Huffman resigns from Ramsey County board following conflict of interest investigation


Blake Huffman (file photo)

Blake Huffman is stepping down from the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners.

He submitted his letter of resignation May 8 after county officials confirmed that his nonprofit had sold his son a home that had been purchased in part with federal grant money administered by the county. His resignation is effective June 1.

A year after Huffman was first elected in 2012, his nonprofit, Journey Home, bought a New Brighton property with help from a Community Development Block Grant, according to a letter from Deputy County Manager Johanna Berg to officials in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which details a county investigation into the sale. The grant was awarded to Journey Home prior to Huffman's election.

Huffman used $30,000, administered by the Ramsey County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, towards the purchase. 

Founded by Huffman in 2008, Journey Home’s mission was to provide safe, affordable housing for military veterans and families in unstable living conditions. However, following a series of financial missteps, including some $160,000 in unpaid labor and materials, the nonprofit was involuntarily dissolved in March. 

In 2015, Huffman’s fellow commissioners elected him to head up the housing and redevelopment authority; he was still serving as chair in 2018, when Journey Home sold the home in question to his son, Zach, with another son, Alex, as the realtor for the sale. The county decided the involvement of both sons may constitute a conflict of interest.

Huffman did not return a request for comment.

 

County conducts investigation

On May 7 — the day before Huffman resigned — Berg sent her letter to HUD.

After finding out about the transaction in January through newspaper reports, an independent law firm was also brought in and confirmed these findings, according to the letter.

Alex received a commission for the sale, but Huffman told the firm that it was below market rate. According to the Star Tribune’s initial report, the home was sold to Zach for $126,000, just below what it had initially been put on the market for a year prior.

As commissioner, Huffman represents Ramsey County District 1, which includes Arden Hills, Mounds View, Shoreview and the neighboring communities; he also sat on the Joint Development Authority Board, which was tasked with overseeing the Rice Creek Commons development in Arden Hills at the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site.

A retired vice president with Wells Fargo, Huffman was a Shoreview City Council member from 1996 to 2012, prior to election to the county board. He ran unopposed for a second term on the board in 2016, and was briefly in the 2018 race for Minnesota governor as a Republican. A graduate of Mounds View High School and Bethel University, Huffman and his wife have six children.

In his brief letter of resignation, Huffman said he was done with politics.

 

Committee responsibilities

Huffman and Commissioner Rafael Ortega, his colleague on the Joint Development Authority, have not attended a JDA meeting since February, as Arden Hills and the county continue to differ over how to move forward with the Rice Creek Commons development. 

The county requested increased density in the fall of 2018, while the city hopes to start moving forward with the plan both parties voted on in 2016.

Before the most recent meeting on May 6, which was cancelled due to the commissioners’ absence, Arden Hills City Council member and JDA representative Brenda Holden noted that it had been 91 days since Huffman had been in contact with city representatives. 

“I know several residents who have called and left messages and emails, and he hasn’t returned their calls,” said Holden while waiting for the commissioners to show up. “But, he had his clerical support call them back.”

In an interview after, she added that “[Huffman] used to serve on a lot of committees and volunteered for stuff, but the last three or four years, he remained on committees but he never showed up.”

On May 14, the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners appointed Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt to fill Huffman’s seat on the JDA. 

Although Huffman represented Arden Hills, the District 1 commissioner is not required to be one of the two county representatives on the JDA. 

Ortega said Huffman’s resignation would have no effect on the current status of the JDA or the redevelopment of the 427-acre Rice Creek Commons site. 

“We started on this venture before Commissioner Huffman came aboard, I’m the lead commissioner on the committee,” Ortega said in an interview. “The rest of the board has been apprised, they know about everything we’ve been doing.”

Additionally, the county is pursuing legal action against the city in order to dissolve the JDA and the joint powers agreement, following ongoing disputes between the two parties.

Meanwhile, Ortega projected that the county would break ground on the spine road, the main artery leading through the future development, this summer, although Holden expressed doubts about that timeline. 

 

Next steps

A special election will be held to fill the remainder of Huffman’s term, which expires at the end of 2020. Ortega guessed that Reinhardt would remain on the development authority, even after a new District 1 commissioner has been elected. 

“The whole board has been brought up to speed over the years, progress reports have been made,” he said, noting that a new commissioner would still be informed about and engaged with the Arden Hills development. “The board is on the same page.”

Holden agreed that Huffman’s resignation would have little to no effect on the status of the JDA, “since the county has refused to be transparent or to be a partner with the city.”

“We need a county commissioner who will communicate, [give] the cities that he or she represents knowledge about what’s going on,” Holden said, hoping the special election would usher in such a commissioner. “[Someone] who will respect them and stand up for the cities they represent.” 

Meanwhile, the county will take steps to recover the grant money that was given to Journey Home. Once recovered, it will be decided whether it should go back to HUD or whether the county will be able to keep and reallocate it to another project.

“The investigation continues to be conducted by an outside party,” Board chair Jim McDonough said at the May 14 meeting. “We will make it public when it is complete in the weeks ahead.”

 

—Bridget Kranz can be reached at bkranz@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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