Column: The letter, the lies and Henry Savelkoul’s side of the story

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 3, 2002

Henry Savelkoul has been through a lot in his lifetime.

His career has included a stint as a state legislator &045; two years of it as House minority leader &045; and other high-profile jobs, including chairman of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which is the Metrodome’s &uot;landlord.&uot;

I would have guessed all those political campaigns, legislative battles and controversies over the Metrodome would have tempered Savelkoul against bad press.

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But Henry says the worst personal attack he’s ever been on the wrong end of was on this page on Monday, July 29, courtesy of Bob Ackland’s letter to the editor.

I almost hate to write about this, because in a way it will only draw more attention to the accusations made in the letter. But after talking with Savelkoul, it’s become clear to me that

most of what was said in the letter was fiction, or at the very least, gross exaggeration.

Ackland, a former owner of the &uot;Vault&uot; building, and a developer who has had a hand in many attempted projects in downtown Albert Lea, basically implied that Savelkoul, who was supposedly out to develop the building himself, derailed Ackland’s project for his own gain.

Savelkoul has responded to the letter with one of his own, which you’ll find on this page below. What I’m going to do in addition is provide my take on the accusations, after having talked to Ackland, Savelkoul, City Manager Paul Sparks and others.

– A major part of Ackland’s arguments rest on the idea that Savelkoul wants to get his hands on the Vault, for one reason or another.

Savelkoul was bewildered about this. He said he’s not interested in being a developer on that or any other project; he’s a lawyer, and although he’s been involved in projects from a legal standpoint, he’s not administered development projects himself and doesn’t plan to. He said he never contacted Ackland about being the contractor on a Vault project.

Savelkoul was involved at one point in the Vault situation; knowing the city was interested in owning it, he arranged for the purchase and transfer of the building to the city, but did not profit from it. This was reported in the paper on April 21, 2001. Savelkoul says he didthis because he didn’t want another owner to drive the price up and force the city into costly condemnation proceedings.

Here’s what convinced me: When we discussed it, Savelkoul was under the impression that Metro Plains, the company that hopes to redevelop Lea Center, was also lined up to redevelop the Vault. That’s not true; Metro Plains is only involved in Lea Center. If Savelkoul were really dying to get his hands on the Vault, wouldn’t he know that? It seems to me he would.

– Speaking of Metro Plains, Ackland said Savelkoul has &uot;big ties&uot; to that St. Paul-based company.

Savelkoul, however, said he doesn’t know anything about the company, has no interest in it and will get no financial gain from its activites in Albert Lea. He seemed baffled at where the idea of his &uot;big ties&uot; was coming from. I have placed a call to the president of Metro Plains to make sure. He hasn’t returned my call yet. But knowing that I could verify the fact, I can’t imagine Savelkoul would lie about this.

– The letter paints Savelkoul as a man with a short fuse and a hot temper. But even though he had ample reason to be angry at me, he didn’t raise his voice or make threatening comments.. For me, that calls Ackland’s account into question.

– Another innacuracy; the city is not paying an architect $68,000 for a lien on Lea Center. Actually, that building’s owner settled the lien before he sold to the city, Sparks tells me, and it was for $30,000, not $68,000.

– Ackland said Sparks told him the city wouldn’t be involved in his Vault project because it didn’t want to work with Ackland; this, Sparks said, is true. He said he didn’t think the city should deal with Ackland because he has a bad track record with other properties he’s owned. That seems like a wise choice for Sparks to make.

– One last point to address regarding the Tribune’s involvement: Should the letter have been printed? In hindsight, most of it appears to be a baseless attack.

What is good about letters to the editor is that they allow individuals who have little other public voice to air their concerns or give their side of a story. The bad part is that they can be used for the wrong reasons and can do damage that can’t be undone.

It falls on me and me alone to be a gatekeeper and to print the right letters. I need to balance the ideal of allowing everyone to have a voice with the reality that people must be prevented from abusing that opportunity to speak.

I did not imagine ahead of time that so much of Ackland’s letter was blatantly untrue; I assumed Savelkoul would have a different version of the story, but I didn’t believe it would be a

different story altogether, as it was. If I tried to verify the story ahead of time, I thought, I would only muddy up the situation, because everybody will have a different perception of events.

But if I had known then what I know now, I would not have printed that letter. Unfortunately for myself and especially for

Savelkoul, my job is one in which you can’t take your mistakes back.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays.