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Brainerd City Council: Council approves vacating property for school district

Members of the Brainerd City Council review documents during its Oct. 15 meeting. The council voted unanimously to approve a number of property vacations to the Brainerd School District amid concerns surrounding the district's handling of the issue. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

The Brainerd City Council voted unanimously to approve a number of property vacations to the Brainerd School District amid concerns the district circumvented open meeting laws and intentionally kept their dealings under wraps.

Per the council's decision Monday, Oct. 15, the city will 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 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.The district bought the abutting property from BNSF in April.

From city staff's perspective, City Engineer Paul 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.

Previously, the council tabled what members said they initially thought would be a routine item, when resident Jeff Czeczok addressed them during a public hearing with concerns on how the district went about the issue. Czeczok is currently running for the Brainerd School Board.

Specifically, Czeczok's petition included concerns the district didn't follow open meeting rules, or "sunshine laws," by not disclosing which properties were being discussed. During these discussions, Czeczok said the board wasn't being forthright with the city and was keeping its own discussions on the "down-low"—a term used by former Director of Business Services Steve Lund. Czeczok provided audio recordings of a Feb. 12 closed session as evidence.

Subsequently, the council tabled the matter and requested clarification from the Brainerd School District.

Upon receiving a letter from the district, council members signaled they were satisfied with the clarification provided—though, as council member Dave Badeaux noted, while the property vacations were approved with little fuss, how the district responded to Czeczok's petition didn't sit well with him.

"I have a very large issue with the fact a citizen exercises their right, comes to a public hearing, presents a hearing, we make a decision based on that, just asking for clarification and than that person is vilified," Badeaux said. "I didn't think that would be the case."

"I don't have a problem with this vacation, I really don't," he later added. "But I have a very large problem with creating barriers for our citizens who want to come and speak with us."

After the meeting, Badeaux said he didn't like a number of characterizations and assertions by the district in letters sent to the council and the Brainerd Dispatch—identifying, specifically, the following statement as one that stood out to him:

"It is unfortunate, and in our view very disingenuous, that Mr. Czeczok did not play the full recording he received from the District at the October 1, 2018 City Council meeting," stated the letter signed by Superintendent Laine Larson and Ruth Nelson, the chair of the board. "The full recording, which is just under 17 minutes long, provides the proper context for comments the District's former Business Services Director Steve Lund made during the closed session, including his reference to keeping the BNSF property acquisition on the 'down-low' with respect to discussions with the City."

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.

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 October 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.

During a phone interview Tuesday, Larson declined to comment on the nature of the discussions during the Feb. 12 meeting. Lund did not return calls Tuesday.