The Lake Elmo City Council unexpectedly let go its city administrator Tuesday by a vote of 3-1, and the council member who made the lone 'nay' vote immediately resigned in protest.
City Administrator Kristina Handt had received a positive job review just one week earlier as the council prepared to renew her expiring contract — but that was before plans for a new elementary school stumbled over water concerns.
Lake Elmo is already struggling to provide enough clean water to its 11,000 residents, and some City Council members at a Nov. 14 workshop session were divided over support for a new, $86 million elementary school that voters approved in a bond referendum earlier this month.
Over the past week an email campaign by some school supporters spilled over into social media attacks directed at Handt, said Council Member Lisa McGinn.
"The vitriol and the misinformation that occurred on social media was just … people weren't even acting on fact," she said. McGinn resigned Tuesday night after serving five years on the council.
The city is in a water crisis both because of PFAS contamination in the groundwater and because a 2017 court order that protects White Bear Lake limits the amount of water Lake Elmo can draw from the aquifer. The city had a one-year moratorium on development expire in April, and has denied some development this year due to water concerns.
At a council workshop last week, McGinn and two other council members said they had concerns about connecting city water to the new school.
Council Member Katrina Beckstrom said she was worried the council wasn't being consistent, since it had earlier turned down developers for the same parcel over water issues.
"We simply can't continue to develop in this city when we don't have water," she said. "We're already over our appropriation, so how much further would a school push us?"
Appearing before the City Council on Tuesday, Stillwater Area Public Schools Superintendent Michael Funk appealed for the council's support, suggesting there had been miscommunication between the district and the city.
Funk said he first learned on Sept. 15 that water might be a problem. By then, the school board had already approved a $4.7 million purchase agreement for a 47-acre parcel on the northwest corner of Lake Elmo Avenue North and 10th Street North.
Funk said the school district went to the city in February to start talking about a location for the new $86 million, 1,100-student elementary school, eventually settling on the Lake Elmo Avenue North site.
"Water was never an issue," he said of the early meetings.
Funk said he reached out to the DNR to ask about building a well, but was told the school should use city water. He said he was also told that the DNR would work on a solution for the school's water needs.
Lake Elmo Mayor Charles Cadenhead said early in Tuesday's meeting that the council gave Handt a positive job review. The next day, after voting to not renew her contract, he said it was time for the city to go in a new direction.
"There were some items that we've been working on over the course of a few years," he said.
McGinn said Handt had an assertive management style, but she was a competent leader.
"She is, in my opinion, an expert in the water issues facing Lake Elmo and not only that she has been a tremendous advocate for the residents of Lake Elmo," said McGinn.
Beckstrom also praised Handt. "I've been very pleased with her performance and she has been an incredible, incredible asset to the city in her technical skills," she said.