council may want to wait to participate in such events until they are actually planned by the bridge owner.”
The council may want to inquire into the current financial status of the Coalition in terms of funds on hand in its projected budget, anticipated revenue and the like, Vierling wrote, but if the council identifies a worthy and beneficial public purpose for the contribution, the council has the legal authority to make a donation in the amount it sees fit.
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St. Croix County has also contributed $20,000 to the Coalition.
According to the Jan. 10 Stillwater Township Board minutes, the Coalition asked the township for a $1,000 contribution, but the Board’s consensus was to “respectfully decline as we do not see a clear community benefit.”
A discussion about the contribution is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday during the City Council meeting at Oak Park Heights City Hall.