Newly Elected Outsiders Take Charge in Cities and Counties

The unexpected turnover of government underway in Washington dominates the headlines. But in 2016, Minnesota voters also backed an unusually high number of candidates out to drain the swamp in local government.

Emotions may be running high for the inauguration in DC, yet no higher than for the inauguration that occurred Monday in the Twin Cities suburb of Victoria, population 9,000.untitled

It’s home to one of the bigger local electoral surprises in the state, an extreme example of the dynamics that led to the most incumbents being thrown out of office on the municipal level in years.

Loud cheers, whistles and applause greeted the swearing in of Mayor Tom Funk, a citizen watchdog who’s a health care executive in his day job. Same with Tom Gregory, another citizen watchdog who outperformed three competitors at the polls for city council.

Neither Funk nor Gregory has any local government experience—and it showed. Funk needs to brush up on Robert’s Rules of Order. But isn’t that the point?

“I appreciate the residents of Victoria putting me into the office,” said Funk, a citizen watchdog who won by 209 votes. “I’m going to do everything I can within my powers and ability to convince the council to implement the transparency, reforms and shift of fiscal policy to the residents, just like I promised them.”

Funk was the lead plaintiff in what may be the biggest Minnesota Open Meeting Law case in state history. The city has spent $400,000 in legal fees covered by insurance, while Funk and friends have invested thousands of hours poring over more than 30,000 pages of city documents.

A Carver County court found former Victoria Mayor Tom O’Connor and three Victoria City Councilors committed 38 intentional violations of the state’s transparency statutes last March, leveling $7,800 in fines. But it’s not over yet.

The case remains before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Funk hopes for a precedent-setting ruling that puts more teeth into the OML for city governments statewide.

The ongoing litigation contributed to several testy exchanges with two sitting city council members involved in the civil case at the new mayor’s first official meeting. Council member Jim Crowley threatened to walk out if Funk continued to refer to the case while still under appeal. Stay tuned on that.

“I have two hats. One is the mayor in which my focus needs to be what’s best for the city and residents,” Funk said. “Secondly, as the lead plaintiff, we’re pushing this forward because this will change the law in Minnesota should we be successful on the appeal. The public good far outweighs in my opinion any negative connotations that come from it.”