Northfield City Council to discuss allegations of mayoral misconduct

Jim Pokorney
Northfield City Council member Jim Pokorney says he believes the mayor's actions violated the city's code of ethics.
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

Most of the findings in the report center around a proposed municipal liquor store.

Mayor Lee Lansing's son, David, owned part of a property that Lansing wanted to become the store's new location. Lansing told city officials he had been involved in the liquor store project since 2003, years before his election.

Publicly, Mayor Lansing recused himself from discussions about the project over a "perceived conflict of interest."

But the report says behind the scenes, Lansing exerted his influence in a variety of ways to push the proposed liquor store in his son's direction.

"I've always had the public interest first and foremost in everything I've done on behalf of the city."

In one example, Lansing pressured City Administrator Al Roder to reduce a fee assessed to his son's property. Lansing wrote in one memo that his son's development was very important.

"If nothing changes, the project will not go forward. This is a staff blunder. This is not a developer's blunder. I have no idea what to do with this mess. We better figure out something fast," Mayor Lansing wrote.

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Roder did reduce the fee, though he says he would have done so regardless of pressure from the mayor.

According to the report, Lansing attended every meeting his son and another developer held about the liquor store. But he continued to discuss the project with City Administrator Roder.

The mayor also told Roder to suppress a financial analysis of six proposed locations for the liquor store.

The analysis, done by Ehlers and Associates, indicated that the property owned by Lansing's son was the least beneficial for the city.

In a memo to Roder Mayor Lansing, his boss, wrote,

"I don't think you were ready to review the Ehlers report. If you were, it's very easy to see what a poor report this is. If I were you I would leave the lid tightly closed on this report until you better understand the content. This is a very challenging review."

The Northfield City Council never saw the Ehlers report.

Administrator Roder also told investigators the mayor, who sometimes addressed him in letters as "big boy," had linked Roder's pay to discussions about the liquor store. On several occasions, Lansing wrote that serving as mayor had cost him a lot of money and business opportunities.

"We'll see how things turn out, but right now it's a big drain of energy, time and money," the mayor wrote.

These are just a few of the examples cited in the investigation. The report finds that Mayor Lansing violated Northfield's city code, which prohibits public officials from granting any citizen special treatment, as well as the city's ordinance on conflict of interest.

Mayor Lee Lansing says he has done nothing wrong.

"I've always had the public interest first and foremost in everything I've done on behalf of the city," Lansing says. "It's difficult, sometimes, to understand if my thinking is correct or if someone else's is. I haven't done anything that was contrary to the public interest."

Lansing says the issues boil down to a question of intent, and his was to help the city. He says the liquor store project overall would bolster city revenue, and his son's property would have been the best location for doing that.

At the City Council meeting on Saturday, councilors will decide what to do with this report. Council member Jim Pokorney says he believes the mayor's actions violated the city's code of ethics.

"We'll probably have to think about, should we ask someone to prosecute this as a violation of our city ordinance? That's one thing," Pokorney says. "Some people will ask, should we ask the mayor to resign? In our city charter, the only way the mayor can be forced out of office is through a public vote."

Around Northfield, some believe what Lansing did was poor judgment, but not unethical. Others say it's a clear breach of the law.

Lansing says he looks forward to Saturday's discussion. He says he is considering a host of options, including resigning.