East Bethel City Councilmember Heidi Moegerle is calling for an investigation into whether East Bethel City Council’s Jan. 8 actions to remove former Mayor Richard Lawrence from office and appoint Councilmember Robert DeRoche could be unlawful.
In a Jan. 22 email addressed to the council as well as the city administrator and city attorney, Attorney Richard Williams of St. Paul’s R.A. Williams Law Firm, P.A., describes the actions as “likely in violation of the city ordinances and Minnesota law.”
Williams said he had been contacted by Moegerle and Lawrence regarding the issue.
The council had voted 3-1 Jan. 8 to remove Lawrence from the mayor’s seat after questions arose about whether he was still residing within the city.
“The fact that an individual is temporarily not residing within the geographic area for which election is being held does not destroy residency,” Williams wrote. “In this case the mayor is a longtime resident of East Bethel, has maintained a P.O. box for mail purposes both prior to and after his election as mayor and although temporarily not residing in the city, he intends to return.”
Williams’ email also states, “There is no provision in the city code authorizing the actions of the city council. It should be kept in mind that he is an elected official. There is no general statutory provision under Minnesota law nor is any provision in the city code providing for recall much less an action by some members of the city council to remove a duly elected public official.”
The email also alleges violations of the open meeting law, implying that three council members must have reached an agreement outside of a properly noticed meeting to make decisions to find the mayor to be a non-resident, to declare a vacancy in the mayor’s seat, to nominate and elect Councilmember Robert DeRoche as the new mayor, to appoint Councilmember Tom Ronning as acting mayor, to declare DeRoche’s council seat vacant and to solicit applications to fill that vacancy.
At the beginning of the regular Jan. 22 council meeting, only a little over two hours after the attorney’s email had arrived in city officials’ inboxes, Moegerle made a motion to limit the evening’s agenda to only the first few items, which did not require official action, “because this council has been illegally reduced in number and any actions that we would take to pass any motions would be unlawful.”
Her motion failed for lack of a second.
Moegerle brought her concern up again, during a discussion of a proposal to refinance the city’s water and sewer bonds, stating that a vote by the allegedly unlawfully reduced council may put the city’s bonds at risk.
Ronning interrupted Moegerle to say that the issue [of the council’s legal status] was not on the agenda. When Moegerle continued to discuss the issue, Ronning made a motion for censure, which DeRoche seconded. The vote on the censure motion was tabled.
Before the vote to proceed with bond refinancing option, Moegerle again said, “This body is not legally qualified to vote on any issues tonight.”
City Attorney Mark Vierling responded to Moegerle, “I appreciate that you don’t much care for what has transpired in the council, but the fact of the matter is that unless and until such time that you want to take a district court action to challenge this body’s action at the last meeting, this body’s action stands …You’ve also got a motion for censure pending; I don’t think you want to obstruct the council moving forward or you might end up with a disorderly conduct charge.”
Moegerle told the Anoka County Union she has not retained Williams to represent her in a law suit against the city, nor is she contemplating a law suit.
Later, during the meeting’s public forum, former Mayor Richard Lawrence took the floor, expressing his disappointment that the council had given him zero time to find a place to live before voting to remove him from office. “I think it was unfair and you could have done better,” he said.
He then went on to allege that Ronning was a convicted felon and should have to show proof that his felony has been cleared before he can serve as an elected official
Vierling warned Lawrence, “If you’re going to accuse someone of something up here then you’d better have facts behind it.”
“Can I finish?” asked Lawrence, becoming visibly angry.
“At your risk,” replied Vierling.
A search of the Minnesota State Courts website shows Ronning has no felony conviction in this state.
Lawrence then went on to accuse the rest of the council of attacking Moegerle, and he raised his voice when DeRoche started insisting that Lawrence either take a seat or be escorted out of the council chambers.
“You’re not packing a gun again, are you?” Lawrence allegedly asked DeRoche.
“That’s none of your business,” DeRoche replied.
“You’ve accomplished your mission,” Ronning told Lawrence as a sheriff’s deputy started to lead him away from the podium. “You’ve caused as much harm as you can.” .