The public battle of words being waged in Forest Lake in the wake of the City Council’s controversial April rejection of a zoning amendment reached a new boiling point during the council’s May 21 workshop. During the meeting’s open forum segment, Mayor Ben Winnick and Planning Commissioner Eric Langness exchanged harsh words, with Langness decrying Winnick’s statements surrounding the zoning vote as cowardly and Winnick calling Langness a “piece of s---.”

Background

On April 9, the council voted 3-2 to reject a zoning amendment that would have allowed a juvenile psychiatric residential treatment facility to be built on the current site of Shadow Creek Stables, and since then, hard feelings have lingered on both sides of the issue. While public mass comment sessions have cooled on the topic since a number of residents spoke about the vote during the council’s April 23 meeting (for more information, see the April 26 story “Tensions remain high after treatment zoning vote” or visit tinyurl.com/yb28tyks), statements from government officials on the topic -- or on their colleagues’ remarks on the topic -- have continued.

During the April 9 meeting, Winnick said that the Planning Commission did not address many of the questions the council had about the zoning change when the council sent the amendment back to the commission and city staff for further discussion and study. This remark did not sit well with Langness, who spoke for several minutes on the topic during the April 25 Planning Commission meeting.

Langness recapped the work the commission had done considering the proposed zoning ordinance amendments, listing various council concerns about the amendments expressed during council meetings. He said the only concern that he found to be a legitimate reason to reject the ordinance amendment was the preference from former Councilman Michael Freer that the amendment shouldn’t be considered so close to the city making numerous zoning changes as part of its upcoming comprehensive plan update. Then, he took issue with the idea that the Planning Commission did not engage with the council’s concerns about the amendments when the body sent the topic back to the commission.

“Every council directive for Planning Commission was considered and addressed,” he said. “Every single one was either addressed in the staff reports and either point blank told us this is not a concern or it was discussed at Planning Commission level. … The one thing that did not happen was Mayor Ben Winnick had suggested a conversation with Planning Commission. He was at this meeting; he did not hold a conversation with us.”

Among other comments, he added that he would not stand for Winnick saying that the commission and city staff were not doing their jobs and suggested that Winnick was blaming others for his no vote on the amendment.

Response

On May 14, Winnick took issue with Langness using his “bully pulpit” to call out Winnick’s vote, also alluding to the fact that a clip of Langness’s comments was shared around social media, including on the Facebook page of the Washington County Watchdog, a government accountability advocacy page that is moderated by multiple Washington County residents, including Langness.

“It was a cheap shot,” Winnick said, before stating that Langness was upset about Winnick not appointing him to a council seat after Freer’s resignation in March. He added that he felt Langness’s stated defense of individual property or business rights could be seen as hypocritical given other times Langness has voted against property owners’ requests that they be allowed to use their land in various ways.

“To do this and call me out for that and not have me present to be able to respond or do anything else, I think, is wrong,” Winnick said.

Winnick then turned to Bain and took issue with her characterizing him on her City Council Facebook page as “supporting a 33 acre car lot for cars rendered inoperable (a junk yard) to be located on [State Highway] 97” while not supporting the psychiatric residential treatment facility. Bain’s Facebook post was attached to a screenshot of part of the minutes for the council’s February workshop regarding a business interested in opening a lot for an inoperable car auction dealership in the city, and Winnick said her characterization of his comments summarized in the minutes was wrong, particularly protesting the idea that he would prefer a junkyard over the treatment facility and that he supported such a lot on Highway 97. He also criticized a post she made on her personal Facebook page stating that she felt like she needed a lobotomy after the council’s special meeting to appoint an interim council member in April.

“I think we need a little level of decorum here, and for the most part I think we do a pretty good job of that, but we do cross the line every now and then,” he said.

Following his remarks, Bain, Winnick and Councilman Ed Eigner got into a brief debate over the semantics of what was said at the workshop and whether it conveyed support for the dealership lot.

“If you ever need to clarify something, feel free to contact me on that,” Winnick said.

“I think your record is clear,” Bain responded.

Back and forth

Langness attended the beginning of the council’s May 21 workshop to speak during the open forum in response to Winnick’s remarks from a week prior.

“My intent tonight was to clear the record to what was the truth and what was not,” he told The Times following the meeting.

Langness urged Winnick to speak to the city attorney before making what he deemed further “disparaging” comments about him and other members of city government. He stated that Winnick lied about the nature of his comments, his actions after the comments, and his votes on the Planning Commission. He also responded specifically to Winnick’s statement that Langness was bitter after not being named to the vacant council seat.

“I never said I was upset that you didn’t appoint me, and in fact I’m not upset about it,” he said. “Do I find it disgusting that you chose someone specifically so they would vote your way on the upcoming text amendment? Absolutely.”

There was significant crosstalk from Winnick during Langness’s remarks as Winnick argued against various statements Langness was making. At one point, the men debated the minutiae of some of Langness’s recent commission votes that affected local businesses, and Langness argued that Winnick was not fulfilling the council’s role of listening to the public during an open forum.

“I can listen to the public, but I’m not going to listen to lies and I’m not going to listen to somebody that’s having a –” Winnick began, before Langness interjected.

“You’re the one that’s saying the lies, Mayor Winnick,” he responded.

After a few more comments, Langness wrapped up his remarks.

“For someone who has shown such cowardous behavior toward our community in recent times, you’ve got a lot of nerve calling me a liar,” he said before taking leave of the podium.

As he was leaving, Winnick shot back: “You’re really pushing it, Eric. We’ll see you sometime when you’re not in here. We’ll see who’s a coward then, you piece of s---.”

Reflection

After the meeting, Langness said he considered Winnick’s final comments to him to constitute a threat. He also stated that he had spoken to an attorney prior to the meeting about Winnick’s remarks, which he considered defamatory.

“I’m still shocked that he said what he did tonight,” Langness said, adding that he didn’t feel his initial remarks justified Winnick’s response in the first place. “I don’t know how I could have been more professional [while laying] out [that] the Planning Commission, and myself specifically, did my job.”

Langness said he is still formulating what he should do after the workshop comments. He also noted that video of the exchange between him and Winnick was posted on the Washington County Watchdog Facebook page not by him, but by another moderator (he did not wish to remark on who had shared his previous Planning Commission remarks to the page, noting that moderators usually keep their work anonymous).

Bain told The Times that she stands by her original Facebook post on inoperable car lot and the accuracy of the February workshop minutes.

“I’ve reviewed the video from the February workshop where the salvage yard was discussed and would encourage anyone else interested in [Winnick’s] position to do the same,” she said.

Regarding Winnick’s exchange with Langness, Bain referenced Winnick’s remarks from the May 14 meeting.

“I agree with Mayor Winnick’s comments last week that we need to maintain decorum and am concerned about the lack of decorum ... displayed toward Commissioner Langness,” she said.

Winnick told The Times that he used language he shouldn’t have during the meeting but that his intent of his May 14 and May 21 remarks was only to defend himself against lies. He added that he did not want to delve into any personal issues he had between him and other government officials but that he felt recent statements made against him have been deliberate falsehoods rather than simple mistakes.

“Lies are being said, and I called out a couple of people for intentionally lying,” he said.

Ryan Howard was the news editor of The Forest Lake Times from August 2014 through January 2020. These days, he writes culture pieces for The Times and works as an editor for a Minnesota board game company.

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