Small Minn. town in big political fightby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Watson, Minn. — Talk of political gridlock often refers to logjams in Congress or at the state legislature, but it can happen anywhere.
Case in point: the small town of Watson in western Minnesota, where resignations, lawsuits and accusations of incompetence are all part of everyday political life.
The turmoil in recent months has led to an effort to a vote Tuesday that could remake the city council in Watson, which has fewer than 200 residents, but civic battles that have all the acrimony of a big-city political feud.
At one recent city council meeting, emotions boiled over. Watson resident Bev Sailor expressed feelings held by many in town on the performance of their elected officials.
"I'm sorry, I think somebody is being very disrespectful at that table. You guys are elected officials, we pay your salaries," Sailor said during the session, captured in a YouTube video. "And I don't think we deserve disrespect when we come to a meeting." (Video)
Residents blame the city council for a series of problems. Some say they're being overcharged on their water bills. They wonder if the city's budget will balance. City Council inaction is hurting the town's development, former mayor Kylene Olson said.
"There's easements that need to be taken care of for the new wastewater and water distribution and collection lines that need to be laid," Olson said. "And that has not been taken care of the way it should be."
Much of her dissatisfaction is directed at City Clerk Loisjean Fossen. Olson said Fossen's poor management has delayed needed progress.
"I don't think she has the capacity that it takes to fulfill the job requirements right now," Olson said.
Today's vote would change the city clerk and treasurer positions from elected to appointed. If voters approve the change, Olson said the council could hire experienced people in the future and avoid a repeat of the current situation. Fossen would be allowed to serve out her term.
Fossen calls the election a vendetta mounted by political opponents who failed to make her do what they want.
"This is a town of few people with such hatred for me," she said. "And they're running me down, they're harassing me, they're belittling my name. And I shake and I'm almost in tears."
Because the clerk's job gives Fossen a seat on the City Council, her vote gives her a powerful role in city affairs.
For her critics, the primary issue is competence. Some residents say Fossen too often refuses to fulfill her duties, such as providing residents with minutes of council meetings. Fossen said she is being blamed by residents who don't follow proper procedure in filing their requests.
At one point, Fossen resigned her position, then quickly rescinded the action. But Fosssen said she won't attend City Council meetings until the mayor and council stop what she calls "citizen abuse."
"Stop letting these certain residents come in and tell us what we're going to do and make insults on me, false accusations," Fossen said. "Because our city business is not getting done. Our City Council meetings [are] a joke."
Fossen's assessment of the council's meetings is probably the only point of agreement between the two sides in the Watson debate.
Mayor Jason Avelsgard at one point also resigned because of the fighting, but he too changed his mind. Then City Council member Kevin Norman resigned. The council has canceled meetings because there weren't enough members on hand to handle city business.
Why the rancor in Watson has grown to this point is not exactly clear, but there's one factor that's unmistakable: a dispute over a vegetable garden. The city sued resident Aziz Ansari alleging the four canopies around his house that cover his vegetable garden violated city zoning requirements.
Ansari, who was born in Pakistan, said the city's action is rooted discrimination.
"There's no reason to believe otherwise," Ansari said. "They are discriminating, they take me as a different person, different religion, and treat me differently."
City officials deny there's any discrimination involved in their lawsuit against Ansari. But the dispute led to a rift in town, which continues to play out at council meetings and now may lead to a change in city governance.
Ansari said Fossun is not the only one to blame, but he hopes changing her job will result in a shakeup.
"I definitely want the system to be changed," Ansari said. "Hopefully there will be a change for the positive."
The Watson uproar has attracted the attention of the FBI. Agents have talked with Ansari about his discrimination claims.
In a separate development, the state auditor plans to review the city's books.
While today's election could settle some questions in town, there's likely more turbulence ahead for the residents of Watson.
- Morning Edition, 02/23/2010, 7:36 a.m.