Roseville politics still anything but ho-hum
Bill McAuliffe, Star Tribune
Published September 5, 2003

Voters in Roseville will take the first step toward choosing a new mayor Tuesday, when they will select two candidates to advance to November's general election.

Many are hoping the outcome will restore a more civil tone to City Hall, where the politics in recent years has ranged from caustic to sometimes comic, and always attention-getting.

Last year, one woman got so angry watching a cable TV broadcast of a council meeting run into the late hours that she got out of her pajamas and drove to City Hall to speak to the council in person.

Also last year, after an advocacy group called for Mayor John Kysylyczyn 's resignation in the wake of ethics complaints, the number of subscribers to a free cable TV package that delivers only meetings and other public programming jumped 9 percent.

Still, the city of about 34,000 may be one place where even those who are aware of history manage to repeat it.

Kysylyczyn isn't running for reelection. But he is running in a five-way race for a seat on the council.

Even if his bid fails, there's no guarantee that peace will break out. Going back even to its early days as a city in the late 1940s and early '50s, Roseville has frequently been a place where politics has been a bare-knuckled affair, with insiders and outsiders changing titles and exchanging blows.

Some say the high intensity is because Roseville -- just north of St. Paul and east of Minneapolis -- has a relatively high percentage of residents connected to the University of Minnesota or the State Capitol, with advanced educations and an interest in public affairs. Some say it's due to chronic friction between organized political groups.

Bill Morris, a former state Republican Party chairman who now does issue and attitude polling for cities, says he recently found that it was younger people who needed to be persuaded to vote for a school bond issue (rather than older Roseville residents) -- the opposite of the usual dynamic.

Insiders vs. outsiders

Former Mayor and Council Member Donn Wiski traces the conflict to the 1960s, when some neighbors along Fairview Avenue felt city leaders had shrugged off their objections to a nursery operation.

"There was a contention that insiders were making all the decisions," Wiski said. "So a group got formed and tried to entice some people to run for office. And lo and behold, they defeated the old guard. That was the beginning of the challenge between the authority in power and others wanting city government to be more open."

The city ultimately took the nursery all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court on a zoning issue, and lost. But what followed was a period of effective and relative calm.

"There was a group of the same people -- responsible, educated people -- running the city, getting bonds passed for the schools, leading the service clubs," said Polly Frank, a council member from 1978 to 1986. "Roseville ran pretty well."

Among other things, Roseville was developing something of an envied parks system during that time, most of it under the leadership of parks Director Frank Rog. But City Manager Jim Andre had disciplined Rog for taking some actions without council approval, and had given him underwhelming pay raises.

When Rog retired after 27 years in the job, he ran for mayor in 1987, defeating Wiski and promptly set out to fire Andre. His allies were two council members who also believed the city manager wielded authority that should have belonged to the council. But after 15 years as city manager, Andre had plenty of admirers of his own.

How many? After Rog and his two allies voted to dismiss Andre in a special late-night meeting without a publicized agenda, 700 people showed up at a subsequent public hearing to object. Rog and the two council members -- one of whom, Al Kehr, is running again for council this year at age 88 -- ultimately stood by their votes to fire Andre. But at the next opportunity, all three were swept out of office.

The Andre firing also sparked formation of the Roseville Citizens Council for Fair and Open Government (RCCFOG), a group that monitors City Hall and the school board and holds candidate forums.

Wiski said the group absorbed some of the leaders of the old Fairview Avenue nursery fight, but for most of its life the organization has been regarded by some as the political arm of City Hall.

Almost as soon as it was founded, the group was accused of an unfair campaign practice -- doing political campaign work in violation of its nonprofit charter. A grand jury was called, but no one was ever indicted.

Enter Kysylyczyn

In the late 1990s, however, a young homeowner named John Kysylyczyn began turning up regularly at City Council meetings, arguing that the city's inspections department seemed to have targeted his property for aggressive code enforcement. His complaints followed a familiar path. Kysylyczyn began to charge that city bureaucrats were too powerful and that the City Council wasn't listening to the public.

In 1999, at age 27, he announced he was running for mayor. When some indecision between two established candidates led to a write-in campaign, Kysylyczyn slipped into office between them.

Kysylyczyn said he believes a little tumult is a good thing and he recently has been quoting former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who said, "Consensus is what we are left with, in an absence of leadership."

He insists that the public now has more opportunity to speak at council meetings than ever before, and says that's one reason (along with full TV coverage) that the City Council may seem more embattled. "The more work you're willing to do in front of the public, the more debate and controversy there's going to be," he said.

But his critics say that Kysylyczyn has tried to concentrate power himself with his agenda-setting, commissioner appointments and even his seeking to be named editor of the city's newsletter.

Many say they wouldn't want to speak at council meetings anyway, because of the way Kysylyczyn belittles those who disagree with him. To them, as well as to most of the leaders of RCCFOG, Kysylyczyn has become what he first came to City Hall to fight: a rude and impatient insider.

In running for one of the city's four council seats, Kysylyczyn is trying to unseat his most visibly angry critic, Council Member Dean Maschka. His other most frequent opponent, Council Member Craig Klausing, is running for mayor, as is Kysylyczyn 's frequent ally, Council Member Tom Kough.

Klausing and Kough can each retain their council seats, no matter the outcome of the mayor's race, but if one of them wins, he will vacate a seat. That would allow Kysylyczyn , if he wins his race, to vote on a replacement.

Barb Obeda, the 39-year resident who jumped out of bed to speak at the council meeting last year, said she thinks the prospects for change are not bright.

"Roseville is going to be worse than it is," she said. "It's already the laughingstock of the Twin Cities."

Bill McAuliffe is at mcaul@startribune.com .

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