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Cottage Grove city hall protest sparks sharp words but no changes

Opponents and supporters of Cottage Grove's planned city hall and public safety building turned out for a City Council meeting Wednesday, filling the chambers for part of the meeting. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente2 / 5
Alex Heurung, 19, stands at the back of the Cottage Grove council chambers Wednesday to oppose the city government building project. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente3 / 5
Bev Moreland holds a sign to show passing cars during a Wednesday demonstration against Cottage Grove's planned city hall and public safety building. Moreland said she wants a public vote on the project, but also believes police need new facilities. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente4 / 5
Monica Schafer-Brooks leans into the car of a passerby Wednesday to tell the driver why she and others are protesting the Cottage Grove city hall project. Demonstrators gathered along 80th Street before a city council meeting. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente5 / 5

Monica Schafer-Brooks said she is "neutral" on whether the city of Cottage Grove should build a new public safety and city hall building.

But she is firmly in the "yes" column on whether citizens should weigh in on the project.

"I personally just believe everybody should have the right to vote," she said.

Schafer-Brooks was among roughly four-dozen people who on Wednesday held signs advocating for a vote on the project and marched down 80th Street to a Cottage Grove City Council meeting to voice their objection to the planned construction. Many said they would support improved facilities for police, but object to the proposed $16.2 million building that would be located near Ravine Parkway and County Highway 19/Keats Avenue.

It was opponents' most public tactic to attempt to rally people against the project, but Mayor Myron Bailey said it would not change the city's plans.

"This project's going through; it's done," he said, adding that some opponents have spread false information and are not credible.

Derrick Lehrke, the lone project opponent on the city council, promoted the march but did not participate.

"I don't think if 2,000 people showed up they would have changed their vote," he said of fellow council members.

Organizers would not say how many fliers were distributed in recent days to advertise the march, but they were present at the July 4 fireworks display at Kingston Park and they dropped literature at homes up until the vote. They waved flags and homemade signs while standing near Crestview Elementary School and Park High School, before walking to City Hall.

"Honk for the vote," Kathy Lewandoski, one of the organizers, shouted into a bullhorn. "We don't vote, you don't build."

Some drivers honked their horns in support; one man swore at the group and told demonstrators to "give it up already."

Among those demonstrating was 19-year-old Alex Heurung, who said he never before had been part of a public protest. He called the city's plan a "strike against democracy" because it doesn't have the public's support via a referendum.

"It's such a large amount of money that supposedly comes from the people," Heurung said.

The demonstrators filed into City Hall for the start of the council meeting, taking seats alongside project supporters, including some who had shown up at the request of Bailey and council member Jen Peterson. Bailey and Peterson had sent out emails asking that proponents turn out to counter the demonstrators.

Cottage Grove resident Pat Donovan said she applauded the city for bringing the project forward and said she has long supported the construction.

"It's a value right now and we can't deny that," she said. "We can't deny that it's a value."

Protest organizers promoted the "walk to be heard," as it was called, on a website dedicated to opposing the project.

But claims about the project appearing on the website elicited a six-page, detailed response from city staff that attempted to dispel accusations from the opponents.

Bailey said opponents distort the issue and make claims about the project's cost and scope that are not true.

"They ignore it, they outright lie," he said. "They have lost all credibility with me."

Council member Dave Thiede, who has been the least vocal of project supporters, strongly endorsed the construction Wednesday. Thiede said he doesn't like to spend money, but believes the project has been discussed for years, will not raise property taxes and takes advantage of a good construction environment.

"It really is a good and timely decision," he said.

Debate over whether a public referendum should be held on the project has stretched to at least nine months, since the council backed off an initial funding plan last fall after opponents gathered signatures to force the issue to the ballot. The council last month chose a different funding plan and soon will open the project to bids.

An open house on the project is planned for 6 p.m. Thursday, July 7, at City Hall, 7516 80th St. Project designers Wold Architects will present building details at 7 p.m.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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