The Watchdog Infiltrates a St. Paul community meeting led by Council Member Lee Helgen

by Bill McGaughey

On Thursday, February 15, 2007, agents of the Watchdog newspaper, including me, attended a community meeting sponsored by Council Member Lee Helgen, who represents the fifth ward of the city of St. Paul. The meeting was held in the Bruce F. Vento elementary school on Case Street between 5 and 7 p.m.. The late Bruce Vento was a former school teacher and U.S. Congressman from St. Paul’s east side with a reputation for honesty and conscientious service to his constituents.

Mr. Helgen ran a tight meeting. On hand to make short presentations were city officials from the police, fire department, public works, and inspections (represented by Steve Magner), and, of course, from the City Council. For the first hour or more, Helgen talked about a new program to revitalize the city with an impressive name - which, unfortunately, I can’t remember. Going after “irresponsible” landlords, taking their properties and turning these properties over to non-profit groups was a part of the proposed solution. There were huge inventories of vacant and condemned properties which St. Paul city officials felt needed to be controlled.

A few questions were taken from the audience during this period. The questioning was dominated by a few individuals or in the front or second row who seemed to be friends of the Council Member. The rest of the audience was subdued. I sat in the back row mulling over what to do. There did not seem an opportunity to participate.
Having brought a stack of Watchdog newspapers (both the current issue and the previous one featuring the protest at Diva’s bar) to the meeting, I thought at first of walking down the aisle and passing out newspapers to persons on the end. The thick presence of uniformed police and other city officials intimidated me.

Then a person sitting nearby - possibly Bob Johnson - made a small gesture of recognition. I handed him a stack of newspapers. He took one and handled the rest of the bundle to the person sitting beside him. That person did likewise, and soon the dwindling bundle had circulated through the back three or four rows until the last copy was gone. You could see people in their seats starting to look through the paper.

Council Member Helgen may have realized that something was happening as he glanced out into the audience. One or two people, possibly city officials, rose from their seats and conferred; but otherwise nothing happened.

Besides the newspapers, I had prepared another handout on half sheets of paper. This communication began: “What you need to know about Lee Helgen - Council member Lee Helgen seems to have a sadistic side in using the powers of St. Paul city government to go after East Side women with property. A more complete account of some of his activities can be found on the Internet.” Then there were links to five different pages in the website One had to do with Nancy Osterman, two with Diva’s bar, and two with email exchanges on St. Paul at the time that the house at 14 East Jessamine Street was demolished.

Bob Johnson also had a handout called “A-Democracy Town Hall News Letter”. This particular issue referred to the three racketeering lawsuits against the city of St. Paul now working their way through the courts. It referred to two elderly people who had committed suicide after receiving code-enforcement notices from St. Paul inspections. “This is just the tip of the ice berg,” said the leaflet. “There are allegations of extortion and theft by City officials concerning code enforcement. (There are) allegations of retaliatory behavior and racism by city officials.” More information about this matter was available on Johnson’s St. Paul blogspot at

As the meeting continued, I passed out my slips of paper to anyone who passed by on the aisle. A woman who took one asked for another several minutes later. Even if the meeting was controlled, we were getting our side of the story out in written form.

Just after a high-ranking police official had finished her presentation, Lee Helgen opened up the meeting to questions. I raised my hand and was recognized. I asked the speaker if it was true that the St. Paul police had asked an East Side woman to be a drug informant and, when she refused, had referred her house to the city’s housing inspectors who proceeded to condemn and demolish the house. (This was Nancy Osterman. Her story is told elsewhere.) The officer said she knew nothing about this.

Council Member Helgen then stepped forward to declare that the premise of my question was “a lie”. He had no response when I asked him to explain how it was a lie. As follow-up question, I asked the Council Member whether it was true that a St. Paul housing inspector had told the owner of a house at 14 East Jessamine Street that she should sell her house to a certain named individual for $40,000 or he would see to it that the house was demolished. Again, Helgen declared this to be a lie. However, he gave a partial explanation.

First, Helgen said in response, Nancy Osterman was not the owner of the house when it was demolished. (True, she had sold it to someone else on a contract for deed several months earlier. But that does not affect the allegation concerning the inspector’s corrupt proposal.) Second, he said that a court of law had authorized the city to demolish the house. (Again, that was true, but it did not answer the question. Helgen also neglected to mention that, shortly after the court had allowed a week’s stay in the order for demolition, a contractor working for the city had disconnected the utilities to the building. The city’s act was in defiance of the court order.)

The jig was up. Mine was the first and last question which Council Member Helgen permitted in this part of the meeting. The formal meeting ended and a period of informal discussion ensued. It was about fifteen minutes short of the 7 p.m. ending time that had been scheduled.

I positioned myself at the exit doorway so that persons who had not received newspapers or slips of paper with the website links could take what they wanted from my dwindling supply of literature. Most persons, even city officials, accepted this literature. I had a relatively cordial discussion with inspector Steve Magner (often demonized in our literature) in which he said that he found the Watchdog newspaper “interesting”. I asked if he had any comments on its content. He had none.

Then Lee Helgen himself came over. He asked me if I was the publisher of the Watchdog newspaper. I said I was not; I was a friend of the publisher. He asked me my name and I gave it. He then said he did not appreciate the “misinformation” I was spreading. I asked him to clarify that statement. He evidently did not want to get into a debate with me because he then walked away without saying another word.

I stood at the doorway for another fifteen minutes or so, hoping that Helgen would finish his conversations with others and have something more to say when he left the meeting room. For my part, I would offer to give him a chance to respond to anything written about him in our Internet articles. We do want to get the facts straight.

But time was getting short. I had another meeting to attend across town. So I left the school building while others were still talking and drove back to Minneapolis, making a brief stop at Diva’s bar along the way.

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