The Bayport City Council has removed Planning Commission Chair Jason Obler from the commission. The council cited concerns over alleged conflicts of interest possible violations of open meeting law and alleged threats of legal action against the city.
According to City Administrator Logan Martin, the alleged conflict of interest arose from statements Obler made during a September council meeting. The council was considering, and ultimately denied, a request from developer D.R. Horton to modify the original plans for the Inspiration housing development. Martin said Obler made statements that seemed to indicate a personal concern in the development.
The matter of possible open meeting law violations concerned the city even more, Martin said. Minnesota’s open meeting law requires that public entities give proper notice of meetings in advance and conduct them so the public may attend and observe. Serial meetings of a few members of the public body, held with intent to avoid the law, are prohibited.
At its July meeting the planning commission voted to recommend approval of D.R. Horton’s request, but at the Sept. 3 council meeting, Obler recommended denial. This seemed to indicate to the council that illegal meetings or communication had taken place among planning commission members to reach this decision, or that Obler was not representing the recommendation of the full commission.
Finally, the city was concerned about perceived threats of legal action against the city, which Martin said Obler had made in person and in writing.
The council voted 4-0 to remove Obler Oct. 21, when it had a joint session with the planning commission. Councilmember Connie Carlson abstained from the vote.
Obler denies all three allegations against him. He read a statement outlining his objections at the Nov. 4 city council meeting.
“All of these allegations are false,” he said.”First, there is no conflict of interest by virtue of residence, any of my actions or behaviors or any other matter. In fact, no actual conflict was cited.”
In addition, Obler insisted that “at no time did any violations of open meeting law or planning commission bylaws occur.”
Instead, he called his September recommendation “personal.”
“My personal recommendation to council in September to disregard the planning commission’s July recommendation was made because the planning commission was unable to receive timely, accurate and complete information relevant to making a decision on Inspiration III-B,” he said.
As for legal threats, Obler claimed the allegation resulted from a misunderstanding.
“I regret that inquiries about how to file a complaint with the city to report behaviors that may have obstructed the efficient and orderly operation of the planning commission were interpreted as threats of legal action,” he said. “Such inquiries were necessary as it became clear the planning commission had made a recommendation without the full set of facts.”
Mayor Susan St. Ores responded to Obler’s claims Nov. 4 with her own statement defending the council’s actions.
“We did do our research, and we did take the advice of our attorneys,” she said. “And we did find that there was a conflict of interest, not because of residence in Inspiration or any other part of the city. … But there were specific statements that were made during the September council meeting that were an expression of a conflict of interest on Mr. Obler’s behalf.”
“We came to this conclusion based on the fact that a vote that was taken at the July (22) planning commission meeting … had changed between the planning commission meeting and the city council meeting,” she said. “That would only mean that either a serial meeting took place, the open meeting law was broken or the full planning commission’s views were not being expressed by Chair Obler.”
St. Ores said the council did not make its decision lightly.
“It’s not fun for a city council to be faced with these decisions,” she said. “They’re hard. You lose friendships. And yet our role as city council members is to uphold the roles and responsibilities and to protect the citizens at large from risk of litigation.”
The planning commission currently has two vacancies. Interested residents should apply at Bayport City Hall, 294 N. Third Street.
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]