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Editorial: Wittnebel needs to step down as Lake Park mayor and as Becker County DFL chair

It’s time for Aaron Wittnebel to step down as mayor of Lake Park, and to step down as chairman of the Becker County DFL Party.

He and the rest of the Lake Park City Council are at basically at war, and under his leadership the Becker County DFL Party saw its lowest turnout in years at the recent caucuses.

He is not doing justice to either leadership position. Morale is low at both organizations, and it appears he bears some responsibility for that.

Perhaps his legal problems are affecting his work, and his ability to work well with others.

He is accused of financially exploited his sister, who has Down syndrome.

Wittnebel, who is in his early 30s, was charged Aug. 6 in Becker County District Court with financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult and failure to provide care, a felony.

Court documents claim that Wittnebel, who was his disabled sister’s guardian and conservator of her estate, had failed to pay for more than $6,000 of her care at Divine House in Detroit Lakes, and that about $5,409 of her money was missing.

Wittnebel has denied any wrongdoing, and has shown no indication that he will step down while the case slowly winds through the judicial system.

Meanwhile both the City of Lake Park and the county DFL are left in limbo.

When he was elected in 2012, he sent out a news release billing himself as “Minnesota’s first openly gay Mayor … and the second gay Mayor to serve in the state’s history; and as an enrolled tribal member of the Red Lake Nation, he will also be the first mixed race Mayor for the City of Lake Park.”

Wittnebel has been shielded to some extent from critics afraid of being labeled bigots or racists. We don’t care about his sexual orientation or racial background, but we do care about his leadership skills, which appear to be lacking in some key areas.

Far from being a consensus-builder or team player, he seems to have a knack for infuriating other city and DFL leaders that he needs to accomplish his goals.

It’s hard to criticize his goals for Lake Park, which include strengthening the city’s Economic Development Authority to attract more businesses; looking at a downtown redevelopment strategy; working to restore historic Lake Flora as a focal point of the city, and advocating for local Heartland Trail funding from the state.

But he has proven to be his own worst enemy and seems politically tone-deaf at both the city and county DFL levels.

He has alienated key members of the county DFL, and we suspect he is one reason the vice chairwoman of the county DFL party has stepped down.

As mayor of Lake Park, he appears willing to use the rules of procedure when they work to his advantage, and to ignore them when they don’t.

For example, he zealously uses his authority as presiding officer under city bylaws to determine who has the right to speak.

Yet Wittnebel insists on preparing the agenda for council meetings himself, although the bylaws call for that duty to be done by the city clerk.

He doesn’t seem to have much respect for the opinions of other council members, some of whom have years of public service under their belt. Instead, he has a habit of acting unilaterally.

Here’s an example that speaks volumes:

At a special meeting Jan. 27 to fill an opening on the city council, the three city council members and the mayor split 2-2 on whether to appoint Keith Zachariason or Kimberly Holloway to the council.

Both are former council members. Zachariason is also a former mayor. Wittnebel favored Holloway. As mayor, he had the right to break the tie and make the appointment.

But after some discussion, all four (including Wittnebel) approved a motion to keep applications open until Feb. 4.

But the next morning, Wittnebel swore Holloway into office at the city clerk’s office.

It was needlessly antagonistic to other council members, and was by no means an isolated incident.

Wittnebel needs to step down as mayor and Becker County DFL chairman.

If he doesn’t, DFLers should replace him at the county convention next month.

There is no recall provision for city officials in Minnesota, so Lake Park voters should replace him at the earliest possible opportunity.