2016: A year in review

Another year has come and gone in the South-West Review coverage area. 

Here is a recap of the stories that stood out in northern Dakota County in 2016. 

 

1. Long-time legislator Jim Metzen
passes away

At age 72, Jim Metzen of South St. Paul died after a recurrence of lung cancer on July 11, 2016. 

Metzen, a DFLer, began his 50-year political career on the South St. Paul City Council when he was 22 years old. 

A graduate of the University of Minnesota, he was a banker at Southview Bank and then later at Key Community Bank. 

He was first elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1974, where he served 12 years before moving to the state Senate. Metzen served there until his death. 

Metzen was known for the Mighty Ducks bill, a piece of legislation that provided $18 million for the construction of 160 ice rinks statewide.

After his passing, colleagues, friends and family remembered Metzen as a consensus builder, who worked across the aisle to get things accomplished at the Capitol. His colleagues elected him president of the Senate from 2003 to 2011.

Metzen was survived by his wife Sandie; sons Jeff and John, and two grandchildren.

 

2. Cities lose police chiefs at end of year

Both Mendota Heights and Inver Grove Heights had their police chiefs resign from their positions amid turmoil at the end of 2016.

Larry Stanger had been police chief in Inver Grove Heights since 2012. The city placed him on paid administrative leave in April after he was accused of tipping off the subject of a search warrant, alerting the person that the warrant would be executed. The Scott County Sheriff’s Department was asked to investigate the allegation. 

Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar announced in August that there was not enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. After no criminal charges were filed, Inver Grove Heights opened an internal investigation into Stanger’s alleged misconduct. 

Stanger submitted his resignation in December, and the Inver Grove Heights City Council unanimously approved the separation agreement with Stanger on Dec. 12.

Meanwhile, Mendota Heights police chief Mike Aschenbrener retired from his position on Dec. 6, 2016. He had been with the department since 2003, but in recent years, there had been criticism of his management style and the police department in general. He was not without supporters though, including council member Liz Petschel, former council members Mike Povolny and Steve Norton, as well as former mayor Sandra Krebsbach.

The city council appointed Kelly McCarthy as the new chief. She had been recently hired as a captain within the department, and was previously deputy director of the Lino Lakes Police Department. 

 

3. Mendota Heights man found dead in marsh

After a long search, the body of Joseph Hernandez of Mendota Heights was discovered on Thanksgiving Day 2016. Authorities said the 35-year-old had died only a few hours before his body was found.

He was last seen at the Mendota Heights Motel and had been missing since the end of October. 

Friends and family members organized several searches around the motel, and nearby lakes and Minnesota River bluff. Mendota Heights police used boats and trained dogs in the searches.

Hernandez’ body was discovered by a hiker in a marshy area south of Highway 110 in Mendota Heights. 

The Dakota County Sheriff’s office announced on Jan. 5, 2017, that the probable cause of death was exposure to cold weather, and acute methamphetamine toxicity was also a factor. He was survived by his mother, Linda, and daughter, Alicia.

 

4. Priest charged with sexual assault

The trial of a California priest charged with criminal sexual conduct is set to begin this spring in Dakota County District Court. 

Roman Catholic priest Jacob Bertrand, 32, was charged in 2016 with two counts of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree in connection with the alleged sexual penetration of a woman in June or July 2010 in Dakota County. 

Bertrand was studying to become a priest when he reportedly met the woman while they were both living in Rome, Italy. According to the criminal complaint, after Bertrand’s ordination in San Diego, he flew to Minnesota to spend time with the victim and her family in Mendota Heights. During his stay, he allegedly had sexual contact with her while conducting a “private Mass.”

The victim told police that she reported the sexual contact to officials of the Catholic Church. These reports were forwarded to the San Diego Catholic Diocese for investigation. Bertrand was a parish priest in San Diego when the charges were filed.

Each charge he faces in Dakota County carries a maximum sentence of 15 years, a fine of $9,000 to $30,000, or both.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said in a press release that it is a “felony under Minnesota law for any member of the clergy to have sexual relations with an individual who is not their spouse, during the course of a meeting in which religious or spiritual advice, aid or comfort is given, or while ongoing religious or spiritual advice, aid or comfort is occurring.”

Bertrand’s trial is scheduled to begin in March.

 

5. Inver Grove Heights schools join conversation about start times

It’s a topic that generated a lot of attention in 2016: teenagers need more sleep and would benefit from later school start times. 

Last year, Inver Grove Heights School District 199 joined that conversation by considering changing its school-day start times. 

Superintendent Dave Bernhardson said the topic had been under consideration since 2015, and a committee was formed to make recommendations. 

The district was considering three options. One would make no changes to the current start times. Another would push back start times for all the District 199 schools. The third option would flip the start times of the elementary schools with those of the secondary schools. 

Bernhardson said the school board had a work session in November, and the committee shared what it had learned from feedback. The committee members determined that more time was needed for additional conversations, and they saw a need to further study the impacts and opportunities of each option. 

This meant no changes would be made to the school-day start/end times for the 2017-2018 school year.

 

6. Cities create new restrictions for sex offenders

Several northern Dakota County cities created or implemented ordinances that restrict where convicted sex offenders are allowed to live within city limits.

South St. Paul passed such an ordinance at its Oct. 3 meeting. Police Chief William Messerich said he had only received positive feedback about the then-proposed ordinance. The ordinance made it unlawful for a convicted sex offender to establish permanent or temporary residence within 1,500 feet of a number of locations including schools, playground and licensed child car facilities. 

Inver Grove Heights approved an interim ordinance limiting where Level 3 sex offenders could reside at the Sept. 26 council meeting. City Attorney Tim Kuntz said at the meeting that the city was planning to study the matter and consider passing a permanent ordinance in 2017.

The interim ordinance made it unlawful for a Level 3 offender to establish permanent or temporary residence within 1,000 feet of any school, public park or library, religious facility or licensed child-car facility in the suburb. The interim ordinance will expire in September 2017. 

West St. Paul approved its predatory offender ordinance at the Dec. 12 council meeting. This ordinance made it illegal for any designated offender to have a permanent or temporary address within 1,200 feet of a public or private school, licensed child-care facilities or state-licensed residential care facilities or registered housing with services establishments.

 

7. West St. Paul orders demolition of “garbage house”

With a unanimous vote June 13, the West St. Paul City Council ordered the razing of a house on the 400 block of Bernard Street.

Built in 1941, the house was deemed a fire hazard and a threat to public health, safety and welfare. 

The elderly homeowner was removed from the house in late November 2015 after a medical incident.

At the meeting, Jim Hartshorn, community development director, said the city had received many calls over the years about the deteriorating exterior appearance of the house and lawn. The city received permission to conduct an interior inspection, and that was when inspectors realized the enormity of the problem. There was garbage piled high in every room of the home.

City Attorney Kori Land said that orders to condemn and tear down a house are only brought before the council when absolutely necessary. 

Council member Pat Armon noted that this case served as a reminder to community members to let the council know if they suspect problems like this are occurring in their neighborhood.

Programs such as DARTS are available to help seniors with services like lawn maintenance and home repairs that don’t involve building permits.

By July the house had been demolished. 

 

8. Mendota Heights council fires probationary sergeant

It was a decision that ultimately carried over into the fall election season. The Mendota Heights council voted at its June 7 meeting to terminate Bobby Lambert from his role as probationary police sergeant. 

Lambert had been part of the police force for 20 years before being promoted to the rank of sergeant in June 2015. 

In a statement read by then-mayor Sandra Krebsbach, it was stated than an outside complaint was made against Lambert. 

At the meeting, Lambert admitted to mishandling a call as a result of mistakes he made. However, he said the mistakes did not merit termination. 

Roughly two dozen people voiced support of Lambert, including a letter written by Michelle Patrick, widow of slain officer Scott Patrick. Many mentioned Lambert’s integrity.

One who spoke in support of Lambert was newly retired police Sgt. Neil Garlock. He went on to defeat long-time mayor Sandra Krebsbach in the November general election. 

 

9. City moves forward with pollinator plans

Last April, Mendota Heights moved ahead with plans to become a pollinator-friendly city. 

The city began looking at becoming pollinator friendly after the completion of the Victoria Road improvement project. In June 2015, the roadside was landscaped with native plant species that attract pollinating insects and birds.

Around this time, the parks and recreation staff began to hear about other cities in the area adopting resolutions to be pollinator friendly.

Mendota Heights’ plan includes hosting events to educate residents about what it means to be pollinator friendly in their own lives. 

 

10. Upgrades coming to Inver Grove Heights, South St. Paul freeway

It was announced in 2016 that within two years major construction would take place on Interstate 494 between South St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights. 

The construction zone will be west of Hardman Avenue in South St. Paul and east of the Highway 52 ramps in Inver Grove Heights.

The goal of the project is to help ease congestion along this corridor, especially during morning and afternoon rush hours.

The $18.7 million project will add a lane that will extend from the Concord Street exit and loop up with the exit ramp for Highway 52. 

Work is anticipated to take place between spring and fall of 2018.

Open houses are expected in 2017 to provide more information to city officials and residents.

 

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