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Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Huge and Long Overdue Victory for New Brighton Property Owners

Last Tuesday the New Brighton City Council approved new guidelines to prevent future abuse of Eminent Domain by the city government. Although too late for literally dozens of former property owners in the city (47(!) since 1982 as far as I can come up with, though I may have missed a few), the action by the council which, curiously enough, passed on a 5-0 vote gives New Brighton property owners far more protection against the threat of Eminent Domain than they ever had in the past and should serve as a model for other cities.

The abuse of Eminent Domain in New Brighton has been going on for nearly 30 years but really became a hot political issue the last five years or so when the city started aggressively invoking it with impunity and increasing regularity to secure land for the Northwest Quadrant (NWQ) redevelopment project. Not only was the city frequently abusing Eminent Domain, the proponents in city government were selling it to the public via the local papers and town hall meetings that it was a "rare" and "last resort" measure. The council action of last week appears to have shut down the abuse along with the associated misinformation campaign out of City Hall.

In those early days of the battle Council Member Sharon Doffing was the only member of the council who seriously and consistently questioned the outright immorality, let alone the economic viability, of the practice. As a concerned citizen it was downright painful at times watching the political beating she was taking at City Council meetings and in the local press. Her well researched and impassioned arguments for the rights of New Brighton property owners were often responded to with ridicule and derision by other members of the council and, at least on the surface, her efforts appeared to be little more than an annoyance to the "Gang of Four" advocates of the NWQ project and use of Eminent Domain. Along with City Manager Matt Fulton, this bunch rammed through many egregious Eminent Domain decisions on 4-1 votes, with Doffing the lone but steadfast dissenter. Council Member Doffing's efforts caught the attention of many citizens, including certain bloggers who attempted to cover what was going on as the local newspapers were pretty much ignoring the issue and merely echoing the press releases from City Hall.

The beginning of the turn-around probably began with public outrage over the Kelo v. New London decision by the Supreme Court which effectively gave the New Brighton City Council, as well as other municipalities nationwide, political cover as well as renewed bravado in their aggressive pursuit of private property for the primary purpose of increasing the tax base. Letters to the Editor in the local papers and vocal opposition to the Eminent Domain practices of New Brighton and other cities were the becoming more common.

Recognition of Doffing's efforts and outrage over Kelo were important factors in the 2005 City Council election. About a month before the election Mayor Steve Larson attempted to defuse the issue with a long closing commentary at a council meeting where he essentially thumbed his nose at Doffing and her supporters, citing that the Supreme Court said the city could continue on with its Eminent Domain practices and that's that.

It turns out that Mayor Larson really stepped into it. He ended his less-than-compelling oratory with the following statement regarding Eminent Domain in New Brighton:
"Hopefully it's a dead issue. We're done with it. We move forward."
To which I commented at the time:
Mayor Larson and the rest of the Gang of Four can only hope so. It's a dead issue only if we the citizens of New Brighton allow it to be! There are two seats on the council in play in the election this November and we citizens have the opportunity to remove one of the Gang of Four (Kim Moore-Sykes) and help move the council toward serving the people instead of the other way around.
Well, it turned out that we the citizens of New Brighton did not allow the issue to go way as Mayor Larson so desperately wanted it to. Voters spoke with an unambiguous message when Doffing was re-elected along with new comer Gina Bauman, a local business owner who had literally put her money where her mouth was in redeveloping the dilapidated Dairy Queen on Silver Lake Road into the best coffee shop in the city (in spite of what the bogus poll in the Bulletin says) through her own hard work and financial sacrifice. In the 3-candidates-for-two-seats race, Doffing and Bauman defeated the incumbent hard-core Eminent Domain advocate Kim Moore-Sykes by a 2 to 1 margin.

With the return of Doffing and the addition of Bauman to the city council the citizens had two strong and reliable votes to protect their property (as well as financial) interests, but the "Gang of Four" had been been reduced to a "Gang of Three" which, unfortunately, still allowed the Eminent Domain advocates to retain control, albeit with more difficulty and more adverse publicity now that there were two on the council who opposed the abusive use of Eminent Domain.

Shortly after the new council was seated in 2006 City Manager Matt Fulton, an unapologetic and strong willed advocate of the aggressive use of Eminent Domain by the city, resigned his position. The NWQ redevelopment that drove much of the Eminent Domain abuse continued to flounder (which may have been the reason to cause Fulton to "pursue another opportunity", and was predicted at the now infamous 12/14/2004 New Brighton City Council meeting by the attorney who fought the city's Eminent Domain actions against Signation). Eminent Domain actions were generally ram-rodded through on 3-2 votes, but the tide was slowly beginning to turn. Eminent Domain takings slowed, mainly because there wasn't much more land left for the city to take, but the issue remained simmering on the back burner and had an major impact on the 2007 Mayoral and City Council elections.

The terms of all of the Gang of Three expired in 2007. Mayor Larson and Council Member Mary Burg chose to run for re-election and Council Member Ann Hoffman opted for retirement. In the hotly fought election Mayor Larson was challenged by two candidates who strongly opposed Eminent Domain. In the City Council race David Phillips, a long-time private sector developer and private property rights advocate, Terry Post, a government and private sector financial professional who opposed Eminent Domain, former Gang of Four Council Member Kim Moore-Sykes, and Burg competed in a four-person-for-two-seats contest. This was a very contentious and hard-fought election, but in the end Larson (barely, primarily due to the anti-Larson vote getting split between two challengers) was returned to office and Mary Burg and David Phillips won the council seats.

It turns out the addition of Phillips to the council tipped the balance of power so that the members of the council who supported private property rights now had a working majority. Driven by Council Member Doffing's determination to uphold her campaign promise of stopping Eminent Domain abuse by the city, the Eminent Domain guidelines the council passed last week were painstakingly crafted through a lot of hard work by Doffing, Bauman, and Phillips in a tough political environment to make sure that the result was legally solid and provided real protection against future Eminent Domain abuse for the citizens of New Brighton. Well done, ladies and gentleman!

The fact that Mayor Larson and Council Member Burg, the last two remaining members of the pro-Eminent Domain faction of past councils, resigned themselves to the reality that this long overdue action was going to pass with or without their support and voted in favor of it punctuated the action with an exclamation point.

Mayor Larson's previously cited assertion at the end of a City Council meeting in October 2005 that "[Eminent Domain] is a dead issue. We're done with it. We move forward." has finally come to pass, though probably not in the context he originally had in mind. As reported in the Pioneer Press coverage linked at the beginning of this piece, Mayor Larson's vote in favor of the reform was half-hearted to say the least:
Mayor Steve Larson believes the ordinance goes too far. The state statute is sufficient, he said.

"This goes above and beyond anything we've ever done," he said, noting the three public hearings.

Larson voted for the ordinance only because he was tired of the Eminent Domain issue popping up at meetings, he said.

"I can live with it, and it's over and done with, and hopefully we never hear about it again," he said.
As usual, Larson is demonstrably wrong (he is wrong about as often as Rush is right). The state Eminent Domain reform law, which Council Member Doffing and at the time future Council Member Phillips lobbied for, was a step in the right direction to quell the bi-partisan outrage over Kelo (to give credit where it is due, our very liberal State Senator Satveer Chaudhary worked very diligently and in cooperation with Conservatives to make it happen), but as with most legislation that comes out of Saint Paul some compromises and loop-holes were necessary to get anything at all through the legislative sausage factory (and the Gang of Three did take full advantage if them after the law was passed as noted in the linked post). It also needs to be taken into account that Larson is up for re-election next fall and the Eminent Domain issue has dogged him over the last couple of elections, probably much more than he will publicly admit to.

The long and arduous battle over Eminent Domain shows that if elected officials hold strong to the values that got them elected, and if they are supported by the people who elected them, bad public policy by an entrenched bureaucracy can be overcome.

Council Member Doffing deserves a great deal of credit for a job well done. The old saying that "the pioneers take the arrows" certainly applies here. Doffing could have easily avoided a lot of political and personal duress by just conceding to the will of the majority. She had available political cover of being out-numbered and probably could have used it to get re-elected as yet another go-along-to-get-along politician who is popular, yet stands for nothing. She chose to take the arrows and hold the ground until reinforcements arrived.

Although Council Members Bauman and Phillips (the reinforcements referred to above) were very instrumental in and deserve a great deal of credit for closing the deal, had Doffing not held her ground under fire in the early going there quite possibly would not have been the political momentum or opportunity for Bauman, and later Phillips, to come on the scene when they did as the final cogs in the machine that made meaningful Eminent Domain reform happen in New Brighton.

Residents of New Brighton have earned the right to celebrate this great victory along with their elected representatives who worked so hard to make it happen. The celebration will, however need to be kept short. Although one huge problem has been taken care of, the city faces many others from past abuses of Eminent Domain and poor decisions by those controlling city government. The annual budgeting and levy process is coming up fast and, although Doffing and Bauman have made some good progress over the past few years, city spending and government growth is still out of control.

Now is not the time to kick back and coast! It is time to take full advantage of the momentum of the great Eminent Domain victory and keep the proverbial pedal to the metal to push through equally momentous reforms to limit city government growth, spending, and expansion. To be sure the old guard will still be stinging from the smack down of the Eminent Domain reform but will not give up their big government, big spending turf without a fight.

After years of a big spending, big government majority in control of city government (and the damage it has wrought), those of us who favor small, limited government at long last have a working majority in Council Members Doffing, Bauman, and Phillips. These council members have shown the will and tenacity to get the job done. With our support they are willing to and capable of making great things happen in New Brighton.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

47 properties taken by eminent domain in New Brighton! I'm shocked and I am mad as!@#!
Who was responsible for all of this? This must have been going on for years, and no one did anything to stop it?
Thanks for your blog. I had heard property was being siezed by eminent domain in the paper, but this is an outrage.

7/28/2008 9:23 AM  
Blogger Right Hook said...

Past city councils, primarily those headed by Mayors Benke and Larson were largely responsible for the practice. There also appeared to be what Council Member Sharon Doffing called a "parasitic relationship" between the legal firm that handled eminent domain litigation for the city. The Minnesota League of Cities also aided and abetted the outrage.

Someone did do something about it, namely current Council Members Doffing, Bauman, and Phillips. Doffing started the effort about five years ago when she was elected, saw what was going on, and was as outraged as you apparently are. It was a long, hard battle (literally) fighting city hall, but the citizens eventually won through the efforts of the current three council members and support of their efforts by the voters.

Check out some of the links in the post for background into what was going on.

7/28/2008 9:41 AM  
Blogger Force50 said...

Sharon Doffing can never be repaid for all she's done fighting for the ordinary citizen. When you meet her, simply say "Thank You for protecting our property."

I know she has taken a lot of abuse. She has dealt with a lot of people who showed their worst sides. That's more than any one person should have to take. Yet she stood in there and knew she was right. Sharon has been as patient and kind as a person can be under such circumstances.

7/29/2008 11:30 AM  

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