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Lake Park mayor asked to resign

The tension in the air was palpable at the start of Monday night’s meeting of the Lake Park City Council — and it didn’t take too long to determine the cause.

During the public forum that started off the evening, local resident Dave O’Connell presented a petition, containing 211 signatures, which was specifically addressed to Mayor Aaron Wittnebel.

“We, the undersigned, ask that you resign as Mayor of the City of Lake Park,” O’Connell said, reading word for word from the petition.

“You have caused our community a great deal of embarrassment and shame. Because of your recent conviction of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult and incarceration; wasteful spending of city resources; and inability or unwillingness to follow a line item budget; it is in the best interest of the City of Lake Park that you step down from your position as mayor.

“Additionally, you have harassed city employees and caused numerous other issues of conflict. Please resign from your position as mayor so the community can once again move forward.”

Wittnebel, not surprisingly, refused the request, stating that the petition contained “misinformation” because he had not been convicted of a crime — which was legally accurate, given the fact that he was granted a stay of adjudication, which allows for the possibility of dismissing the charge outright if he successfully completes probation.

After reading the petition, O’Connell addressed Wittnebel directly, asking if he felt he was serving the community to the best of his ability.

“It doesn’t seem as though you (the council and city staff) are working as a cohesive team,” O’Connell said.

Even though Wittnebel attempted to diffuse the situation by offering to personally send letters to each of the petitioners, addressing all of the concerns outlined in the petition — at his own expense — frustrations continued to flare up throughout the subsequent 2½ hours of discussion and debate.

The council did manage to pass a handful of motions and resolutions regarding certain pressing matters of city business, such as the hiring of two new lifeguards to help staff the municipal pool, and the awarding of a nearly $700,000 contract for a summer road project on the south side of Highway 10 to the lowest bidder, Central Specialties.

But it was the visible tensions between Mayor Wittnebel, the council and several city employees that dominated discussion, occasionally drawing audible reactions from the audience of approximately three dozen local residents.

Following his department report to the council, Police Chief Jay Nelson pointedly questioned Wittnebel as to why his city e-mail account had been abruptly cancelled, without any prior notification, and remained inaccessible for a week and a half.

“I made a mistake,” Wittnebel admitted at one point.

But that answer didn’t prevent Nelson from venting his frustration over the current atmosphere that exists in the city’s government.

"In 2006 I left a department because I could not trust or respect my boss and now in 2014, I am dealing with the same situation with you and I am not happy,” Nelson said.

City Clerk Lonnie Neuner also voiced his frustration at the “constant chaos” that exists at present, due in part to the daily calls from the public that his staff has to field regarding questions over how the council is handling its business.

“It’s just very upsetting,” Neuner said, noting that he has often found himself becoming physically ill from the stress of the current situation.

Council member Amy Degerstrom spoke up to thank those who had signed the petition and attended Monday night’s meeting to express their concerns, noting that she  “sincerely appreciates” their efforts to be involved and “make this community a better place to live.”

But she also said that the problems existing in the city’s government went beyond the actions of one person, and felt that those problems should be addressed by the council as a whole, in a public forum.

After some lengthy discussion, the council decided to set two such public meetings — one to address the concerns of city employees, and the other to address the concerns of the community as a whole.

The meeting to address city staff issues was set for Monday, June 23, and the one to address public concerns will take place one week later, on Monday, June 30. Both meetings are open to the public, and will start at 7 p.m. in the Lake Park City Center.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454