The county says Lake Elmo Public Library will not be able to join the county library system until at least 2018. The development is due to delays in action by the city council and a list of demands made by the city council that county staff say cannot be approved before a July 1 deadline. The deadline has been publicly known since at least January.
After special meetings by Lake Elmo’s library board and city council, an agreement to transfer the independent city library to the county system has been approved by the majority of the city council. However, the county says the action does not meet the requirements of the July 1 deadline. City staff warned the council at the time of the action that it would not meet the county’s requirements.
Many also have questions about the terms of the agreement, and concerns over the process have been raised. County Commissioner Gary Kriesel left city hall in the middle of council proceedings June 29, calling them a “joke.”
The city received notice June 30 from the county that the last-minute actions by the council came too late to meet the taxing deadline, and Lake Elmo residents will spend 2017 outside of the county and regional library system.
The city council had been scheduled June 21 to discuss the possibility of rejoining the county system as a branch, but voted 3-2 to remove the item from the agenda. The item was removed, city council member and library liaison Julie Fliflet said, because they were “right in the middle of negotiations.”
A special meeting of the Lake Elmo Library Board was called for 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 26, with one agenda item — to hear an “Affiliation team update (Potential Action).” During the meeting, the board was presented with a draft resolution and a 23-point memorandum of understanding (MOU) outlining the services the Lake Elmo Library expected from the county if the city library joined as a branch.
Of the seven library board members, five were present at the special meeting. The board voted 3-2 to approve the resolution and the MOU.
At least one board member disapproved of the process the council and the board used to put the resolution to a vote. During a special meeting of the city council at 8 a.m. June 29, called to vote on the resolution and MOU, Mayor Mike Pearson read from an email by library board member Steve DeLapp. DeLapp was not in attendance at the library board meeting or the council meeting.
“If anything happened (at the library board meeting), I hope it relates to the fact that maybe 30 of 9,000 residents knew about it, that the resolution we were being asked to vote on changed three times after the meeting was announced to board members,” DeLapp wrote. “There was no effort to complete at least three excellent options to reduce taxes and improve service before the vote or to seek any public input.”
DeLapp said in his email that it was the first time in the history of the city’s library board that a special meeting was called.
“The process has been a disgrace and a disservice, and might lead to a substantial and ever growing increase in overall taxes to our property owners in coming years,” DeLapp wrote. “No analysis — thoughtful or otherwise — was considered during this sudden rush to judgement.”
Fliflet disagreed and said the resolution was composed of the work the library board from the past 18 months and was reviewed by the city attorney.
“This isn’t an agreement that everyone is in love with,” Fliflet said. “The best compromise is when everybody gave something, and that is what this is.”
Within the MOU, the library board requires the county to “operate a full service … branch in Lake Elmo in perpetuity,” maintain hours of operation more than 40 hours per week, hire all current staff as county staff and other operational expenses. The city would allow the branch to operate in its library building at a lease rate of $1 per month and fund an additional $8,000 in programing costs in addition to the $260,000 in library tax levy. Other requirements in the 23-point MOU give the city and the county the option to terminate the agreement at any time for any reason. Fliflet said that the MOU would provide protections to library services that are valued by the library board and the volunteers.
Pearson peppered Fliflet and Councilmember Anne Smith with questions about the creation of the MOU and its list of requirements.
“The county is not going to agree to this,” Pearson said.
“This is a compromise,” Smith said. “We don’t get everything we want. The county doesn’t get everything they want. This is the most fair resolution I have seen and it has been worked on diligently by the library board.”
The council voted 3-0 —with Pearson abstaining and Councilmember Justin Bloyer absent — to approve the resolution with the MOU.
County board member calls council ‘a joke’
After the public comment from a few residents who asked more question about the openness of the process than about rejoining the county system, Smith explained that the process to develop the plan was “staff to staff” and elected officials were to stay out of the process. The few times that county commissioner Gary Kriesel spoke to the council at meetings was “disrespectful,” Smith said, because the Washington County Board of Commissioners did not “authorize” Kriesel to represent it at Lake Elmo City Council meetings.
“I don’t go to the county board meetings and insert myself in their process because I think it would be disrespectful and that’s how I act,” Smith said. “I’m sorry if I am upsetting you, Mr. Kriesel.”
“You are not upsetting me,” Kriesel said.
Kriesel then filled out a public comment form in order to respond to some of the statements made by Smith. In past meetings, the council’s practice has allowed for additional comments throughout the meeting.
“Public comment is over,” said Councilmember Jill Lundgren, citing a desire to reduce the length of council meetings by enforcing a more rigid public comment policy.
“You don’t want the county commissioner to speak?” asked Pearson.
Lundgren, Smith and Fliflet agreed that public comment was over. Now upset, Kriesel charged the council with bringing up his name but not allowing him to speak in his defense.
“What a joke,” Kriesel said as he left city hall.
In an interview later that day, Kriesel said he was “really disappointed.”
“In all my years of services as an elected official, I have never seen anything like it,” Kriesel said. “It was very disrespectful and personal in nature. I believe in transparency and open dialogue.”
County approval unlikely, deadline already missed
Shortly after the council meeting, county library director Keith Ryskoski said that he hadn’t seen a copy of the MOU and hadn’t spoken with a representative from Lake Elmo in a couple weeks. While he couldn’t comment on details of the MOU until county library, administrative and legal staff could review the document, Ryskoski was very specific in saying that he would like to see the city of Lake Elmo and its residents join the county system. Absent was a specific reference to or guarantee of the future existence of a county library branch in Lake Elmo.
“We serve the entire county in conjunction with the other branches of the county library system,” Ryskoski said. “We have had conversations about what it (the Lake Elmo Library) could look like, but we have to look out for the entire county.”
While a Lake Elmo branch may or may not fit into the county system is yet to be determined, Ryskoski said they would need to look at how the current system would serve the needs of the residents and if there is a need to expand to a new county branch location.
Because the language that was used in the council’s motion to transfer the tax levy to the county is predicated on the acceptance of the entire MOU, the move to the county system would be void if the county board did not vote to approve. The Lake Elmo Public Library would remain independent until Jan. 1, 2018, at the earliest.
City staff stated in its own report to the council at the meeting that it does not matter whether the county board approved the levy and MOU or not — the deadline would have already passed by the time the board could vote. According to city attorney Sarah Sonsalla and City Administrator Kristina Handt, the county would receive notice of the city’s intention to hand over library taxing authority by the July 1 deadline, but the county board’s next meeting isn’t until July 5.
Fliflet said her interpretation of the statute required the city to only give notice by July 1, and other approvals and discussions could be ongoing.
On June 30, Jennifer Wagenius, director of property records and taxpayer services for Washington County, sent the city of Lake Elmo a letter stating that although the county had received the notice and MOU on June 29, the city would not join the county library system.
“By including a Memorandum of Understanding that place conditions up the required notice … the appropriate notice has not been provided by the deadline,” Wagenius said.
Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]