The East Bethel City Council voted 3-1 Jan. 8 to remove Richard Lawrence from the mayor’s seat following allegations brought forth last month that Lawrence is no longer a resident of the city of East Bethel and thus cannot legally serve as an elected official.
Councilmembers Robert DeRoche, Ron Koller and Tom Ronning voted in favor of declaring the mayor’s seat vacant; Councilmember Heidi Moegerle opposed the motion.
“I’m sorry, Richard, but we don’t have a choice,” said Ronning as Lawrence collected his belongings to leave the council table.
“Yeah, you do,” Lawrence said.
“The law is the law,” Ronning said.
Moegerle thanked Lawrence for his years of service to the city.
The council had been deadlocked 2-2 on each vote regarding the issue at its Dec. 18 meeting. However, on Jan. 8 Koller voted with DeRoche and Ronning, providing the extra needed vote to unseat Lawrence.
Lawrence had served as the city’s mayor for three years.
The council also voted 3-1, again with Moegerle opposed, to declare DeRoche as East Bethel’s new mayor. Ronning initiated the motion and Koller seconded it.
“I think what has happened here tonight is something that needs more consideration on,” said Moegerle before the vote. “I think that while this whole thing has been driven in this direction that Mr. DeRoche will be mayor — the writing has been on the wall probably for three weeks now … I think that moving too abruptly is not in the best interest of the city. And I don’t expect that will gain any traction with this group, but I think it needs to be said.”
“To make the accusation that I’ve driven this, spearheaded it, whatever,” DeRoche said. “I started out asking a simple question, and it blossomed into this … for the last three weeks I haven’t slept for crap … I’ve had a knot in my stomach. This is not something that I take lightly.”
According to DeRoche, a quote in a Star Tribune story that described him as “abusive” to other members of the council was “slanderous”.
DeRoche had brought forward the issue of Lawrence’s residency at the council’s Dec. 18 meeting, stating that city residents had been asking him whether the mayor still lived in East Bethel. The issue had prompted a long discussion and deadlocked votes, with the council adjourning its last meeting of the year with no resolution on the issue.
City Attorney Mark Vierling had said that the issue of the mayor’s residency and whether he should continue to serve as mayor comes down to a judgment call and must be resolved by the rest of the council.
He said the council could consider several factors in the decision, such as whether Lawrence intends to continue living in East Bethel and whether he has a presence and contacts in the community.
According to Lawrence, who has lived in East Bethel for 20 years, his home had become bank-owned in November and he was unable to find rental housing in the city for less than $2,000 per month.
His plans are to reside at an RV park on Viking Boulevard in East Bethel for seven to eight months of the year, Lawrence said.
During the winter months Lawrence is temporarily residing outside of the city limits but intends to return to living full-time in East Bethel as soon as possible, he said.
He maintains an East Bethel post office box and Lawrence insisted during the Jan. 8 discussion that he can be at city hall when needed within 15 or 20 minutes.
DeRoche said he took a look at Craigslist himself and found rental housing options for less than $2,000 per month.
Moegerle said that those more affordable options may not have been available at the time Lawrence was searching for housing.
DeRoche and Ronning both said they believe the law clearly states that an elected city official must reside within the city limits. They both also expressed concerns that Lawrence had not earlier brought up the issue of his residency himself.
With DeRoche having moved into the mayor’s seat, the council seat he previously held is now vacant. The city will take applications for that seat and conduct interviews over the coming weeks.