What a year, eh? The RiverTown newsroom looked back on 2020 to compile lists of the most important news and sports stories covered by the Star-Observer and Republican Eagle. Check back to Top 10 Stories of 2020 over the next few days to see what made the cut.
SOMERSET -- “We had a busy season. These are interesting times in the world right now. As a whole, our tubing camping season was busy because we were an outdoor activity and people felt comfortable and safe enough to do it. Without giving exact specific numbers at this time, this was as busy of a tubing season at River’s Edge for probably a decade. All in all, I thought it was very positive.”
That was River’s Edge owner Steve Kaufman summarizing the 2020 tubing season at the Dec. 8, 2020, Somerset Public Safety meeting.
That sort of positive report seemed anything but assured at the beginning of 2020.
It all started when a raucous crowd at a contentious Aug. 20, 2019, Village Board meeting attempted to derail a vote to stop inner tube rental businesses from exiting the Apple River in Village Park downtown.
Over the objections of the crowd, including Kaufman and fellow tubing owner Mike Kappers, the board unanimously passed Ordinance 2019-A-653.
The ordinance went into effect that October after the 2019 tubing season had ended, in theory, to give the three affected businesses that used the park to disembark to make alternate arrangements.
It was just the latest in a long history of skirmishes between the village and the Somerset tubing industry stretching back several decades.
Two weeks after the confrontation, more than 150 people attended a community meeting at Kaufman’s River’s Edge Event Center where they listened to Kaufman, Kappers and former owner Billy Raleigh pledge to take back control of the Village Board, overturn the ordinance and implement the people’s will. The meeting ended up with the informal creation of SomersetStrong The group primarily manifested itself in the form of a Facebook group identified as We Are Somerset.
The organization’s first objective was to identify at least three candidates and collect enough signatures to force a recall election of Trustees Kim Putz, Bartt Palmer and James Chandler, whose terms were due to expire in April 2020.
In the Jan. 7, 2020, recall election, all three were defeated convincingly by Julie Lange, Brian Koziol and Chris Moreno.
The regular April 7 election featured a rematch. Lange, Koziol and Moreno again prevailed by sizeable margins accomplishing the first of SomersetStrong’s goals: Give citizens unhappy with the board’s recent performance, a voice in decisions going forward.
The board found itself in new territory with three newly elected trustees, one relatively inexperienced trustee in Kelsey Trepczyk halfway through her first term as a trustee, on trustee Brian Brady recently appointed by Board President John Melvin, and Trustee Ali Peterson serving just his second.
Koziol presented a revised tubing proposal at the March 10 of the Public Safety Committee. Discussion of Koziol’s proposal, which included a moratorium on the existing tubing ordinance for the 2020 season, was tabled until the businesses could submit their proposals to be considered.
After a number of formal and informal meetings, a revised ordinance was drafted which established the parameters for businesses wishing to use Village Park as their exit point from the river, starting with a license from the village. The rules include a fee schedule for the permit, liability insurance requirements, river cleanup provisions, security provisions, complaint resolution procedures and a revised exit route to avoid crossing major roadways.
Trustees voted 4-3 to table the revised ordinance, citing the need for more time to give other jurisdictions an opportunity to weigh in and an opportunity for the village attorney to draft a licensing framework and accountability measures.
In May as the main tubing season neared, trustees approved revisions to the tubing ordinance passed in August 2019. On June 16, trustees granted the first tubing license to River’s Edge. The Apple River Hideaway’s application was tabled pending submission of supporting documents.
Then on July 1, Melvin’s five-year term as board president ended when he unexpectedly resigned, citing circumstances surrounding COVID-19 among other issues affecting his job as director of the Office of Special Investigations at the Minnesota Department of Corrections. His resignation ended a running feud with Kappers, the Apple Hideaway owner, and installed Kelsey Trepczyk as president.
At their July 12, 2020 meeting, trustees denied Hideaway’s application for a tubing license citing their failure to provide proof of insurance as required under the revised ordinance.
At the same meeting, trustees accepted the resignation of their longest remaining colleague, Peterson. In successive motions, Trepczyk appointed Doug Lahde and Annie de Jongh to fill the board vacancies created by her appointment as president and Peterson’s resignation. The appointments completed a comprehensive overhaul of the board that began with the Jan. 7 recall election.
When all was said and done. SomersetStrong achieved what it set out to accomplish:
electing three new representatives to the board,
claiming a voice for residents and
rewriting the tubing ordinance they had argued would close down the local tubing industry and, as a consequence, damage other businesses in the downtown district.
Ironically, Hideaway owner Mike Kappers, one of the loudest voices behind the recall effort, never obtained a tubing license because he failed to meet the requirements under the revised ordinance.
A different conflict
While tubing disputes and a recall election grabbed the headlines, the village built a new addition onto its public library and welcomed a new Kwik Trip station onto its tax rolls.
Going forward, the inexperienced board is almost certain to face long-term financial challenges as a result of the pandemic. They will also have to learn to navigate the conflict of interest inherent in the relationship between President Trepczyk and Police Chief Trepczyk, which could cost them a deciding vote on police matters and the voice of their chief executive in any negotiations related to the police department.