Why is the town of contentment in chaos?by Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
A group of former Northfield mayors has called for mayor Lee Lansing's resignation. An investigation late last year found Lansing had improperly used his influence to steer city business to his son. The city council tried to get rid of Lansing, but so far he's hanging on to his job. The statement from the former mayors is just the latest development involving the mayor of this small college town south of the Twin Cities. How did a town of 20,000 end up with such a big mess?
Northfield, Minn. — For those of you who might not have been following, let's recap the last six months in Northfield.
In July 2007, the police chief announced the city had a substantial heroin problem at the high school, which turned out not to be entirely true. Northfield does have a drug problem, but most of it is outside the schools. Shortly thereafter the chief went on medical leave, and later, left town.
Then, a special investigator concluded Mayor Lee Lansing acted unethically, finding he had pressured city employees, edited public documents and suppressed reports to make his son's property look like the best place for the city's new liquor store.
And Goodhue County is investigating Northfield's city administrator for misconduct. No one knows details, but the investigation was prompted by the former police chief.
The investigation is being handled by neighboring Goodhue County to avoid a potential conflict of interest by the Rice County attorney.
Mayor Lansing is also suing the City Council. And there's more. But you get the picture: There's a heap of trouble, and all of it is unusual for Northfield.
Why did all this happen?
"Maybe, I shouldn't say what we suffer from in Northfield, but what the case is, is that we have an extremely large group of people who are politically active. So everything that happens, everyone has an opinion about," according to Mary Rossing, who owns Present Perfect, a gift shop.
To Rossing, Mayor Lee Lansing is just Lee. As in any small town, she's known the mayor for years. He owns Lansing Hardware up the street from her downtown shop.
Unlike most small towns, when Northfield talks, it frequently does so online.
There are a lot of bloggers in Northfield and many say a black cloud hangs over Northfield. The center of the talk is the mayor.
City Councilor Noah Cashman says many of the current problems are directly linked to Mayor Lansing.
"He's the one who asked for this investigation. I mean, he's kind of forced the issue," Cashman says.
Cashman says the mayor has a long history of taking action without the City Council. This, he says, is why Northfield has so many conflicts in government.
City Administrator Al Roder tends to agree with Cashman's assessment. Roder says he has never had such a difficult relationship with a mayor, nor had his character questioned like he has in Northfield. Roder has managed towns in North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.
"I think we have a disagreement on how things can and should work," says Roder. "It's much more public in Northfield, probably because of our proximity to the metropolitan area."
But Ben Winchester of the University of Minnesota Morris's Center for Small Towns says all of this squabbling is a sign of a town in transition. Winchester says small towns are familial. Problems get dealt with around the kitchen table.
"In the past, they may have tried to tidy up your house before you invite company over, where you have those conversations within your community before things are brought public," Winchester explains. "When you bring in people from an urban area, or from a more professional background that have a different idea of how to deal with political processes, then there may be different avenues of solutions."
One of the town's new City Council members work in state government and another in medical device technology. Several city employees come from outside Northfield. Is Northfield experiencing some sort of cultural shift?
"I don't know," Mayor Lansing says. "I don't have a real good answer for you there."
Lansing says Northfield is like any other small town. But do other small towns experience so much acrimony and scandal?
"I think it just kind of snowballs, and one issue leads to another. So I don't know why Northifeld is going through this right now. It probably will be a healthy thing when it's all finished," Lansing says.
Lansing says he is still considering whether or not to resign or run for re-election next year. His term ends in December.
Investigators are still looking into Lansing's behavior. Goodhue County will decide if he acted criminally.
Goodhue is also expected to come out with its findings on City Administrator Al Roder next month. And former police chief Gary Smith started a new job as police chief in Emporia, Kansas, last week.
- Morning Edition, 01/14/2008, 7:25 a.m.