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Lake Park mayor again absent amid calls for resignation

LAKE PARK, Minn. – For the second time in as many weeks, Lake Park Mayor Aaron Wittnebel was a no-show for a special meeting called to give city staff and residents an opportunity to air grievances against the mayor.

City Council members and residents gathered Monday for the second of two such meetings.

On June 23, the council took action to remove all of Wittnebel’s power to do business for the city without direct council approval. As Vice Mayor John Anderson noted Monday, the only real power remaining for Wittnebel is his ability to preside over council meetings.

Wittnebel, once again, was nowhere to be seen – but that didn’t stop him from being the main topic of conversation.

The mayor has been living under a cloud of controversy since being charged last year with one felony count of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult, for mishandling finances for his sister, who has Down syndrome and for whom he had been serving as guardian and conservator.

After entering an Alford plea, he was granted a stay of judgment, which allows the charge to be dismissed if he completes probation. Under an Alford plea, a defendant asserts innocence but acknowledges the state has sufficient evidence for a jury to find him guilty.

On Monday, resident and past council member John Warling, read from a prepared statement that he presented to city staff so it could be entered into the public record.

“I have two issues with his activities as mayor: One is honesty, and the other is leadership,” the statement read in part.

“Three instances come to mind for me personally,” he said. “He lied to the people of Lake Park about personally paying design fees to restore the slough, he lied about holding meetings with the mayor of Audubon about the fire departments, and he lied to everyone about his criminal activities.

“He leads by intimidation, deceit, lies and threats,” Warling said. “He has threatened Lake Park employees if they even talk to the residents.”

Warling said the mayor’s “misleading statements and lies” had “created an atmosphere of deceit and a lack of confidence” in Wittnebel, for which he had only himself to blame.

He then called for Wittnebel to “step up to the plate” and resign, echoing sentiments expressed at the June 23 meeting by both city staff and the council, which issued a unanimous vote of no confidence against Wittnebel.

More than 200 city residents have signed a petition requesting that the mayor resign.

“I know it’s been a challenging year and a half for all of us,” said council member Amy Degerstrom. “We’re doing our best to work around the mayor, since he hasn’t been here to work with us. … Sadly, it’s come to that point.”

At the end of the meeting, council members urged those present to return for their regularly scheduled July meeting in two weeks to address their concerns to Wittnebel in person.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454