Fed-up taxpayers bypass City Hall to force fall referendum


By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

BY THE BOOK — NOT: Residents of Twin Cities suburb mounted a last-ditch petition drive after the City Council passed a $9 million to $10 million library project, giving taxpayers final say this fall. Columbia Heights city photo.

COLUMBIA HEIGHTS, Minn.— Think community organizing 2.0, taking it to the streets of the suburbs, instead of the inner city.

The unlikely outcome in this Twin Cities suburb might have caused the original community organizer — leftist Saul Alinsky — to renounce his naming rights to the role, if he were still around.

“Tim’s got a mini-van with a sliding door inside, so we’d drive around with the doors open like riding in a Huey chopper in Viet Nam,” said Gregory Sloat, a ring leader in a petition drive that broke out over a $9 million to $10 million library approved by the Columbia Heights City Council. “We’d see somebody, we’d just jump out and give them our spiel.”

Their target voting bloc: Disenfranchised taxpayers.

“The vast majority were receptive. We got very few people that were hostile. And those were just a handful of people that just didn’t want to have anything to do with politics, and the other end of it, where they wanted the library no matter what,” said Adam Davis, a music teacher and one of five members of the opponent’s organizing committee.

Their mission: Give voters the final say on expensive city projects, instead of local politicians.

“They’re coming after this first ring, fairly poor suburb like we’re made out of money,” said Ramona Anderson, a sales manager who also canvassed dozens of neighborhoods. “If they build it, great, but these people need to have a voice.”

Few saw the surge coming when the City Council voted 4-1 last month to replace the 1960’s vintage city library down the street from City Hall. After all, the city charter stipulated that opponents needed signatures from 10 percent of the 10,100 Columbia Heights voters in the 2012 election to force a fall referendum.

“I’ve received quite a few text messages in favor of it from a couple of people who can’t be at the meeting tonight,” said Columbia Heights Mayor Gary Peterson at the outset of the decisive June 23 meeting. “But they expressed their support, which is kind of unusual. You usually get the other kind.”

Supporters dominated the public forum, outnumbering opponents at the podium 4-to-1.

“I have heard the naysayers repeat over and over and over that we are a poor community, can’t afford this and can’t afford that,” said Marlaine Szurek, Columbia Heights Library Foundation president at the meeting; “$50 to $70 a year increase in taxes, depending on the value of your home, is just too much, according to them.”

“This is the time for us to move on and do something. You are our representative democracy,” said Kathleen Collopy, a library card holder since 1955. “You are our representatives and you need to vote and represent those of us that want to see the city improved and advance community relations within the library.”

The petitioners faced a deadline of one month to garner more than 1,000 signatures. They got off to a slow start, going door-to-door. More than halfway through the drive, they switched tactics relying on the run-and-gun strategy one supporter — Tim Utz, he of the min-van — had already employed to get on the 2014 ballot as a Constitution Party candidate for the state Legislature.

“You drive up, you find them, you grab them on the street and tackle them, not really, and say, ‘Hi, sweetie, how are you doing? Do you have just a second?’” said Anderson.

Some 1,300 residents did take a second to sign, including many who support both the library and the taxpayers’ right to vote.

“What’s really noticeable is there’s a huge independent streak that’s strong right now, and it’s the strongest I’ve seen since we had Jesse Ventura run for governor,” said Davis.

To be on the safe side, the self-styled community organizers delivered the 131-page petition to City Hall before the July 28 deadline. City officials still need to validate the signatures on the petition before it’s official, even as the organizers planned to continue signing up more supporters over the weekend.

“With what they submitted, at first glance, it does appear to be enough signatures. But we need to verify all those against the county records, that they’re registered voters, and that’s the process we’re in right now,” said Katie Bruno, Columbia Heights city clerk.

Mission accomplished apparently, but there’s still plenty of campaigning to do — and not only for the referendum. Two members of the petition organizing committee will be on the ballot this November, as well. Greg Sloat hopes to become a city councilman, while Bob Odden will vie for Minnesota secretary of state as the Libertarian Party candidate, both hoping for a boost from the local groundswell over the library.

“If voters decide that they can’t afford another tax increase, then through this check on endless government spending, they can feel good about having at least some control over their lives,” said Odden.