That sounds pretty bad. But it’s not that simple.
Let’s dive into the weeds and sort this out.
Background on the Easement Deal
As part of the massive Robert Street project, the city has to negotiate easements with property owners. They’ve already approved a number of these deals, which are negotiated in closed meetings to protect the process and future negotiations. A deal came up for approval at the Sept. 12 meeting. City council approved it 4-1. Mayor Meisinger vetoed it. Meisinger then went on Facebook to celebrate his victory and named the previously confidential property owner involved.
A deal for $160,000 had been offered and accepted. But then the property owner countered, saying they’d take $130,000 if two trees could be removed.
Robert Street Easement Arguments
So Meisinger is presenting this as a simple case of saving $30,000 by giving up two trees.
But Council member Dave Napier insisted during the public meeting that this is about land acquisition and not trees. The council unanimously approved the landscaping plan for Robert Street, including all the trees. Easements have been settled for loads of properties so far, and none of them had the opportunity to negotiate on trees. If you want to say trees are negotiable, then that’s an entirely new deal and we should go back to every property owner and renegotiate.
Essentially Napier is saying that the time to negotiate trees has passed. We’re reaching settlements for the land, we’re not going to nickel and dime every tree.
Meanwhile, in that city council meeting, Mayor David Meisinger never says a word for or against the proposed settlement. He doesn’t argue to save the taxpayer’s money or threaten a veto. He runs the meeting, but is silent on the issue.
Silent until the Facebook post in question, which raises legal or at least ethical issues. The council has tried not to name property owners in public votes on these settlements. Meisinger did that in his Facebook post by outing the property owner. I asked a lawyer about the legal issues involved, and they said that breaking confidentiality is not a crime or a violation, but it does undermine the negotiation strategy. By drawing attention to all of this, Meisinger has put the city in a weaker position for all future negotiations with this property owner and all other property owners.
The mayor and city council have since received clarification from the city attorney about what should be made public and what should not. The result is that some city council members are reluctant to go on public record about this, cautious of undermining future negotiations and confidentiality.
Meanwhile Meisinger’s Facebook post is out there, allowing him to score political points while refusing to answer the bigger picture or confidentiality questions.
Meisinger argues that he’s saving West St. Paul money. But what he’s actually doing is undermining the entire negotiation process going forward. A number of properties still need to be settled, and this will certainly have an impact on those negotiations. This case now has to be renegotiated, and it’s likely we’ll have to spend even more money to settle it.
That likely won’t happen until after the upcoming election, where Meisinger is up for re-election against council member Jenny Halverson. How convenient.
Did David Meisinger just save West St. Paul taxpayers $30,000 by sacrificing two trees?
Right now there’s no deal in place. Even if a deal could still be reached for $130,000, the cost in time, attorney fees and damaged future negotiations likely squanders any savings. Plus we’d have to actually go in and remove the already planted trees. (We’re not even getting into the many economic and environmental benefits of trees.)
If Meisinger wanted to save taxpayer money, he could have offered leadership and worked with the city council. Instead he remained silent—until he could use his veto and brag about the move to win political points.
Diving Deep & Responses
While I think it’s important to bring this issue to light and give West St. Paul citizens the full story, it’s also convoluted and difficult to follow. In the interest of fairness, I’ve collected many of the details and tried to offer links to substantiate facts. I’ve also reached out to the elected officials and candidates involved for comment.
How Everyone Voted
At the Sept. 12, 2016 city council meeting (the discussion starts at 1:27:07 in the online video), current council members Pat Armon, Ed Iago, Dave Napier and Dick Vitelli all voted to approve the easement settlement, while John Bellows voted against it (Jenny Halverson was absent). Mayor David Meisinger vetoed the settlement (see pages 171-173 of the Sept. 26, 2016 agenda packet). At the Sept. 26 meeting, the council voted to overturn the veto. Pat Armon, Jenny Halverson, Dave Napier and Dick Vitelli all voted to overturn, while John Bellows and Ed Iago voted against (the council needed five votes to overturn the veto). I asked Ed Iago why he didn’t vote to overturn the veto and he did not respond.
I reached out to the mayor, all current council members and all candidates for city council and asked them the following question:
There’s been a lot of confusion about a recent Robert Street settlement case. One argument bills this as spending $30,000 for two trees, while another argument says this is about land acquisition and the city should not negotiate each tree. The case has also raised questions about confidentiality and undermining future negotiations. Do you have any comment on this issue?
The city attorney then advised all current council members and the mayor not to respond to my question in order to protect the negotiation process. I informed the candidates of this development so they could decide whether or not to respond. I respect the city attorney’s advice, though it further underscores the question of why Meisinger made the public statement he did and why it remains.
Below are the responses I received. Given the city attorney’s advice, nothing should be inferred from anyone’s lack of response.
Mayor David Meisinger made this statement:
Thank you, Kevin, for reaching out. As you were told by our city attorney, I’ve been advised not to respond to questions in regard to on going negotiations. Thank you.
I followed up with this question: In fairness, it’s your Facebook post that has made this issue public knowledge and a political issue. Are you willing to remove that post and issue a statement about the importance of not disclosing ongoing negotiations?
Meisinger has not responded nor removed his Facebook post as of Oct. 24.
Current council member and candidate for mayor Jenny Halverson made this statement:
As we have consistently been advised by our legal counsel, I will not contribute to placing our residents and business owners in jeopardy by providing additional comment on this issue. Thank you.
Ward 1 council member and candidate Pat Armon issued this statement:
To label this easement settlement situation as “paying” $30,000 for 2 trees is misleading. That being said, we are frequently advised by our attorneys to not discuss the details of easement settlement discussions which are under the umbrella of attorney-client privileged communication. This advice is especially valid in a case like this when a settlement has yet to be finalized.
Making some of the details of our attorney-client privileged communication public weakened our negotiating position. This has already cost the city more money. I will not put the interest of a campaign over the interest of the taxpayer by providing any more details as such action could lead to even more additional costs.
Ward 1 council candidate Bob Pace issued this statement:
Thank you for your concern. I will be honest with you and say that I’m not privy to all the facts, all I know is what I’ve read in the papers and gossip on the street. Also I do not think it would be fair to my opponent or the rest of the council as they are not allowed to talk about it.
Ward 2 council candidate John Justen commented on this issue earlier this month in the Streets.mn podcast (59:08). He also gave this response:
I’ll try to be succinct, although it’s a complicated issue and one I feel pretty strongly about. My main concern is that the presentation of the City paying $30,000 for two trees is simply not accurate, and being used as a political football by certain candidates. Negotiations for land are made with two goals—to minimize the cost, and to be able to use the land exactly as the city needs it to be used. Although I’m not party to the details of the negotiation and acquisition as it was done in private with the business owner, my understanding is that the land owner fought to get the maximum amount for the land, and as a result the city was able to establish the full slate of conditions for their use of the land. As a thought experiment, imagine that the land owner wanted the sidewalk to be half the width of the rest of the sidewalks in adjacent properties. Would people be willing to accept that condition for a savings of $30,000? How about if they demanded to paint the sidewalk with their business logo? I realize these are ridiculous possibilities, but at the base level, it’s really the same argument. The Robert Street renovation is a contiguous space that needs to have consistency throughout – we aren’t buying two $15,000 trees from Gerten’s, we are paying at the upper end of the (city determined) range we were willing to for that easement. As a result, the city demanded to have all of it’s conditions met for the purchase and use of the property. That’s not wasteful spending, that is smart negotiation. If you are forced to pay a premium, you demand the best possible result for your money, which is exactly what was done.
As a sidebar I find the public disclosure of the dollar amounts negotiated deeply problematic, and worry that it will now establish a baseline for all future easement negotiations. By “saving” $30,000, we may have just created many times that amount in losses in future negotiations. Also, as a small business owner and a supporter of West Saint Paul businesses, I am extremely disturbed by the decision made by the current mayor to disclose the name of the business involved publicly on his mayoral Facebook page, leading to a groundswell of angry citizens and calls for boycotts of the business in question. Throwing a thriving business and its employees under the bus in the interest of gaining a few votes is simply unacceptable on any level.
Ward 3 council candidate John Ramsay did not respond, however, it’s worth pointing out that he has talked about the issue on both Facebook (the original post appears to be removed, but a screenshot is available here; he basically re-posted David Meisinger’s post and added this comment: “Well I’ll be dipped in dodo! $30,000 for 2 trees? Ya think it’s time for change?”) and the Pioneer Press candidate questionnaire.
Update: John Ramsay’s Comments (Oct. 25)
Andrea, had you attended the meeting on September 12th, watched the replay or even read the meeting minutes (which are available on-line) you would’ve seen/heard for yourself that councilman Bellows started the sharing of the details of the settlement agreement during the course of that meeting, as did other members of the city council including Ms Halverson. Sitting next to Mr. Bellows the entire time was the city attorney, who did not stop him or anyone else from discussing those supposed ‘confidential’ negotiation details. Had the details been ‘confidential’ as are being claimed, I’m fairly confident that the city attorney would have stopped Mr. Bellows and the rest of the council from sharing them publically as they did. So anything stated in any facebook post was discussed openly at that meeting and available to the public and thus not ‘confidential’ as is being claimed.
Maybe a little fact-checking:
- Meisinger named the property owner in his Facebook post, which had previously been confidential. The business was never named in the Sept. 12 meeting.
- The city attorney has been very specific with me (and the mayor and city council members) about the confidentiality of the negotiations. That’s why she advised everyone not to respond to my questions.
- Jenny Halverson was not at the Sept. 12 meeting.
Now all of these posts in the Conversations in West St. Paul Facebook group are deleted, as well as John Ramsay’s original comment on his campaign page back in September. We’re saving them to preserve the record of what John Ramsay has said. He was invited to comment for this piece before it was published, and he’s still welcome to offer a comment. I wish politicians would actually make an argument and not dance around the issues like this. It’s kind of ridiculous.