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Watson takes legal action against vegetable grower; he charges racism, supporters petition on his behalf

WATSON -- Aziz Ansari's pickle of a problem with the city of Watson is fast turning sour, and not just for the vegetable grower.

Two weeks ago the city of Watson delivered a summons to Ansari. The city has asked the district court to find that Ansari's three hoop structures in which he is raising vegetables on his residential lot violate city ordinance.

It asks the court to order Ansari to remove the structures, or allow the city to do so and bill him for the costs as well as legal costs associated with the case.

In response, more than 40 supporters of the vegetable grower packed the City Council chambers on Wednesday evening. They presented a petition asking the city to withdraw its legal action. The Rev. Robert Buchanan of the Grace Evangelical Church, a former mayor of the community who delivered the petition, said the city is spending lots of money on legal fees for what many in the community feel is a "personal grudge'' by some against Ansari.

"It's money that could be better spent elsewhere,'' said Buchanan.

The petitioners collected the signatures of 36 Watson residents and those of 16 people living outside of the community in a few hours' time, according to Gail Buchanan, who joined her husband in supporting Ansari.

Perhaps symbolic of how soured the matter has become, a Chippewa County sheriff's deputy had been called to watch over the meeting.

The supporters also asked council members to discuss the matter, but the members adjourned their meeting after a short exchange. Watson Mayor Mike Torgerson said the city's attorney had advised them not to discuss the matter because of the litigation.

But the mayor rebuffed the suggestions that there was a personal grudge against Ansari -- his next-door neighbor-- telling those present that he was acting only to uphold city ordinance. He also charged that he has heard from others in the community who feel that Ansari's hoop structures are "eyesores'' and that they want to see them removed.

"Our eyes don't see an eyesore,'' Audrey Arner, who farms outside of Watson, told the council members. "It's the kind of development that we would like to foster,'' Arner said of Ansari's venture into local food production.

Others told the council members that legal action against Ansari was "ridiculous,'' and charged that they have turned a blind eye to real eyesores in the community. They also charged that an attempt to tear down the vegetable operation at the peak of the harvest was malicious.

Mayor Torgerson said he did not know the content of the summons or that it demanded the imminent removal of the structures. "I don't know that anything is going to happen this year,'' he said.

Ansari said he has no plans to tear down the structures. Attorneys with the Farmers Legal Action Group in St. Paul are representing him and will be filing a response and asking for a hearing date, he said.

The hoopla over the hoops has not deterred people from stopping and picking vegetables, which are offered for sale on an honor system, according to Ansari. He said the hoops have become something of a community garden: Members of the Rev. Buchanan's church across from his house have helped tend the garden. The proceeds from the sales go directly to the church, he said.