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The Watchdog Infiltrates St. Paul community meeting led by Council Member Lee Helgen

by Bill McGaughey

On Thursday, February 15, 2006, agents of the Watchdog newspaper, including me, attended a community meeting sponsored by Council Member Lee Helgen, who represents the fifth ward of the city of St. Paul. The meeting was held in the Bruce F. Vento elementary school on Case Street between 5 and 7 p.m.. The late Bruce Vento was a former school teacher and U.S. Congressman from St. Paul’s east side with a reputation for honesty and conscientious service to his constituents.

Council Member Helgen ran a tight meeting. On hand to make short presentations were city officials from the police, fire department, public works, and inspections (represented by Steve Magner), and, of course, from the City Council. For the first hour or more, Helgen talked about a new program to revitalize the city - I can’t remember the name. Going after “irresponsible” landlords and possibly taking their properties and turning them over to non-profit groups was a part of the proposed solution. There were huge inventories of vacant and condemned properties which St. Paul city officials felt were theirs to control.

A few questions were taken from the audience during this period, but the questions were dominated by a few individuals or in the front or second row who seemed to be friends of the Council Member. The rest of the audience was subdued. I sat in the back row mulling over what to do. There did not seem an opportunity here to participate.
Having brought a stack of Watchdog newspapers (both the current issue and the previous one featuring the protest at Diva’s bar on the cover) to the meeting, I thought at first of walking down the aisle and passing out newspapers to persons on the end. The presence of uniformed police and other city officials intimidated me.

Then a person sitting near me - possibly Bobbi Johnson, whom I had never met in person - made a small gesture of recognition. I handed him a stack of newspapers. He took one and handled the rest of the bundle to the person sitting beside him. That person did likewise, and soon the dwindling bundle had circulated through the back three or four rows until the last copy was gone. You could see people in their seats starting to look through the paper.
I think Lee Helgen realized that something was happening as he glanced out into the audience. One or two people, possibly city officials, rose from their seats and conferred; but otherwise nothing happened.

Besides the newspapers, I had prepared another handout on half sheets of paper. There were 36 copies. This communication began: “What you need to know about Lee Helgen - Council member Lee Helgen seems to have a sadistic side in using the powers of St. Paul city government to go after East Side women with property. A more complete account of some of his activities can be found on the Internet.” Then there were links to five different pages in the website http://www.landlordpolitics.com. One had to do with Nancy Osterman, two with Diva’s bar, and two with email exchanges on St. Paul e-democracy.org at the time that the house at 14 East Jessamine Street was demolished.

Bob Johnson also had a handout called “A-Democracy Town Hall News Letter”. This particular issue referred to the three racketeering lawsuits against the city of St. Paul that are working their way through the courts. It referred to two elderly people who committed suicide after receiving stern code-enforcement notices from St. Paul inspections. “This is just the tip of the ice berg,” said the leaflet. “There are allegations of extortion and theft by City officials concerning code enforcement. (There are) allegations of retaliaatory behavior and racism by city officials.” More information was available on Johnson’s St. Paul blogspot at http://www.ademocracy.blogspot.com.

As the meeting continued, I passed out my slips of paper to anyone who passed by on the aisle. A woman who took one asked for another several minutes later. Even if the meeting was controlled, we were definitely getting our side of the story out in written form.

Toward the end of the two-hour period, Lee Helgen opened up the meeting to questions. I raised my hand and was recognized. This was just after the police official, a woman, had finished her presentation.

I asked the woman if it was true that the St. Paul police had asked an East Side woman to be a drug informant and, when she refused, had referred her house to the city’s housing inspectors who proceeded to condemn and demolish the house. (This was, of course, Nancy Osterman. Her story is told at http://www.landlordpolitics.com/osterman1.html.) The officer said she knew nothing about this.

Then Council Member Helgen stepped forward to declare that this was “a lie”. He had no response when I asked him to explain how it was a lie.

I then asked the Council Member whether it was true that a St. Paul housing inspector had told the owner of a house at 14 East Jessamine Street that she should sell her house to a certain named individual for $40,000 or he would see to it that the house was demolished. Again, Helgen declared this to be a lie. However, he gave a partial explanation.

First, Helgen said, Nancy Osterman was not the owner of the house when it was demolished. (True, she had sold it to someone else on a contract for deed several months earlier. But that does not affect the allegation concerning the inspector’s proposal.) Second, he said that a court of law had authorized the city to demolish the house. (Again, that was true, but it did not answer the question. Helgen also neglected to mention that, shortly after the court had allowed a week’s stay in the order for demolition, a contractor working for the city had disconnected the utilities to the building.)

The jig was up. Mine was the first and last question which Council Member Helgen took in this part of the meeting. The formal meeting ended and a period of informal discussion ensued. It was about fifteen minutes short of the 7 p.m. ending that was scheduled.

I positioned myself at the exit doorway so that persons who had not received newspapers or slips of paper with the website links could take what they wanted from my remaining supply of literature. Most persons, even city officials, accepted this literature. I had a relatively cordial discussion with inspector Steve Magner (often demonized in our literature) in which he said that he found the Watchdog newspaper “interesting”. I asked if he had any comments on its content. He had none.

Then Lee Helgen himself came over. He asked me if I was the publisher of the Watchdog newspaper. I said I was not; I was a friend of the publisher. He asked me my name and I gave it. He then said he did not appreciate the “misinformation” I was spreading. I asked him to clarify that statement. He evidently did not want to get into a debate with me because he then walked away.

I stood at the doorway for another fifteen minutes or so, hoping that Helgen would finish his conversations with others and have something more to say when he left the meeting room. For my part, I would offer to give him a chance to respond to anything written about him in our Internet articles. He could have the last copy of my internet-links sheet about him.

But time was getting short. I had another meeting to attend then across town. So I left the school building while others were still talking and drove back to Minneapolis, making a short stop to see Deb Johnson at Diva’s bar on the way.

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