The following story appeared in the June/July 2003 issue of Minnesota Law & Politics, as part of a larger package on life in the suburbs. The package won first place in as the best feature magazine article of the year in the journalism awards competition sponsored by the Society for Professional Journalists. The Minnesota News Council agreed with the complaints about the article brought by the ex-mayor that he was not asked to respond in the article and the Council agreed that the article did not attribute or document its facts. Law & Politics affirmed to the council that the article was completely accurate.

Life In Suburbia Section

The Day Strippers Tried To Take Over City Hall

That and other sordid political tales from the not-so-sleepy suburbs

By Kevin Featherly

If you think political intrigue is strictly the province of big cities, you haven’t been reading your morning papers. A spate of juicy political scandals — brought on by corruption, election fraud, and even romance gone sour — can be found in some of Minnesota tiniest towns and sleepiest suburbs.

Consider, for example, the case of the former Bethel city administrator. She was disgraced by charges that she siphoned $20,000 from city coffers to pay her mortgage, a scandal that also resulted in the arrest of her husband — the mayor. In beautiful Lanesboro, the former police chief burned down half that historic town in a bizarre attempt to make himself a hero in the eyes of his estranged girlfriend. And in Otter Tail County, two brothers filled with spite for one another slugged it out in a primary election for their father’s post as county sheriff; both ultimately failed.

If all politics is local, as they say, maybe all small-town politics is personal.

“A lot of local politics is sort of amateur politics,” says Steve Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. “So they are more likely to take a lot of events personally and get real ticked off in a way that a professional politician does not.”

The Naked Ballot

Take the example of Coates, Minn., where almost 100 people voting in the last city election listed as their home address a place called Jake’s Gentlemen’s Club, which is, yup, a strip joint. Citizens of this Dakota County town of just 163 souls had always opposed the nudie bar in their midst. Had the phony votes been counted, however, Coates’ entire city government would have been replaced with — surprise, surprise — supporters of strip joints in downtown Coates.

Richard J. Jacobson, 32, of Prescott, Wis., has owned and run Jake’s for more than a decade. In 1992, the city passed an ordinance to get rid of Jake’s. It then spent years fighting Jacobson’s appeals. Last May, a U.S. district judge finally ordered the club closed.

But, evidently, Jacobson did not give up. Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom says Jacobson orchestrated a shady get-out-the-vote effort, convincing 94 people — some of them apparently strippers — to sign fraudulent voter registration cards. Each claimed 15981 Clayton Ave. — Jake’s — as his or her legal residence.

In Coates, only 80 to 85 citizens vote each year, so Jacobson’s efforts would have led to a bloodless coup, installing three club-friendly newcomers on the five-member City Council. “It’s a scary situation from the standpoint that this was an attempt to control an election in a local community,” Backstrom says.

The ruse was disrupted when the county auditor’s office noticed a surprising number of voter registration forms coming from a single Coates address. Doubting any such large multi-dwelling building existed in the tiny town, employees alerted investigators.

All 94 applicants have been charged as felons for conspiring to overthrow the city’s leadership. Backstrom is offering most of them a deal: they can plead down to a misdemeanor, which carries a $250 fine and a year’s probation.

For Jacobson and the few others who Backstrom believes orchestrated the plan, there are no deals. They likely will go to trial this spring to face felony conspiracy charges, possibly resulting in yearlong jail sentences and upward of $22,000 in fines.

If the allegations are true, how did Jacobson think he could get away with it? Does he belong in the next book on very stupid criminals?

Backstrom is very polite about that.

“You can’t always say that people that break the law think things through very thoroughly,” he says.

The Mayor of Peyton Place

Things have also gotten nasty in Chanhassen, where the city government is looking like something out of As The World Turns.

Mayor Linda Jansen won an upset election in 2000 as the $500-a-month mayor of this swanky southwestern suburb. The heat initially rose when a local entrepreneur and key Jansen campaign worker, Mark Kroskin, was appointed to the City Council in early 2001. Not long afterward, Kroskin resigned after charges that he assaulted his girlfriend.

Next thing you knew, Kroskin was living, albeit briefly, with the mayor herself, and the mayor was filing for divorce. (Kroskin insisted he and the mayor were “just friends.”)

Come re-election time last year, the proverbial spit hit the fan.

A grand jury, convened in 2001 to investigate Kroskin and others over possible election law violations during the 2000 campaign, decided not to indict. After that, voters were mailed anonymous red postcards — “red with embarrassment!” — airing Jansen and Kroskin’s dirty laundry, including an accusation that Kroskin had phoned the mayor from jail after his domestic assault arrest. It also took swipes at Council Member Bob Ayotte’s marital problems.

Who was behind that mailing? Former Council Member Mark Senn has acknowledged to the Star Tribune that he helped distribute the postcard.

“It’s amazing how contentious politics has gotten,” says Carver County Attorney Mike Fahey. “I’ve lived in Carver County my whole life, I’m familiar with all the cities, and Chanhassen just sticks out in its combativeness.”

Roseville’s Thorn

Roseville Mayor John Kysylyczyn was just 27 when he was elected in 1999, and was enough of an upstart to attract Jesse Ventura to his swearing-in. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that since then he has stirred up enough debate to fill a political lifer’s career.

Since he took office, there have been fights over procedure, persistent bickering with his two council rivals and other hassles. At one point, a local advocacy group, the Roseville Citizens Council for Fair and Open Government, went so far as to launch a multimedia campaign — e-mail, lawn signs, videotape, petitions — to force him to resign. They charged the young mayor with “arrogant and bullying behavior” toward both city staffers and the citizenry.

But Kysylyczyn has more to worry about than disgruntled activists and a lack of vowels in his name. He has been tapped by the long arm of the law.

Kysylyczyn first found himself in real trouble about a year into his term. The mayor lobbied at the state Capitol for commercial property tax breaks on behalf of several developers, who at the time were suing the city.

This represented a conflict of interest, critics charged, and an ethics complaint was filed. But the city’s Ethics Commission did not uphold the complaint. Then, Kysylyczyn, siding with two allies on the City Council, voted to abolish the Ethics Commission. That measure passed 3–2.

With his troubles temporarily subsided, the mayor submitted a bill to pay off some $8,000 in legal fees he incurred defending himself against the ethics complaint. Because of the amount of money involved, a council vote to approve the expense was required.

The council did approve it, 5–0. Unfortunately, a few council members apparently did not know what they were voting for at the time, thinking there would be discussion on whether to pay the mayor’s bill.

White Bear Lake City Prosecutor Doug Meslow says that upon learning of the mistake, a council member called for a vote to reconsider the decision. But the mayor refused to acknowledge the request.

Roseville has a system in which the mayor votes on legislation along with council members. So one of the five votes to pay the mayor’s legal bill was cast by the mayor himself. Critics now contend that had the mayor not voted, and had he properly allowed the errant vote to be reconsidered, it certainly would have failed 2–2.

Kysylyczyn would have had to pay his own bill.

Meslow says it appears the mayor knew exactly what he was doing. Last October, Kysylyczyn was criminally charged with conflict of interest and official misconduct.

The prosecutor says he viewed a videotape of the meeting at which the controversial vote took place. In it, he says, Council Member Craig Klausing clearly advises the mayor that city ethics rules prohibit him from voting to pay his own legal fees. City Manager Neal Beets gives a similar warning.

It is not known what advice Roseville City Attorney Joel Jamnik — who has since left office — gave the mayor. But at the meeting where the vote took place, Jamnik sits silent, according to Meslow.

“I’m sitting there watching the videotape wondering why the city attorney isn’t saying something,” Meslow recalls.

Meslow says his burden is to prove not just that the mayor broke city rules by voting to pay his own bill, but that he knew it was wrong. To get to that, Meslow says, he must find out what advice Kysylyczyn received from Jamnik before the meeting. Thus far, he hasn’t been made privy to their discussions; Kysylyczyn cites attorney-client privilege.

In late March, Ramsey County judge Marybeth Dorn tossed out the charges against Kysylyczyn, citing "insufficient probable cause" in her opinion.

What Gives?

So what does it all mean? Is small-town politics getting dirtier?

Larry Jacob, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, doesn’t think so. It’s just that, nowadays, when the dirt shows up, it gets noticed.

Newspapers like the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, for instance, covet readers in suburbs and outer-ring municipalities to hike their circulations and revenues, and one way to do that is by extending local coverage.

“I’d say politics has always had about the same mix of public spiritedness and shady dealings, but that quotient of shady dealings is getting close scrutiny now,” he says. “It’s getting very difficult to get away with it.”

Roger Moe, the former state Senate majority leader, cut his teeth on small-town politics, though he made the leap directly from his first party caucus in Ada, Minn., to election in November 1970 to the Legislature. But he always kept a close eye on local and small-town politics, which, in effect, is something of a farm team for the big leagues of statewide office.

While some small-town political controversies can appear quaint to jaded urban eyes, they generate tremendous local heat. Careers can be ruined. Moe says it is possible that some of the recent rhubarbs have cut powerful political careers off at the knees.

Still, Moe, now a resident of rural Erskine, admits there is a special character to small-town life that makes political fireworks often seem to flash brighter than the big-city kind.

“That’s just the nature of a small town,” Moe says. “We know one another, we know what’s going on. You not only work together but you socialize together, so whenever there is a decision that rises to the coffee shop level, there is going to be a lot of discussion about it.

“Everybody,” he says, “is going to have an opinion and sides are going to be drawn.”

Carleton’s Schier puts it more succinctly. “The stakes are small,” he says, “and people are politically inexperienced. And so they fight a lot, and they’re mean to each other.”

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