By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
A second vote, this time 4-3, was not enough to allow the city of Little Falls to donate for the Green Prairie Fish Lake beach.
The beach, once known as the “city beach,” was sold in 1992 to the township, which took over the maintenance of the property.
Two weeks before, the vote did pass, 5-3, for Council Member At Large Brian-Paul Crowder’s motion to donate $2,000 to help build restrooms at the beach.
Three days after that vote, Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem used her veto power to squash the donation.
In order to overturn the mayor’s veto, the city charter states six of the seven alderman (not the mayor), had to vote yes.
“Many residents in Little Falls use porta-potties in our local parks now,” said VanRisseghem, listing Le Bourget, the Farmers Market and North Pine Grove Park. Washington Playground does not have any bathroom facility, she said.
“Mr. Crowder felt people could use porta-potties and that should be fine,” she said.
VanRisseghem said instead of using city funds for playgrounds in the city, special interest groups, such as the Lions and Kiwanis, hold fundraisers to raise money, just as the West Side Improvement Association raises funds for upgrades to Le Bourget Park. She said volunteers donate time to clean a spot in the city because the city has had financial difficulties over the past several years.
Last year, members of the Green Prairie Township Board approached the Council about a donation, but did not give an amount. At that time, the Council voted not to give the donation, under advisement of the City Attorney Toni Wetzel.
VanRisseghem said the Council should have seen the resolution before it was up for a vote. The Council did not see a formal request, she said, just a verbal request from Crowder.
The township didn’t come to the Council to ask for funding this year.
When Crowder brought the subject up earlier this year, he was asked to find out about costs to have a contract drawn up for a donation, and to check with the county to see whether it donated toward the beach and to report his findings.
VanRisseghemn called Crowder’s motion to donate $2,000 “a bombshell.”
“Basically, we had no idea where the money would come from, no stipulation on where it would be spent or even if it would be spent at all,” she said.
Although the beach is advertised in the Little Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau guide, VanRisseghem said so are 39 other sites and locations in the county.
“I would hate to see that all those entities would come forward and want money from the city,” she said.
Crowder said the townships were organized and had raised half the money needed already.
He questioned the mayor’s stand that donating would set a precedence for other entities, since, he said it had already been set.
The city had periodically helped the township financially over the last two decades, he said. “So a precedent has already been set,” he said.
Families spend all day at the beach, whereas they may spend a half an hour at a park in town, where their homes may be close, Crowder said.
“Being that the city used to own the beach and the township was a good neighbor and took the financial burden off the city by taking the responsibility of taking care of the old city beach, $2,000 is a drop in the bucket for all the pleasure that the families have out at the old city beach,” Crowder said.
Council Member Frank Gosiak said he thought the township originally came and asked for $200.
“Where did this $2,000 come from?” said Gosiak. “That was something Mr. Crowder came up with.”
Gosiak said the Council discussed it and felt it didn’t pay to draft up an agreement because it would cost more in attorneys’ fees than the donation.
Crowder pointed out it was an $8,000 project as the reason for the $2,000 donation.
He had been led to believe it was the city’s attorney that had said only a resolution was needed, not an attorney that represented the township, Gosiak said.
Crowder made some phone calls and said he found the county didn’t fund the beach.
“You mentioned $2,000 is a drop in the bucket,” said VanRisseghem. “If you talk to Lions, Kiwanis, or other clubs, they work very hard to earn $2,000. The Youth Task Force, to raise money for the splash pad, skate park, works very hard to raise $2,000. It is not a drop in the bucket.”
Crowder pointed out that the recreational complex north of Little Falls, a project supported by the mayor, would cost $6 million to complete.
“Right now, many teenagers and families can use a clean bathroom at the former city beach for $2,000,” said Crowder.
Council Member Greg Zylka said he understood the mayor’s concerns, but noted City Administrator Dan Vogt said the Council could vote in favor of the donation, if it was deemed there was a public good or value for Little Falls residents.
“I believe the $200 came up in our original discussion, but I don’t think they requested it,” said Zylka. He thought the Council discussed that donating $200 may cost more than attorney’s fees. “I still think it’s a good thing for community residents,” he said.
Zylka said the city of Randall donates for the beach, without a large agreement written up.
Wetzel said that although the law says a city can donate money to other public bodies, it doesn’t mean that just because there is a public benefit that it’s satisfactory.
“You, as a city, need to articulate the public purpose as it pertains specifically to the city of Little Falls,” she said. “Just to say it’s in the public’s benefit to have clean restrooms at the beach isn’t enough. You have to link it to how does that specifically service a public purpose for the city of Little Falls.”
She said that while it could be passed by resolution, she advised an agreement with the township articulating the public purpose, how it directly related to the city of Little Falls and how the township was committed to using the funds.
“I’m your lawyer; I’m supposed to try to protect you,” she said.
If the city donated the money without a contract, the possibility of a lawsuit existed. “… We didn’t give the money to somebody else and they’re angry and say we did something improper,” said Wetzel.
“That’s the whole precedent-setting concern — you as a city can give money to one place and not the other,” she said.
Crowder said seven years ago, when the city donated toward the beach, the city didn’t go through the same process.
“I’m telling you what I’m recommending and why,” said Wetzel.
Council Member Loren Boyum, who voted yes two weeks ago, said based upon the response from the city attorney he voted no. Council Member Leeann Doucette agreed and also changed her vote to no. Others voting no were Council Member Jeremy Hanfler and Gosiak.
Council president Don Klinker, Zylka and Crowder voted yes.
Since 1993, the year after the city beach was sold to Green Prairie Township, the city has records of giving funds to for use at the beach just three times: $550 in 1995 for the docks; $300 in 2004 and $250 in 2007.