Citizen watchdog ousts mayor with open meeting law violations
When he launched the “Truth in Victoria” website with his friends and neighbors more than three years ago, Tom Funk had no political ambitions. He did it to call attention to transparency and taxes in the quickly growing western Twin Cities suburb.
The political establishment in Victoria has been in a Funk ever since. A group of citizen watchdogs under Funk’s leadership garnered enough signatures to force a reverse referendum on a new City Hall that the City Council ignored, obtained more than 30,000 pages of documents under the Minnesota Data Practices Act and successfully sued the mayor and three city councilors in a case that resulted in 38 Minnesota Open Meeting Law violations in court—a state record.
Yet even after winning those battles, Funk still felt they were losing the war to hold City Hall more accountable, concluding the only way to finish the job was to run for the top job.
“This was never vindictive. It was never a personal attack on them,” said Funk, a health care executive with no previous experience in local government. “This was because it needed to be done and in my opinion it was the right thing to do.”
At the polls on Tuesday, incumbent Mayor Tom O’Connor lost by 209 votes to the upstart Funk. Another citizen watchdog, Tom Gregory, won a city council seat by receiving the most votes of the four candidates.
The stunning upset comes only months after O’Connor and three other Victoria City Councilors also lost the Carver County District Court case brought by Funk and others.
“Has this been fun? No! I spent a lot of my own personal money in the lawsuit and the campaign,” Funk said. “I’m doing this because deep in my heart and soul it needed to be done. This needed to be exposed and stopped and this was the only way I could see doing it.”
Along the way, Funk was also effectively running against Victoria’s version of the mainstream media and two powerful government special interest groups. The Victoria Gazette published an over-the-top three page story on O’Connor’s life with a headline and verses from an old hymn, “’Til the Storm Passes By”. The coverage featured wedding photos, family portraits, a younger O’Connor running a marathon in Montreal, plus two pages of letters to the editor endorsing the mayor. Funk’s name was not mentioned once in the 40 page paper.
“It’s not unlike navigating in the 2016 mayoral race in the City of Victoria,” wrote Sue Orson, editor of the Victoria Gazette. “Despite the personal sacrifices and assaults, Mayor Tom O’Connor feels the responsibility to remain at the helm for the sake of the citizens and the city.”
The paper also contained an excerpt from a legal filing from two government association groups, the Association of Minnesota Counties and the League of Minnesota Cities, in support of the continuing legal case against city officials.
“Tom Funk, et. al, continued the assault on Victoria City Councilmembers and appealed in October 2016 to get the District Court to rehear allegations and remove them from office,” the excerpt from the court document states.
The case involving Open Meeting Law violations by city officials now moves to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, while Mayor-Elect Funk moves into City Hall in January.
“If we don’t stand up to this kind of abuse, it runs rampant,” Funk said. “That’s part of the problem here. It’s so ingrained what was going on.”