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Councilwoman Gwen Cram read in a prepared statement Dec. 22 that she is "shocked at what I hear," around town regarding the dispute. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

So how did the Grove City dispute begin?

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So how did the Grove City dispute begin?
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

GROVE CITY -- Turmoil in the town of Grove City that resulted in a citizen filing a lawsuit against the city, city officials and a labor union, is continuing to drive a wedge among the town's 600 residents.

Pinpointing the origins of the current divide in the community is difficult, with explanations varying from person to person.

Some say it started when water meters were installed after a new water treatment plant was built. No one disputes the plant was needed, but the change from a flat fee to charges based on usage is unpopular with some.

Others are fed up with increasing city taxes and some don't like the increasing electric rates even though the city-owned utility has been a cash-cow for taxpayers.

There's also been opposition to spending more money on a new sewer plant that is being proposed.

Some are still upset the city abolished its police department in 2003 and currently contracts with the Meeker County Sheriff's Office.

Others say the problem started during a past August Fest celebration when the city attempted to restrict alcohol consumption to a designated area where it was provided by licensed vendors. A lot of people didn't like the new limitations and the festival wasn't held in 2011.

There are also complaints that salaries for city employees were too high even before they joined a union at the end of 2010.

The hourly wage for the full-time employees ranged from $18.87 to $23.58 in 2010 before they joined the union. The 2012 hourly salaries range from $24.82 to $29.53. The union contract reflects added responsibilities the three employees have taken on with city utilities, according to city staff.

But the concerns go beyond money. There have been complaints of rude behavior by some city staff and one city councilman has been reprimanded for his treatment of a city employee.

Some say law enforcement's actions to require a prominent resident to remove a basketball pole and hoop from a city street sparked the dispute.

Former Mayor Gerald Rueckert said City Administrator Janell Johnson has been blamed -- wrongly -- for city actions that have drawn public complaints, including things that were out of her control.

Both Rueckert and Johnson, as well as two former city council members, were named in the lawsuit, which was filed while Rueckert was still serving as mayor.

Instead of being vilified, Rueckert said Johnson should be given credit for digging the city out of a deep financial hole and helping it operate with a healthy budget reserve.

"She's a whiz," said Rueckert. "And she dedicates her life to the job."

While some see Johnson as the lightning rod for the town's troubles, others show their support by sending flowers that fill her city office desk.

The current mayor, Melissa Drange, said there is a "power struggle" in city hall and the inability of the current City Council and Johnson to work together is a major part of the conflict, along with the city's financial challenges.

The current members of the City Council are Bill Peterka, Terry Miller and Gwen Cram. The council has a vacancy after Bill Houselog resigned Tuesday.

City Council meetings attract large crowds of people who support different factions in the city, with obvious bitterness and skepticism expressed during and after meetings.

An online community forum called "We the people of Grove City" was started on Facebook, but was recently removed. A past entry encouraged residents to attend a city budget meeting and "see the fireworks."

Frustrated with rumors and false accusations, Johnson posted a comment on the site that said, "If anyone really wants to know, stop by the city office and I would be happy to go over the numbers with anyone interested in the facts."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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