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Forum eases ire in Beaver Bay

Beaver Bay Mayor Mark Russell listened to about 30 residents Tuesday at an open forum at city hall. Russell called the meeting to ease tensions after actions by the city council in past months.

What had the makings of a Beaver Bay Spring was calmed to more of a Velvet Revolution Tuesday as 30 residents gathered at a public forum to air their grievances or quell rumors about the city government here.

The 90-minute meeting with city council members was punctuated with applause for democracy in action and calls for more forums to ease misunderstanding about city leaders making changes to the makeup of this city of 181 people.

About a third of those residents, nearly 50 people, attended the regular city council meeting last Thursday. They were fired up about a special meeting the week before, on May 2, when the council named a temporary replacement for a vacancy on the council.

The meeting got heated, with physical threats made as those in attendance strained to have their feelings known about the appointment of Marc Huss and other council decisions in past months. A Lake County deputy was called in to make sure nothing got out of hand.

A new era?

In short, change is coming to Beaver Bay and residents feel trampled upon by a council and new city administrator John McCurtain. On Tuesday, they calmly asked for more explanation of the changes and more contextual conversation with residents before making them.

"We feel like we're being run into the ground," Ellie Korpi said at the forum. "People are afraid to speak up." She said "we're all in this together" because Beaver Bay is such a small place. "We're all friends and neighbors."

The list of concerns for residents is long.

McCurtain was hired last year from outside the community and some bristle that a resident wasn't allowed a shot at the administrator position. They have said publically and privately that his personality is off-putting. He's become a focal point for residents resisting the efforts of the council he serves.

Mayor Mark Russell has said McCurtain is simply doing what the council is asking of him.

The council terminated two long-time public works employees in the midst of a sewer and water improvement project. On Thursday, an accounting of the project was requested.

Beaver Bay's ongoing problem with fuel oil leaking into its water system came up again over the winter, although new utilities supervisor John Larabee said the latest water samples show no measurable levels in the water and the Minnesota Pollution Control Authority says the levels are OK. "Our water is safe and healthy," Larabee said.

Larabee, in giving his report to the council Thursday, was abrupt in his reaction to talk about the job he and Jon Mealy are doing in the shadow of the terminations of Al Larson and Ben Napper. "We are doing the best job we can," Larabee said. He told the audience that he wants to hear concerns about utilities directly and will try to take care of them. "Don't snicker behind my back."

Larabee and Green Door manager Tonja Fultz were reprimanded in March for an altercation at the bar earlier that month. The seven city employees outside of administration are voting on forming a union this week, including the two supervisors who were at odds earlier. Most of those workers are from the Green Door, the city's liquor store and bar operation.

Liquor store profits have stagnated and the council is looking into building a new store and perhaps rehabbing the historic Green Door. The bar received numerous "critical" violations in a health inspection this month. There were concerns about mold and perhaps other hazardous materials in the unused basement of the building, where the city council once met before moving to the new community center to the east. McCurtain called for the inspection because of concerns about the basement.

Because Lake County is without an inspector, one was called in from Aitkin County. Lake County had never inspected the basement before, Mayor Russell said, and the county admitted it was an oversight. Russell said many of the "critical" violations are repetitive toward minor issues and a review of the inspection was coming this week.

A liquor commission was formed to address the Green Door issues. Member Keith Bartel was adamant Tuesday in reaction to rumors swirling about the future of the bar. "It is not closing," he said. He said the commission has been trying, with little luck, to meet with Green Door employees to discuss issues.

The council had looked into a new building for public works and liquor sales but is finding preliminary construction costs to be too high. The council approved keeping an architect on retainer for any needs at improving the Green Door or further work on a new store.

Physical change can be seen at the Camp 61 project, a refurbishing of the former Beaver Bay Inn helped along by city development funds. When asked if the city was subsidizing a competitor to the Green Door, Russell said it is being treated like any other business that wants to make a mark on the future of the city. And no one can doubt the improvements being made there, he said.

Steam rising

Mayor Russell says he should never go on vacation again. He was not aware of the special meeting May 2 and returned last week to ramped-up agitation.

"Normally, when you see this many people at a meeting, somebody's not happy," he told the group of 50 last week. He told residents there would be a meeting Tuesday, the open forum, so everyone could have their say for as long as they wanted. Public comments were limited to three minutes in the comment portion of the council meeting Thursday.

The discussions Thursday and then Tuesday left little doubt that Beaver Bay is still a small place. There were requests for help in transplanting flowers to the cemetery, work on a bad culvert, and a reminder to the council that residents are willing to volunteer their time and expertise to projects.

Residents agreed that the community needs to rally and move forward as a whole. Residents said it's important that everyone get on the same page because it's easy for rumors to spread.

An example? Some people complained that city hall switched from a local propane provider to one from Two Harbors, simply because of a lower bid with no regard for the local business and its economic and social impact on the city. Trouble is, the city made legal calls for bids and the one from the local company missed the deadline. There was little choice in the matter, Russell said.

New age

The mayor repeated Tuesday a mantra he's honed in the past year, saying that despite being a small town with a small government, all of the rules apply. He said he's simply trying to "move into the 21st century" and some of the old practices, like city recordkeeping in someone's house, can't stand.

But he pointed to upholding the tradition of speaking up to government. "If you have things that are really bothering you, tell me. I'm around."

Council member Tom Harris had more advice for healthy community discussion. "Ninety-nine percent of the stuff brought up (in the past week) was brought up at council meetings," he said Tuesday. "Please start coming to meetings. All that gossip will stop."

Korpi reiterated Tuesday the importance of history in Beaver Bay and its unique charm on the shore of Lake Superior. It is the first settlement on the North Shore. It's the former home of postman John Beargrease and his family and the annual sled dog race run in his honor.

Korpi said simple things like hanging up historic signs at city hall for the Beargrease race or the annual smelt fry go a long way in instilling community pride. "All this history is what makes us - us," she said.

Russell said it was a relief to hear from the public and get things out in the open. "I could tell people were getting stirred up." He's also glad that the discussion went smoothly and residents followed his advice. "I do not want to have a war or a fight."