OPH to give bridge group $3K

Money can’t be used for any legal expenses

bridge coalition logoOAK PARK HEIGHTS — The City Council agreed Tuesday to give money to a pro-St. Croix River bridge group, but specified that the funds cannot be used for any legal costs.

The council voted 3-2 to give $3,000 to the St. Croix Crossing Coalition, two weeks after coalition representatives requested a donation from the city.Councilmen Mike Runk and Les Abrahamson voted against the donation.

City Administrator Eric Johnson said a city donation to the coalition would be a “viable expenditure” if the the donation meets a three-part test. According to Johnson, those guidelines are that the activity benefits the community as a body; is directly related to the functions of government, and does not primarily benefit a private interest.

The coalition cannot use a city donation to help set up a legal fund, said both Johnson and City Attorney Mark Veirling.

“In our view, the coalition would not have legal standing that would allow it to participate in any litigation should that ever present itself, relative to the bridge, as it has no legal standing in the issue,” writes Vierling in a Jan. 25 letter to the council.
Coalition representative Chad Kulas said any Oak Park Heights funds would be used for public advocacy and education as initial bridge construction begins in the spring. He added that the coalition is concerned about any last-minute legal actions by bridge opponents to halt the project.

“There have been legal battles that have stopped it in the past. If there were any other problems that arise like that, the coalition can be of help,” he said.
But Runk and Abrahamson expressed concerns about coalition plans for the money and how the group has interacted with the city in the past.

“That’s what I’m having a problem with. What is the money going to be used for?” Runk said. “They  seem to be lobbying us instead of making a request to us.”

Abrahamson criticized the coalition for poor communications with the city and said he did not understand why the group would organize bridge-related ceremonies.

“That would be the responsibility of the bridge owner. That would be the state,” Abrahamson said.

But Councilman Mark Swenson said he supported the coalition’s request.

“If you can commit that this will not be used for legal issues, I can support it, he said.
Vierling said any motion could include an provision allowing the city to audit the coalition to ensure the city’s funds are used legally.

Joining Swenson in support of the donation were Councilman Chuck Dougherty and Mayor Mary McComber.