ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – Stillwater’s mayor and City Council erred by giving $80,000 of the public’s money to a nonprofit group the mayor co-chairs that was formed to promote a $690 million bridge project opposed by some members of the public, the state auditor’s office concluded.
The donation to the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, which backs the plan to build a four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River in Oak Park Heights, was made without a contract that would keep the public informed of how the money was spent, the Star Tribune reported Friday.
Nancy Bode, an attorney for the auditor’s office, said the coalition of government and community leaders had claimed “non-public, trade secret” protection for documents that describe the coalition’s plans and costs.
“As a result, there is no opportunity for the City or the public to review any document explaining what, if anything, the City might receive for this $80,000 expenditure of public funds,” she wrote in a letter sent to city leaders earlier this week.
The letter advised Stillwater to recover the donated money.
The donation was approved by Mayor Ken Harycki and three other City Council members in a July vote. The mayor also serves as the coalition’s co-chairman. City Attorney David Magnuson had concluded the donation was legal.
Harycki said he thinks the auditor’s review was issued because of political pressure from opponents of the proposed plan. He and others who support the project believe the new bridge would ease traffic congestion around the 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge. Those who oppose the project claim the proposed bridge would be too big and would be an eyesore.
“Unfortunately this is part of modern-day politics,” Harycki said. “We have never been closer to securing this new river crossing. They’re losing their fight on the facts and now they’re resorting to other means.”
Harycki said that the coalition was too new to provide public documents and said much of the money is being spent for lobbying and research. The mayor said he couldn’t provide specifics.
Harycki said he has asked the city attorney to re-examine the deal, in light of the auditor’s review.
State Auditor Rebecca Otto said the review was motivated by resident complaints, not politics. “The issue of a bridge in Stillwater is a political issue, but this is a fiscal issue,” she said. “We’re an independent body that can be here for anybody.”
One of the complainants, Don Empson of Stillwater, said City Council members with the exception of Micky Cook have “run amok” with public funds and failed to disclose how it’s being spent. “This is taxpayer money. This isn’t their personal piggybank,” Empson said.
Otto said her agency wants to know by Sept. 30 what action Stillwater plans to take with regards to the donated money.
Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com