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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

County Mistake Leads to $165,000 Settlement Paid by Forest Lake

In July of 2014 we covered how the County State Aid Highway 2/ Broadway ave road Project in Forest Lake was $2.5 Million dollars over budget. It was managed by the Washington County Public Works Department.

What would become a $18.9 million dollar project was sighted by the County as the "mega project". The bulk of what was included was a rebuilt crossing over Interstate 35, a new interchange with Broadway ave and I-35, two pedestrian bridges, a roundabout at highway 61, and widening Broadway ave. It was recently completed.

In early April I became aware that the city of Forest Lake had a closed meeting on March 30th regarding a law suit over an eminent domain dispute that began in 2010. The vote was 4 to 1 to award Nightingale Partners (White Castle) and Forest Lake Enterprises (Culvers) parcels $165,000 Forest Lake tax dollars. (White Castle won the money, but has to split it with Culvers) Michael Freer, was the Forest Lake City Council member to not vote in favor of the settlement stating in an email to me on May 3rd:

"I was the councilmember who voted against the settlement.  I don't believe the amount of money given to these residents/businesses who willing to push a little bit.  I am willing to spend more money defending ourselves versus giving out large sums of taxpayer money for nothing.  The settlement are a result of the use of eminent domain.  It is used too freely and has caused the large settlements that we see in Forest Lake.  Hope this helps a little bit."

I asked Freer, "Are you saying the cost to Forest Lake was $165,000 for this settlement for the mistake the County made?"  Freer replied, "essentially, yes" I contacted all the other Forest Lake City Councilors for comment and in an e-mail from Ben Winnick on May 16th confirmed Forest Lake paid the $165,000 in damages for the County's eminent domain mistake with the County covering the unknown cost for the legal fees over this five year dispute (over a hundred thousand?):

"My understanding is we paid 165k but obviously that was not just a random number.  The amount derived from previous negotiations it would have cost us more to fight it than to settle as the court system had already set a number of 160k.  That only left us the option of the 5k or the cost of the lawyers.  The city had to pay that part of the cost but the county has been paying the legal fees. "

Consider what $165,000 is for a small town: Forest Lake has a budget of $8.35 million for 2015 and announced they were cutting their fire inspector despite having to increase the city taxes in this Forest Lake Times article written by Ryan Howard. Equate that to real terms by taking off some zeros... Consider a family of four having a combined household income of $83,500 a year and having to come up with $1,650 to pay for a mistake they didn't even make. That's why this should matter to Forest Lake residents and County residents who see no consequences for the County's cost overruns and damages in law suits. They appear completely disconnected via lack of media scrutiny or concern by the elected County Board officials that should care. Evidenced by this article content and others such as: Cost Overrun Worshop Reveals Cure is Worse than the Disease

I attempted to review the County data on the settlement and what the details of the case were and what the lawyer fees for five years of council cost; but was met with stern opposition by the Assistant County Attorney Richard Hodsdon. Over a month of back and forth with Hodsdon stating everything from all out refusal (initially) and claims of "Attorney Client Privilege" was issued to me denying access to the details of the case. Finally on May 18th I was allowed to view only seven pages (see the pictures I was allowed to take below). Of course my only option to review this data was to literally physically go into the Washington County Government Center at a time of the County's convenience to see these seven pages of public data. When I asked to see please see just the part of the case that described the "arguments" of both parties I was told yesterday 5-26 to refer to a letter they mailed to me... which turns out to be an address they assumed I received mail at. Either way, who responds to an e-mail question with snail mail? Copy and paste the few paragraphs from the case and let the public know your mistake that is costing us our tax dollars.

If you care to find out more email Hodsdon and ask at: rick.hodsdon@co.washington.mn.us I apologize I am stepping down from poking this bear of the County Attorney's Office any further on this story. As they have the power to destroy any one of our lives with the power they hold.

Tread lightly.

-Matt Behning

If you use any of my pictures below that I took please provide me as the source with the direct link to the article. Copyright laws allow filing photos and articles up to 90 days after a violation so please respectfully fully source or consider Copyright pending. Thanks for sourcing!