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Brainerd City Council: Members table street vacation, look into school board conduct

The school district petitioned the city in August to vacate the portion of Williams Street between Northwest Third and Fourth streets, and the portion of Northwest Third Street between Williams Street and the BNSF Railway Mainline Centerline Track. Screenshot / Google Maps

The Brainerd City Council tabled a decision to approve a street vacation request from the Brainerd School District after hearing concerns about how the district handled the issue.

The school district petitioned the city in August to vacate the portion of Williams Street between Northwest Third and Fourth streets, and the portion of Northwest Third Street between Williams Street and the BNSF Railway mainline centerline track. The district bought the abutting property from BNSF in April.

The council hosted a public hearing for the vacation request and was expected to vote on it during its meeting Monday, Oct. 1. In the meeting agenda packet, City Engineer Paul Sandy wrote the portion of Northwest Third Street north of Williams Street was previously vacated by the council, leaving Williams Street from Northwest Third Street to Northwest Fourth Street—the portion asking to be vacated—more or less a dead-end public street. Northwest Third Street south of Williams Street is defined as a public right of way, but the street itself was never constructed.

From city staff's perspective, Sandy said the district's proposed vacation is in the best interest of the public, as Williams Street currently dead ends into private property owned by the district. Cost savings in maintaining the street and potentially reconstructing or resurfacing the street in the future would benefit the public. If vacated, Sandy said the city would still have an easement on the road to maintain the storm sewer, sanitary sewer and water facilities.

Before council members voted on the measure Monday, resident Jeff Czeczok addressed them during the public hearing with concerns about how the school district went about the issue.

According to a recording obtained from the district, the school board discussed purchasing the BNSF property and the possible future vacation of nearby streets during a closed session after the regular board meeting Feb. 12. The board's agenda for the night said the meeting was closed pursuant to "Minnesota Statutes 13D.05, for Data Classified as Not Public, to develop or consider offers or counteroffers for the purchase of sale of real or personal property." The same state statute also mandates public bodies to identify on the record the particular property being discussed before closing the meeting. That information, Czeczok pointed out, was not included on the school board's agenda.

"That's very concerning to me because it is the public's business to know that," Czeczok told the council. "I don't know what motives they had to not do that, but I'm pretty confident they did it intentionally."

During the closed meeting, Steve Lund—director of business services for the district at the time—said the district was working with BNSF to negotiate a purchase agreement for land near Riverside Elementary School, a conversation, he noted, opened up months ago. Lund then said, should the purchase come to fruition, the district would most likely want to petition the city to vacate some of the surrounding streets.

When asked if he had talked to the city about the possible vacation yet, Lund—who left the school district in April—can be heard on the recording saying: "Oh heavens no. We've wanted to see what this looks like before we open up any conversation that would allude to the fact that we're negotiating with BN. We really want to keep that pretty on the down-low before we opened that up."

Later in the meeting Lund said he would reach out to the city, hopefully confidentially, to bring officials up to speed on how the district plans to proceed with the street vacation.

Czeczok played the first part of the recording for the council and said Lund's comment about keeping negotiations on the "down-low" troubled him.

"I don't know why you would want to keep it on the down-low, but I think we all know what that means," Czeczok said, noting the matters talked about in the closed session were the public's business. "I'm not here to attack people. I just want accountability. If we move forward with this street vacation, what are we saying to the public? It's OK for the school board to conduct their business discreetly, without telling people."

In short, Czeczok said he understood the district's desire to vacate the property in question but was concerned about the process.

"We want to see the school do good and have room for the kids and the teachers and parents and everybody, but you have to look at what's gone on here. I'm very troubled by this," he said, telling council members they now have the chance to hold the school board accountable for their actions.

"I'm just here to appeal to your sense of right and wrong and accountability," Czeczok said.

Though City Attorney Joseph Langel told council members they can't deny a valid vacation petition based on an open meeting law violation, which is out of the council's jurisdiction, council members agreed they would like a comment from the school board on the issue.

"I don't like hearing the words 'down-low.' There's no reason to say such things," council member Dave Badeaux said. "And maybe it is just a misunderstanding and an oversight on their part, but I would appreciate at least a comment from the school board."

Council member Gabe Johnson echoed those sentiments and noted the district also wants to acquire property in northeast, southeast and south Brainerd for its expansion projects.

"How much are they keeping on the down-low?" Johnson asked. "That needs to be addressed."

Badeaux said there is a lot of concern surrounding those property acquisitions, especially from residents near schools in northeast and southeast Brainerd.

"Now is not the time to be on the down-low," he said. "Now is the time to be upfront and honest with people."

As Langel assured the council there is no clock ticking on the vacation petition, the council agreed to ask the school board for a comment and table the vote on the vacation until Oct. 15.

School district responds

When asked about the concerns, Superintendent Laine Larson submitted a written response to the Dispatch.

Not including the specific property discussed in the closed meeting, she said, was simply an oversight.

"The District regrets this procedural oversight and is adjusting its practices to ensure it does not happen again. Otherwise, the District complied with the Open Meeting Law," she wrote. "The February 12, 2018 closed session was recorded, the individuals present during the closed session identified themselves on the recording, the BNSF property was identified on the recording, and the District's purchase of the BNSF property was approved at a public meeting April 16, 2018 following additional negotiations with BNSF. The acquisition took place in a transparent matter. Mr. Czeczok's claims to the contrary are simply not true."

Records show the school board has met in closed session four times since Feb. 12. Once for labor negotiations, once for superintendent evaluation, once for allegations against an individual and once for a property purchase. In the last instance, the property in question was identified on the agenda as 1609 Oak St. before the closed session.

The rest of Larson's response, regarding Lund's comments in the closed session, are as follows:

"The District did not commence discussions with the City of Brainerd regarding a request to vacate portions of Williams Street and NW 3rd Street in February 2018 because doing so would have been premature. At that point in time, the District was still in negotiations with BNSF for the purchase of the property and did not know whether a transaction would be finalized. This is the context for Steve Lund's comment about keeping the matter on the 'down low.' ... When the District approved the purchase of the BNSF property at a public School Board meeting on April 16, 2018, there was a specific reference to the fact that the District would be seeking the potential closure of Williams Street for safety and security purposes. It is unfortunate that the City Council elected to postpone its approval of the District's petition to vacate potions of Williams Street and NW 3rd Street as a result of Mr. Czeczok's actions. The District is happy to work with the City to clear up any confusion caused by Mr. Czeczok's conduct and remains hopeful that its petition will be approved at the next City Council meeting."