It's nearly the end of the year and that typically means a meager payday for the Birchwood Village City Council, whose members earn $1,500 a year, or roughly two dollars per resident of the leafy enclave nestled on White Bear Lake's south shore.
But not this year.
Due to a technicality apparently found by a taxpayer who waded through two-year-old council agendas, council members are being asked to pay $300 each by the end of the month because they were paid too much last year.
"So there will be no check; there will be a lump of coal," said Mayor Mary Wingfield. She's not immune to the city's clawbacks: her $2,500 paycheck for services rendered this year will melt to $500.
The city was just in the news for being the scene of an election feel-good story wherein a first-time candidate for the mayor's office named Margaret Ford rode a write-in campaign to victory, vanquishing by more than 100 votes the two men on the ballot.
Now, according to outgoing Mayor Winfield, the council has been torn apart and forced into "indentured servitude" by the anonymous resident who uncovered a glitch in the way the council approved a raise in 2020. It's vicious small-town politics, said Wingfield, who added she thinks she knows who the anonymous resident is.
None of the council members interviewed for this story knew who the anonymous resident was, but council member Justin McCarthy said in an email that the resident told him that a 2020 salary raise ordinance was passed by the council after the election that year. That meant that the raises couldn't go into effect until after the 2022 election.
No one seemed to know that, however, and the council members were paid $1,500 in 2021 — their old salary of $600 plus the $900 raise — and were about to be paid the same amount this year. Now each council member will have to return the $900 raise. The city plans to withhold their $600 payment for this year and ask them to each pay $300 to make up the difference.
The 2020 pay raise bumped the mayor's pay from $1,500 to $2,500. To get back the raise, the city will keep $1,000 of Wingfield's salary this year, leaving her with $500.
McCarthy, for his part, said he's returned all of his 2021 salary and plans to do the same with his 2022 salary.
The clawbacks are offensive, said Wingfield. "We busted our butts" for the city, she said, pointing to the council's work on traffic congestion problems that were the talk of the city all summer. She said she and the others also fought for federal funding and grants to help cover city costs, potentially saving city taxpayers from those expenses.
"I had fought against a pay raise for probably four or five years and finally I said this job is too damn much work to get paid too little, I said I'm in," said Wingfield. "We don't have staff. We don't have people who are paid to do any of the stuff that normal cities just have stuff to do."
"It doesn't matter what the money is, it's the fact that there's no expression of recognition of gratitude and thanks in this holiday season, because one person wanted to throw a turd in the pool."
Council Member Jonathan Fleck said he got an email on Wednesday from Birchwood Village city clerk Rebecca Kellen asking for the $300. He said he's not planning to pay it.
"It's just bizarre," he said. "At the end of the day, are the roads plowed? Are the toilets flushing? Is water coming to your tap? Do folks feel safe? I think on all of those things we've done just an exemplary job," said Fleck, saying the council has focused on the big issues and shouldn't be penalized for not "dotting the i's or crossing the t's."
"The question to me is who, why, yeah, really?"