Cottage Grove City Council member Lehrke's feud with tenant reaches courtroomA dispute between Cottage Grove City Council member Derrick Lehrke and a tenant living in one of his rental properties is headed for a courtroom as they trade accusations of poor property management and delayed and missed rent payments.
By: Scott Wente, South Washington County Bulletin
A dispute between Cottage Grove City Council member Derrick Lehrke and a tenant living in one of his rental properties is headed for a courtroom as they trade accusations of poor property management and delayed and missed rent payments.
Lehrke and his wife, Autumn, want a Washington County District Court judge to evict tenant Jim Berreth and his family from a St. Paul Park duplex the Lehrkes own, claiming Berreth did not follow procedure in withholding rent and is preventing Lehrke from being able to renew his expired rental license for the property.
Berreth counters with a litany of complaints against Lehrke, saying he waited for months to repair water-damaged walls, was slow to remedy a bug-infested room and then made inadequate fixes and hasn’t completed others.
The messy dispute – with accusations of utilities theft, shoddy home maintenance and political motives – is the backdrop to a court trial on the eviction proceeding at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Stillwater.
'We were friends'
The Lehrkes and the Berreths were on friendly terms long before the first lease agreement was signed in November of 2009. Berreth’s wife, Stacie, said she has known Derrick Lehrke for around 20 years; as kids they were in the same home-school family group. More recently, the Berreths have been to the Lehrkes’ home for Halloween parties.
“We were friends with them,” Jim Berreth said of their decision to rent at 1016B Eighth Ave., a 1 1/2-story home converted into two units. “They had just bought this property. We thought it would be a better situation than what we were in, so we thought it was a good opportunity.”
Berreth said the first indication of a significant problem came about a year ago when he told Lehrke of water damage on the dining room wall. He said he notified him again of water damage in December, but problems with the wall did not get addressed until this summer.
The Berreths have a pile of photographs they say they took in July documenting chunks of black mold on studs behind the damaged drywall. In other photographs, ants and bugs are seen on the dining room wall. That wall was repaired, but Berreth said he still has the wall covered with plastic and the room cordoned off with plastic because it is not livable.
Lehrke said whenever there has been a problem with the property, he has addressed it himself or called in a general contractor do make the repairs.
“Everything has always been fixed in a timely manner,” Lehrke said, questioning why the Berreths re-signed their lease this past April if conditions were as bad as the family claimed.
Jim Berreth said the problems had not reached their worst point in April. Also, they had few other financially viable options than to agree to stay in the home. His wife works, but he is unemployed and has back problems.
However, upset with what they said was Lehrke’s slow response to problems in the home, the Berreths withheld a portion of their rent for a few months this summer. They cited a state law giving tenants the ability to set aside a percentage of the monthly payment if repairs are not made.
The dispute came to a head in August, Lehrke said, when he brought a St. Paul Park police officer to the home for a civil assist as he accused the Berreths of stealing utilities by moving a towel that was used to direct central air conditioning into the other unit in the duplex.
Berreth said the theft accusation is “unsubstantiated” and that using a towel to divert central air flow posed a fire hazard anyway.
Berreth said they decided not to pay the full $985 rent in September because of a dispute over whether two basement rooms could be used as bedrooms.
That move, Lehrke said, prompted him to seek eviction. The Berreths failed to meet a number of conditions, he said, including that they stop sleeping in a room that does not meet code required of bedrooms. He also demanded that they get current with rent they owed and remove a family member who had moved in with them.
But Berreth said they moved out of the room that was a code problem a month ago and now the Berreths and their three kids, including a 3-month-old baby, share cramped sleeping quarters in a loft.
“It’s kind of like ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ up there,” he said of the low, angled ceilings.
Berreth acknowledged that he let his father move in with the family, but only because he was suffering health and financial problems.
“He had nowhere else to go,” Berreth said of his father, adding that he moved out a month ago.
Lehrke accused Berreth of threatening him and suggesting that public knowledge of the dispute could hurt Lehrke because of his role as an elected city official.
Berreth said he never threatened Lehrke and only has a passing interest in Lehrke’s involvement in Cottage Grove politics. But when asked if he hoped something would come of the dispute, Berreth said: “My only wish is that the people of Cottage Grove know who it is they elected, that they know how he operate.”
Berreth added: “I don’t have any nefarious plan. I’m not trying to mud-sling.”
Lehrke was elected to the City Council in 2010, the same year Autumn Lehrke won a seat on the Washington County Board. St. Paul Park is in her commissioner district.
Together the Lehrkes own six rental properties in the area. Derrick Lehrke said they have had to evict tenants at other properties, but have never had problems like they have with the Berreths.
“I’ve never run into anything like this,” he said.
Berreth said he did not want to make a big deal of the dispute, but then Lehrke went ahead and filed court papers to have the family evicted.
“We were trying to avoid any public displays whatsoever based on their standing in the community and the fact that we used to be friends,” Berreth said. “We were trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I guess a little too much.”