LAKELAND, Minn. - Lakeland City Council member Jeri Ryan surveyed the charred remains from behind yellow police tape Monday morning and shook her head.
"It's terrifying that this would happen in a small-town, close-knit community like this," Ryan said. "Thirty-eight years I've been down here, and I've never seen anything like this."
Ryan was looking at the new City Hall, destroyed by fire late Sunday, Nov. 13, after being a divisive issue in the city's Nov. 8 elections. Mayor-elect Richard Glasgow, who defeated incumbent Amy Williams, had vowed to stop construction on the $548,000 project.
Washington County sheriff's office Sgt. Sara Halverson said a sheriff's office detective and an investigator from the state fire marshal's office were on the scene Monday to try to determine the cause of the fire, which she called "suspicious" in origin.
Glasgow, who said he learned about the fire while listening to his police scanner late Sunday, said he was shocked by the news.
"I walked the city four times while door-knocking this summer," he said. "A lot of people were disappointed with building a new City Hall, but nobody I talked to was angry enough to cause any damage down there. I'm at a loss as to why this happened. It's just sad."
Said Williams: "I'm beyond disappointed. I've lived in Lakeland for 11 years, and I've never known the residents of Lakeland to have an issue that we can't work through constructively.
"The environment that led up to this event was extremely toxic and, unfortunately, I believe that it was designed to be toxic in order to distract voters from the facts and the real issues."
Halverson said the fire was called in around 11:30 p.m. Firefighters found the structure, at 1190 St. Croix Trail S., fully engulfed.
That call came from Spencer Klover, a freelance videographer who lives in Lake St. Croix Beach and was driving home from a movie shoot in River Falls, Wis., when he saw the fire.
He said flames were 20 or 30 feet high and were visible from a mile away.
"I was the first on the scene," he said. "I didn't see anyone around the fire."
The sheriff's office put out a Code Red midday Monday to neighbors within 2 miles of the fire site, asking them to call the sheriff's office if they saw anything suspicious Sunday night.
"I can't believe it. I can't believe this has happened here," council member Ryan said.
Sandie Thone, city administrator of the small town on the St. Croix River, said the fire was contained to the new building and that no damage was done to the nearby water department building, where the city's offices are located. Nearby construction equipment also was undamaged.
After hearing about the fire on his police scanner, Glasgow, who serves on the city council, said he went to the site about 1 a.m., "after the fire department said they were clearing the scene," he said.
"We don't know what happened down there," Glasgow said. "It's too early to say what the cause was."
Glasgow defeated Williams, who supported the new City Hall plan, 61 percent to 38 percent. He ran on a slate of like-minded candidates: former city council member Jim Stanton and political newcomer Shayne Orning. Stanton was elected to the council with 41 percent of the vote; Orning was elected with 34 percent. Ryan, who supported the new City Hall, received 24 percent.
Glasgow said last week that at Tuesday's city council meeting, he planned to ask the council, which voted 3-2 in February to build the new City Hall, to immediately halt the construction project, which started Oct. 18. He said Monday that those plans haven't changed.
"The sidewalks were supposed to be poured this week, and the driveway," he said. "If they wanted to, they could continue to work on it, but my hope is that they will vote to stop it."
Williams said it isn't appropriate for the council to decide whether to halt or continue work on the project while the fire is being investigated.
"Any decisions about how to proceed will need to be done once we have a determination, and that could take a very long time," she said.
NOTHING TO CAUSE FIRE
Contractor John Parkos said there was nothing in the building that could have caused a fire.
"We cleaned it all out Friday," he said. "There was no electrical and no gas in the building yet. All of those services were supposed to be run this week. ... My guess would be arson, but I don't know."
He estimated the fire caused $150,000 to $200,000 in damage.
Parkos, vice president of Parkos Construction in West St. Paul, said another $150,000 in materials - furnace, windows, doors, plumbing, fixtures, carpet - had already been ordered.
He said the heat of the fire cracked the building's foundation and caused structural damage.
"We would have to redo the foundation and start from square one," he said. "It wasn't something I wanted to wake up to this morning."
The structure was to replace the old City Hall on Quinnell Avenue, which has mold, asbestos, roof and accessibility issues. Mayor-elect Glasgow, along with other critics of the new City Hall, has said those issues could be fixed more inexpensively than the $548,000 estimated to build a replacement building.
Thone said she had been in contact with the League of Minnesota Cities, the city's insurance carrier. She referred all other questions to the city attorney.
Larry Einertson was driving home to Lake St. Croix Beach from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport about 12:30 a.m. Monday when he saw the smoke and fire trucks.
"There was so much smoke," he said. "I've been here since 1968. Things like this don't happen here, not in our quiet little valley."
It took about 30 minutes for the Lower St. Croix Valley Fire Department and crews from nearby Bayport and Hudson, Wis., to extinguish the flames, according to Washington County dispatchers.
Anyone with information about the fire should call the sheriff's office at 651-430-7882.
Lisa Legge contributed to this report.