Public humiliation, put downs, harsh treatment: Mayor Rossing & Councilors Vohs, Pownell unhappy with their colleagues

The Nfld News has a story today titled Mayor: Disrespectfulness unacceptable based on comments Mayor Mary Rossing made to the Northfield City Council at Tuesday’s meeting.  The text of her written statement:

Northfield Mayor Mary RossingOn a number of occasions during my tenure as Mayor I have felt the need to address the Council publicly, and to remind my colleagues that in order to be be effective in our jobs it is important that we maintain a level of protocol and respect in our deliberations. This is expressed in how we speak to each other, to the public or to our City Staff. In recent weeks I have personally observed, and have had it pointed out to me by various members of our community that it appears that it has become acceptable for staff to be discredited and put down in public.

That is not right and it should not be acceptable in these Chambers. That is not to say that we must agree with staff opinions or with their recommendations or that we cannot question the basis for such opinions. But when they speak from their position as professionals, they must be respected.

Councilors Kris Vohs and Rhonda Pownell are quoted in the article as also being unhappy with the tenor at times at meetings and elsewhere. No word from the others:

Councilors Betsey Buckheit and Suzie Nakasian declined to comment for this story. Councilors Patrick Ganey and Erica Zweifel could not be reached for comment.

Since I’m someone often accused of having a bug up his ass about the importance of civility in conversations, I’m interested in this issue. But neither the article nor Rossing’s statement mention any specifics, so it’s hard to know what’s going on. Sometimes when people are critical of others, that’s seen as automatic disrespect, whereas I believe that public criticism can be done in a way that’s respectful.

Back in March, Councilor Kris Vohs was unhappy with the interactions among the Councilors. I was critical of how he handled it but there were never any examples mentioned of what he was talking about. In May of 2010, Mayor Rossing was also critical of council decorum.

Can anyone who’s been at Council meetings lately or who has watched the proceedings via cable TV or live streaming cite some interactions that might be examples of disrespect towards city staff by councilors?

70 comments to  (Including 12 Discussion Threads) Public humiliation, put downs, harsh treatment: Mayor Rossing & Councilors Vohs, Pownell unhappy with their colleagues

  • 1

    I’ve seen negative comments toward staff, but I’ve never once seen it when unjustified. Personal attacks would obviously be inappropriate, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with negative comments about what they’ve brought to the council. Oftentimes staff are (at best) not giving it their all or (at worst) misleading the Council to further their personal goals for the City. Councilors should continue to call them out if they’re dissatisfied.

  • 2
    Griff Wigley says:

    Sean, that seems to be the crux of it, ie, can negative comments be appropriate?

    If a councilor says in a straightforward manner “I think you’re wrong” or “I think your report is flawed,” that seems to me to be perfectly fine.

    Of course, those words can be said with a disparaging tone of voice or facial expression.

  • 3
    Megan Tsui says:

    Griff,
    Do you know if there is a place where previous meeting videos can be found? I like to make up my own mind and not just take the word on the street :-).

    Thanks!
    Megan

  • 4
    Griff Wigley says:

    Hi Megan,

    KYMN has a blog post containing the embedded video archive of last week’s Oct. 18 council meeting.

    For the video archives of other meetings, see the KYMN UStream Channel.

  • 5
    kiffi summa says:

    In May of 2010, Mayor Rossing voiced similar complaints about behavior.
    In March of this year Councilor Vohs put a letter in the NFNews about his colleagues’ behavior without discussing it first at a meeting.

    The mayor has a gavel; and I understand that she is rather loathe to use it; however, dealing with an action that you might feel is inappropriate at the time it occurs, rather than issuing a broad general blanket statement of concern later, would allow the comments to be evaluated , explained, cleared up, justified… whatever …. at the time, and cause much less hard feelings.

    Also, when questioned from the open mic about to whom this statement was addressed, the Mayor said it was clear in her first sentence, i.e., “to the Council”.
    But in the NFNews the mayor is quoted as saying that her statement is a “signal to the public” also.

    The problem here is one that has existed for a long time in that this Council, as well as previous ones, seems to be uncomfortable with the idea that they are in fact the employers , and the Staff are the employees.
    The Staff’s place in the governance of Northfield is to implement the policy of the Council.
    It is a public SERVICE job.

    IMO, the Mayor’s allegiance is to the electorate first and foremost; the staff is to be directed as to the Council’s will.
    The Mayor’s duty is not to “protect” the Staff; which is not to say that they should have a bad working environment… but any employee is subject to evaluation by their employer, and since the business of the city must be conducted in public, reasonable evaluation of information presented by Staff may also be commented on in public.

  • 6
    john george says:

    In the few hours of the council proceedings I watched, it would appear that the mayor is trying to deal with some attitudes and how those attitudes are expressed, not procedures or authority. Body language and voice tone often convey more than the words being spoken. I know that the councilors are very busy, but it might be appropriate for them to view the videos of the council proceedings from time to time.

  • 7
    john george says:

    There is an interesting editorial in today’s Pioneer Press. Here is the link:
    http://www.twincities.com/opinion/ci_19191369?nclick_check=1
    This paragraph lends some insight into our current political climate, IMO, and I think it sets the stage for some of the tings going on in the City Council:

    I’ll take it one step further. The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics. For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the “systematic demonization” of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coined the angry verb “to bork,” which meant to destroy a nominee by whatever means necessary. When Republicans borked Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright less than two years later, there wasn’t a trace of remorse, not after what the Democrats had done to Bork. The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust -- the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.

    It is no wonder there is no shame for hostile behavior in some interactions between government officials. Just because it has been done on the national level does not justify its use. It is good to see someone calling “foul.”

  • 8
    Griff Wigley says:

    Nfld News: Northfield councilor to resign

    Eleven-year City Council veteran Kris Vohs will announce this evening that he won’t stay for an even dozen.

    The stress from dealing with what he calls a dysfunctional council is impacting his health, forcing him to step down effective Jan. 1

  • 9
    Patrick Enders says:

    This is very sad. Thank you, Kris, for your many years of generous service.

  • 10
    kiffi summa says:

    last night at the Council meeting, Councilor Vohs read his two sentence letter of resignation; there was no discussion… the Mayor thanked Vohs for his service.

    Yet in the newspaper article, Vohs is represented as accusing council members of secret meetings, treating staff badly, etc. The accusation of secret meetings is a serious one.

    Why does this controversy occur only in the newspaper?

  • 11

    Kiffi, it is my experience there are no secret meetings being held. I have never participated in a secret meeting and I do not know of any councilors that have engaged in secret meetings.

    • 11.1
      kiffi summa says:

      I am sure you are correct, Erica.

      I brought this up because I think it is a very serious matter for Councilor Vohs to make these accusations, twice in the newspaper, and for the newspaper to print these accusations as is, with no deeper investigation.

      If Councilor Vohs has these ‘suspicions’, it is my feeling that it should be discussed at a council work session to clear the air ; otherwise it is a detriment to the entire Council process.
      I am very disappointed that the Mayor would allow this to go without open discussion, as if Councilor Vohs is indisputably correct.

  • 12
    Ray Cox says:

    I’m really puzzled by all this. I have contact, conversations and interactions with our CC from time to time. I have not experienced any negative actions. I also interact on a regular basis with city staff as part of my business. I know there are tugs and pulls between them sometimes, but nothing that seems out of ordinary. I hope people are not confusing good, healthy discussion and dialog with “harsh treatment” . I don’t know what the “humiliation” is. I also am not aware of secret meetings being held. I think it is very valuable to have a variety of positions represented on the CC. We get better projects, better budgets, better everything if the CC explores all sides of issues.

  • 13
    john george says:

    Just the little bit I have picked up from the tapes, it seems there are some issues that would be best handled within the council members themselves. At this point, I just don’t think it is a good idea to be pointing fingers and naming names in a public discussion like this, or the NN, for that matter. There has been a trend in this whole country for some time to try people in the public media forum rather than in (IMO) proper chanels. If you have viewed the tapes or been present in council meetings, and are sensitive to insensitive behaviors exhibited, I think it is evident to you what is going on. If you are not sensitive to that, then it will probably go right past you. When any of us are in a situation that is uncomfortable for us, and we have no power or authority to change the situation, we can make the decision to stay or leave.

    • 13.1
      kiffi summa says:

      I think the point is being missed here, that Councilor Vohs has made some very strong allegations with no specifics. This creates a general attitude not just within the supposedly collegial group, but from the general public, and that questioning attitude is not productive on the whole.

      If a Councilor accuses his fellow councilors, or some of his fellow councilors, of secret meetings, that is a serious ethical violation of the public trust, of also their trust in each other, and a legal violation as well… not something you should throw out there and walk away from, leaving the whole remaining group tainted.

      It is my opinion that Councilor Vohs has made an ethical mistake by bringing his ‘case’ to the media, rather than dealing with it up front with his colleagues, and that the method chosen by him is an unfortunate detriment to the Council as a whole.

      • 13.1.1
        john george says:

        Kiffi- That is a good point. Of course, I do not know what has been or is presently happening internally to resolve some of these issues. I also feel it is really not my business unless the issues are causing a detriment to the function of the city government as a whole. Perhaps we are at that point. My question is, what mechanism do we as citizens have, aside from the voting booth, to bring any type of resolution to the unresolved conflicts? This is certainly a good focus for the intercessors.

  • 14
    kiffi summa says:

    I believe this occurrence is a detriment to the effective functioning of the City Council, and also may have an impact on people who might have wished to apply to fill the vacancy.

    Will potential applicants for the at-large position wonder about the dynamics on the Council, how ‘problems’ are handled, and the openness with which internal problems are resolved?

    • 14.1
      john george says:

      I think the dynamics is something that anyone interested in running for the council position should weigh in their decision. Whether it keeps qualified people away is a real possibility but unpredictable because it is their decision.

  • 15
    kiffi summa says:

    I find it inconceivable that this Council, which I have great respect for, is ignoring Councilor Vohs’s accusations of illegal conduct (secret meetings), not once but twice with his letters of complaint to the newspaper, both last March and just recently.

    There have been references about this Council, referring to them as a ‘brain trust'; I would agree with that. They seem able not only to often cut to the heart of a matter, but to struggle with making multiple sequential motions to deal with an issue.

    Not so on the matter of Councilor Vohs’s accusations … the silence is deafening.

    It is not fair to the community to let those accusations of violation of Open Meeting law to just lie out there without answer.
    The accusations had no specifics either as to persons involved or occurrences, when/where … and such accusations need to be answered or put to rest in a public conversation.
    If that is not done, everyone loses, the Council’s credibility is damaged, and the public is unserved.

    I want these Councilors to remember that they are public servants, and they are not servants of the building , or the institution, called ‘City Hall’.

  • 16
    kiffi summa says:

    This is an e-mail I sent to mayor Rossing last week; I received a polite response of thank you… but I had hoped to engender a more active response.

    Good morning Mayor Rossing:

    As is obvious from my submitted public hearing comments on the proposed Charter revisions, I am firmly in favor of retaining the Mayor/Council form of government; I believe that the responsibility for governance lies totally within the realm of the elected representatives of the community.

    Sometimes that responsibility brings with it some difficult situations, and I think you are in that place now with Councilor Vohs’s resignation. His 2 sentence letter read at the Council meeting notwithstanding, his letters, and comments to the NFNews, have created a problematic situation.

    I believe his broad accusations of “secret meetings” is damaging to the Council as a whole, and to the process which we would all hope is being followed to a level which would survive any scrutiny. I believe the situation he has created with his non-specific accusations, has made a difficult environment for you as the leader of the elected officials, and may even have reverberations within the City Hall Staff.

    I would hope, that in your position as Mayor, you would deal with this problem in a more responsibly adult manner than Councilor Vohs has chosen to do. To my mind, that would be a discussion in a Council Meeting, that puts to rest any concerns that may have been , in my POV, irresponsibly raised by Councilor Vohs by his nonspecific complaints to the NFNews, rather than his having a more responsibly adult conversation with his colleagues.

    I have heard “the high road” mentioned in conversations with others about this issue; there is no ‘high road’ beneath the proverbial carpet under which problems are swept!

    I do not imagine this would be either easy or pleasant, but I do think it would exemplify the essence of being an elected leader such as the Mayor in their role as both Council leader, and elected representative of the community, a public servant who does not let worrisome attitudes fester, but resolves them.

    I also believe you have the verbal skills to do this … as unpleasant a task as it might be.

    Sincerely,
    Kiffi Summa

    P.S. I have copied Mr. Madigan on this simply because I believe any disruption of this sort does also impact the ‘culture’ at City Hall.

    KWS

  • 17
    Kathie Galotti says:

    Kiffi,

    I esp. like the line about there being no high road under a carpet. I agree, this allegation (of secret meetings) is a very serious one and needs to be addressed. I suspect that what’s going on is the same thing that I have heard goes on among school board members: Member A telephones Member B, who hangs up and telephones Member C, etc. So there’s no “meeting”; nonethless the spirit of the open meeting law is um, violated.

    • 17.1
      john george says:

      Kathie- In thinking more about your comment, does this mean that two school board members or two councilors cannot communicate with one another about school/city business? If their discussion leads to a decision being made without open public input, then I agree. If the discussions lead to a subject being brought before the board/council as a whole for open review, then I think that would be constructive. Just wondering how narrowly the open meeting laws are to be applied.

      • 17.1.1
        Kathie Galotti says:

        Yes, John, you raise a good question, and I am not sure of the answer. I am pretty confident the open meeting law doesn’t prohibit 2 board members having a conversation. (I think there is--or at least was--some prohibition about more than 2 of them being in the same room together when it wasn’t an official meeting). But you can see where “serial” two-person conversations could lead to a subversion of the point of the open meeting law--where everything essentially gets discussed and decided ahead of the public meeting.

        I know the school board does something like this--each member meets individually with the supe before each public meeting. For the life of me, I don’t get how this isn’t a violation of at least the intent of the law. And it explains 1) the paucity of real discussion at those meetings and 2) all the 7-0 votes. Yet another reason why there’s really little point of anyone from the general public (e.g., us peasants) attending the actual meeting.

      • 17.1.2
        john george says:

        Kathie- I think you are touching on two areas that are hard to prove in court- spirit of the law and intent. Here is a qoute from the Minnesota open meeting law-

        • To prohibit actions being taken at a secret meeting where it is impossible
        for the interested public to become fully informed about a public board’s
        decisions or to detect improper influences
        • To assure the public’s right to be informed
        • To afford the public an opportunity to present its views to the public body2

        The link I found that on is here-
        http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/openmtg.pdf
        if you have not and want to read the whole thing. Here is another definition from the document that I think addresses your concerns-

        Gatherings of less than a quorum of a public body are not subject to the law; a “meeting”
        is held when the group is capable of exercising decision-making powers.

        I think it is interesting that the group only mbe capable of making a decision to be in violation, whether they do or not. Here is another paragraph clarifying communications-

        A public body subject to the law should be cautious about using e-mail to communicate with
        other members of the body. Although the statute does not specifically address the use of e-mail,
        it is likely that the court would analyze use of e-mail in the same way as it has telephone
        conversations and letters.12 That is, communication about official business through telephone
        conversations or letters by a quorum of a public body subject to the law would violate the law.
        Serial communication through telephone conversations or letters by less than a quorum with the
        intent to avoid a public hearing or to come to an agreement on an issue relating to official
        business could also violate the law.

        All very interesting. I agree with Kiffi in that exposing the specifics of the allegations would clear the air.

      • 17.1.3
        kiffi summa says:

        MN statutes 13D.01 is the Open Meeting law; it begins by stating what groups are subject to it, etc… It’s pretty easy to read, for a statute… just continue on as long as your interest holds.
        13D.015 deals specifically with serial meetings /phone calls.

  • 18
    kiffi summa says:

    Kathie… I guess I need to reiterate that I do not believe this council has engaged in “secret meetings”, and I would assume that Councilor Vohs is accusing those that feel differently than he does; I most especially do not think that those councilors who happen to oppose Vohs’s ideas would engage in a violation of the Open Meeting Law.

    So, I’m saying that is why these accusations of his need to be brought to light, and either substantiated or seen to be false. Just allowing to remain in that darkness ‘under the carpet’ allows the question to remain .

    I’ll continue to believe that the ‘high road’ is firmly on the sunny side of the street!

  • 19
    john george says:

    I reviewed the KYMN video of Tuesday night’s work session, and it seems quite evident to me that emotional responses on the part of some council members seemed to be the MO of the meeting. I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand how this type of interraction can be acceptable in a public meeting. I think Mayor Rossing was doing a fantastic job of holding things together trying to keep peace during the meeting. If this is one of the things to which Councilor Vohs was responding in his resignation, then I think he is certainly justified in stepping down.

  • 20
    kiffi summa says:

    Looking at one meeting, in a long line of frustrations that have been building on two issues specifically (safety center and EDA) cannot possibly give a complete picture of Council dynamics.

    Please also note that the Work session, as opposed to a ‘legislative’ meeting is supposed to be a more free, less formal exchange, which then precedes decision making.

    • 20.1
      john george says:

      Kiffi- I’ve looked at a number of meetings, both work sessions and regular meetings, and I don’t see a difference in the behavior.

      • 20.1.1
        kiffi summa says:

        Maybe to clarify, you could cite some examples of “emotional responses” which seem to be “the MO of the meeting”?

      • 20.1.2
        john george says:

        I’ve got a long, busy weekend, so I’ll get some time signatures off the tapes on Monday or Tuesday.

      • 20.1.3
        john george says:

        Kiffi- Here are some time signatures on the 11/22 tape:
        1:29:40-1:33:40, councilor had hand raised during whole time mayor was presenting her opinion;
        !:48:20-1:50:20, pretty intense expression about delay in joint council/EDA meeting, which was actually a council decision to delay;
        1:52:20-1:53:50, venting of personal offense about EDA funding proposal;
        2:01-2:02, venting of personal frustration with EDA and attack on their work.
        There were some issues on the 11/15 meeting tape, but I couldn’t replay it for some reason to find the time signatures. One was an attack on a staff person regarding a letter sent out to residents affected by the next street renovation project. Another I remember was a council person addressing the Mayor in, what I thought, was an inappropriate voice tone. I don’t think that a casual meeting format means freedom to speak uncivilly.

  • 21
    kiffi summa says:

    I had seen the meeting you reference, and I rewatched your time points, John.

    The work session is an exchange of opinions and viewpoints about issues which confront the Council. If the Councilors are not free to express those opinions how can they give direction to staff, resolve issues among themselves, or communicate their positions to the public.?

    I value highly the direct exchange of views; that is the only way a deep discussion may be had, IMO.

    Your first point, A councilor’s raised hand during the Mayor’s speech, is certainly not reason to resign from a Council position (Vohs) because of lack of respect.

    Your second, a Councilor’s very long, thoughtfully phrased and detailed evaluation of the observed EDA process, is so carefully phrased to give NO offense, that it almost becomes obtuse. And that Councilor is correct that a meaningful joint meeting is not just seven weeks overdue, but more like a year, or even possibly 2-3 years.

    The third, a Councilor wondering why he was given an assignment more appropriate to staff, was correct in that his reference to staff’s work would be the usual method, and that observation of his was even supported by the Council EDA rep, Pownell.

    And the last point, a Councilor’s expression of being at “wit’s end” ? well, do you honestly think this observed problem with the EDA should have been ongoing for 2-3 years, and most recently for the full year since originally brought by two councilors in November of 2010?

    This is a tax levy, a large amount of money in the City Budget, a significant staff $$ investment, and all for an EDA that has been out of compliance with state statutes for years.
    Why is non-compliance with fiscal regulations in statute ever acceptable?

    When, does a dysfunction, other than the raising of a hand while someone else is speaking, rise to a level of seriousness?

    Let me give just one small example: the EDA recommended annexing 530 Acres of land for industrial development; spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on developing a master plan for that land; has no way to afford developing the necessary infrastructure to support that development… and here is the most important part: has no binding agreement with the people who actually own the land!

    A lot of hands should be raised!

    • 21.1
      john george says:

      Kiffi- I have no problem with the views expressed and agree with them. The emotional baggage in each case weakens their positions and distracts from the process rather than furthering it, IMNSHO. I just believe all these things could have been done in a more considerate and less antagonistic fashion, but that is just my opinion. I will reiterate the article in my post 7.
      http://www.twincities.com/opinion/ci_19191369?nclick_check=1

      • 21.1.1
        kiffi summa says:

        Did you find that Councilor Pownell’s very emotional appeal, reiterated several times, for no reduction in the EDA levy detracted from the substance of her position?
        I don’t think so … she was clearly frustrated with the particulars of the levy allocations being addressed in total, without recognition of how little there is remaining for the EDA to have any discretionary use of…

        Since the partner funding (NDDC, NEC, SMF) was wanting to be continued by the Councilor’s who agreed with looking at the levy, it seems that the operational costs/staff salaries are the rub, although only one councilor was up to clearly stating that as an insufficient “return on investment”.

        These are not easy discussions, especially when it involves staff salaries; I think councilors should be cut a bit of slack for the “baggage” they bring to said discussions.

        At any rate, back to Counclor Vohs’s dissatisfaction: often he never utters a single word in such a discussion, so what’s up with that?

      • 21.1.2
        john george says:

        I felt Councilor Pownell’s appeal was at least respectful. I also thought Mayor Rossing’s reply to the extended time involved in having the joint meeting with the EDA was respectful. I don’t think I could have handled that challenge as well at all. Here is a Council member not remembering an action that was taken? Hmmmm.

        As far as Councilor Vohs’ silence, I think he was the wisest one at the meeting. I have not talked to him, so I am only offering my opinion. If those displays are indicative of the normal council procedings, I think I can understand why he kept silent. After you’ve circled the mulberry bush enough times, it becomes evident that you’re getting nowhere.

      • 21.1.3
        kiffi summa says:

        Just not understanding , John, what you found DIS-respectful in the other Councilor’s time coded segments that you noted, because you said the “emotional baggage in each case weakens their position” and yet you labeled that as a problem, but you found no disrespect in Councilor Pownell’s “emotional baggage”…

        So is it all just about voice tone, or raised hands… I understand your reluctance to be more specific … but you are quite specific about Councilor Nakasian’s concern, and I must tell you, that the Mayor’s speech about meeting with the EDA was only the latest round of discussion about what now appears to be almost a mythical meeting because that meeting has been discussed for a solid year! A little frustration is warranted, and it was quietly, although emphatically expressed.
        (that meeting now set, as of last night, for first work session in January, 2012)

        I am certainly sometimes critical of the Council proceedings, but not on this level that you are expressing, because I think it is really difficult to sit ‘up there’ and have your every word and gesture/nuance interpreted by the public.

        I am not so concerned about ‘raised hands'; I am far more concerned about those issues which are notraised publicly.

      • 21.1.4
        john george says:

        Kiffi- Perhaps you and I just differ on what we consider appropriate speech and actions in a public meeting. To sit with one’s hand raised for 4 minutes while another speaks just seems elementary school level. I do not think that raised voices are appropriate in this type of discussion, but, according to the comentary I cited above in 21.1, I realize I might be in the minority.

      • 21.1.5
        kiffi summa says:

        OK, John… we must just disagree, once again…

        All the councilors have their little personal idiosyncrasies; I just think the content of their speech is way more important than those little, and even possibly annoying, personality traits…

      • 21.1.6
        john george says:

        Kiffi- I’ve been thinking about your opinion that content of a speech is more important than the presentation of that content. IMO, both are important, and I believe that some of the “disfunction” in decision making has been caused by presentation. For instance, I may have a very concise analysis of a proposal, but if I present it to you in a way that offends you (highly likely ;-) ), then I doubt that you would support me in in any actions I might propose.

      • 21.1.7
        Griff Wigley says:

        John, I tend to lean the same as you on this. We are emotional/social beings more than we are rational beings so the HOW of our interactions (social intelligence or SQ) is critically important.

      • 21.1.8
        kiffi summa says:

        John… see what we have, IMO, is a basic difference of opinion on the guiding principles of our lives , and that I think we could agree on :-)…

        However, people are so varied and curious, that if I agreed with someone, I would not be put off by their presentation of their opinion unless they had repeatedly, and I do mean repeatedly, treated me in a way that I found hopelessly unredeemable.

        I am very patient until pushed over a far distant line, but I will readily admit that once over that line, it is hard to get me back!

        So, what we have , once again, John , is a difference of opinion … because I would not behave the way you have said you would expect me to :-) ; for me it is predominantly content, not presentation.

  • 22
    kiffi summa says:

    At the Council last night, there was a joint discussion with the Charter Commission about a proposed Ethics Board, something the Charter Commission has been working on for over two years. The ChartComm lead on this proposal was attorney Peter Dahlen, who has felt that at least two specific incidents in NF’s recent past created the necessity for a process through which a citizen had access to a mechanism whereby to lodge a civil (as opposed to criminal) complaint.

    Well… Talk about ‘humiliations/putdowns’ … I have never seen a city Board or Commission treated with such disrespectful rejection and disdain, as greeted the Charter Commission last night.

    I can fully understand the lack of agreement on such a problematic proposal , which has, IMO, much opportunity for misuse.
    But the Council’s attitude was not one of respect for the serious work that had been done on this proposal, and did not even accept the need for such a mechanism, although at this time a process does not exist that is free of Council or Administrative influence.

    Mr. Dahlen led the discussion for the Charter Commission, as asked by Chair Jayne Hager Dee. Although he repeatedly reiterated that this proposed process was only for civil complaints, problems with criminal issues were brought up by Council over and over.

    At the Council meeting when this was first proposed, there was a memo from the City Attorney regarding the process necessary for Charter amendments, but the Council has never authorized a legal review of the content of such a proposal, and therefor continue to operate on their own opinions, while calling Attorney Dahlen’s opinions “subjective”.

    The most recent Council motion on this subject (12.6. meeting?) asked for a full legal analysis, if I am remembering correctly, but it has not been done; if my memory is correct, then I would ask why this Council directive has not been implemented?

    The Council continually referred to an ethics statement supported by the League of MN Cities, but that document does not remove the control from the Council/Administration and transfer the hearing of a civil complaint to a citizen board created for the purpose of hearing such a complaint.

    There is no doubt that this would be a difficult matter to develop without ‘kinks’ , but many cities/government units have done so; it is not impossible, but it does take some respectful discussion, not just adversarial rejection, to arrive at an acceptable model.

    IMO, it would be unfortunate if the Charter Commission (voted unanimously at their Sept. meeting for presenting this ) stung by the Council’s lack of respectful discussion, took this to the public, as allowed, for a vote without the requested legal analysis and further discussion. Last night’s meeting may have given them the feeling that there can be no further fruitful discussion.

  • 23
    Griff Wigley says:

    Kiffi, thanks for your substantive report on the Council meeting.

    I have never seen a city Board or Commission treated with such disrespectful rejection and disdain

    Wow. Did Mayor Rossing comment on or try to intervene?

    It seems like I should create a separate blog post dedicated to this proposed Ethics Board, since this is a blog post about council-related civility.

    • 23.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Griff: Mayor Rossing was ‘chairing’ the meeting even if it was a work session format (table, not dais) and I thought she did a pretty good job; it was the councilors who were most actively participating in the discussion who I found to be so lacking in respect.

      Councilor Pownell had some vague interest and questions that were not answered. Councilor Buckheit mostly just reiterated her previously expressed apprehension of this going to the public in this form. Councilor Imm seemed to misunderstand the whole motivation of the Charter Commission , and I don’t recall Councilor Zweifel saying anything.

      The major problem was the total rejection of seeing the need for a process allowing a citizen to bring a civil complaint, a process which could not be ignored or ‘buried’.

      • 23.1.1
        kiffi summa says:

        Just to keep the record straight, I did notsubmit this comment at 10:22 PM; I had submitted it early in the morning, 6:42 AM; at 7:46 I asked Griff to withdraw it as I did not think it was clear, and at 8:03 he e-mailed me that he had done so.

        I was e-mailing back and forth with Councilor Buckheit during the day, and checked often to see if there were any replies to my initial comment (22).
        I wanted to write something more complete, that dealt with Councilor Ganey and Nakasian’s objections, but was contemplating if this was an adequate forum to explain something so complicated… so I didn’t write anything additional.

        When I looked Friday morning (6th) I saw that my withdrawn comment was back, with a time stamp of 10:22 on the 5th, which was after I had gone to sleep for the night.

        I emailed Griff about the re-appearance, and he apologized and said he was not sure how that could have happened… but he was sorry it had.

        I was, too. The re-appearance of that withdrawn comment made it appear to Councilor Buckheit as if I had commented again, when we had agreed to meet F2F to discuss our differing opinions on this matter.

        I asked Griff to explain, here, but he had not… maybe off riding his mountain bike in this snow free time… so I felt it necessary to do it myself.

      • 23.1.2
        Griff Wigley says:

        Hey Kiffi, yes indeed, I was mountain biking all day Saturday. I’m glad you posted this explanation. I still don’t know how your comment got reposted. I see there’s a WordPress upgrade alert so maybe there’s a software glitch but more than likely it was my goof.

        Again, my apologies. I can see how this inadvertently created problems for you in your discussions with Betsey and I regret that.

  • 24

    Kiffi, I must disagree strongly.

    Councilors Nakasian and Ganey were the most vocal and they spoke passionately, forcefully and completely respectfully about their concerns about the process which is proposed and its consequences. I share their concerns and added my continued fear of the danger of sending the proposed amendment to the voters in its current form. Councilor Imm identified a possible practical effect of such an amendment of discouraging people to run for office.

    The “major problem” is not as you stated, Kiffi. Instead, the problem is the particular process proposed and what it compels the City to do without protection from frivolous complaints, political pressure or cost as well as whether any such process should be in the Charter at all.

    Here is the proposed amendment:

    Section 15.31 Board of Ethics.
    The City Council shall, by resolution, establish an ad hoc Board of Ethics whenever a written complaint is made by a citizen to the Mayor and City Clerk that an elected or appointed office-holder, or city administrator, or department director has violated a code of ethics or engaged in a conflict of interest. The resolution shall name three (3) citizens to serve as members of the Board of Ethics, appointed by the Mayor with the approval of the City Council. If the complaint does not involve or otherwise implicate a member of the City Council, the Board of Ethics may consist of one or more City Council members. Insofar as possible under state law, the resolution shall authorize the Board of Ethics to issue binding advisory opinions, conduct investigations on its own initiative, subpoena witnesses and documents, refer cases for prosecution, and hire independent counsel. The City Council shall appropriate sufficient funds to the Board of Ethics to enable it to perform its duties.

    • 24.1
      Kathie Galotti says:

      Betsy,

      I’m sympathetic--very much so--to the point that we don’t want to have so broad a policy as to invite every local nut job to start creating havoc with frivolous ethics complaints requiring investigation and hearings.

      However, esp. given Northfield’s recent history with Mayor Lansing, Administrator Roder, the prayer ladies given secret access to the city administrator’s office, etc. etc. etc.—it seems to me that some sort of process IS needed to address legitimate ethical inquiries.

      It would be more credible for the City Council to reject this proposal if there were some mechanism in place to come up with such a process.

      Instead, it seems like the point is simply to guard against having any sort of ethics process.

      • 24.1.1
        kiffi summa says:

        Kathie: Since the beginning of this discussion, and that is now two years plus at the Charter Commission, I have felt that it would be very difficult to construct a process that was not easily abused.

        However, your last sentence: “Instead, it seems like the point is simply to guard against having any sort of ethics process.” was exactly where I felt the Council positioned itself, and that was an equally disturbing situation.

        At one point Mayor Rossing said to Peter Dahlen when he replied to a point made: You’re not here to argue; you’re here to listen to our concerns.

        But I did not find their concerns to be expressed as ways to satisfy a need and make it work, only to insist there are adequate processes in place, and this is not needed; i.e., more defensive than thoughtful, and I will continue to say, expressed in a very disrespectful way because of the total dismissiveness of the basic idea.

      • 24.1.2
        Kathie Galotti says:

        Kiffi-

        I don’t follow city council as closely as I do the school board, so I take your reports as you post them. The few members of it I know personally al strike me as decent, hard-working, civic-minded folk. So it’s all the more frustrating when they SEEM to be adopting some sort of “go to the bunkers” mentality. And, I’m not a big fan of the “stalling through nitpicking” strategy that I see so often used by governmental and quasi-governmental agencies….Come on people! Let’s FIX the problems--not sweep them under a rug!

  • 25
    kiffi summa says:

    On a more general related issue, what is the venue for something like an ethics board to be discussed so that when the Public Hearing is held, there are citizens there to offer their opinions?

    Very few Public Hearings have many attendees voicing their opinions to the Council; a subject like amending the Charter should be important enough to draw some response.

    Unfortunately, our local newspaper does not take such a discussion into the depth it deserves, IMO, for the general public to be informed.

    I’m not sure this is a good place for discussion of such complicated content, either.

    So… I would personally hope that people who are interested in the topic, i.e. the creation of a citizen board to hear ethics complaints, one that is free of Council/administrative influence, would first watch the archived January 3 Council meeting on KYMN; it is indexed so that you can watch only the portion in which you are interested.

    Again, in my opinion, the most crucial part is developing a process which would allow questions to come up, be dismissed if they are “frivolous”, but followed up if not negligable.

  • 26
    Stephanie Henriksen says:

    I have been out of the loop since my injuries, but I am following the Charter Commission proposal for an Ethics Board. I agree with Peter Daehlen (sp) that we need something in place. I have to read the proposed language--is it posted on this thread? And the memorandum from the city attorney.

    If the majority on the Council don’t like the wording, why aren’t they working on their own version? Or is it to be “all or nothing”?

  • 27
    Patrick Enders says:

    The Charter Commission’s proposal was posted by Councillor Buckheit in Post 24, above, but here it is again:

    Section 15.31 Board of Ethics.
    The City Council shall, by resolution, establish an ad hoc Board of Ethics whenever a written complaint is made by a citizen to the Mayor and City Clerk that an elected or appointed office-holder, or city administrator, or department director has violated a code of ethics or engaged in a conflict of interest. The resolution shall name three (3) citizens to serve as members of the Board of Ethics, appointed by the Mayor with the approval of the City Council. If the complaint does not involve or otherwise implicate a member of the City Council, the Board of Ethics may consist of one or more City Council members. Insofar as possible under state law, the resolution shall authorize the Board of Ethics to issue binding advisory opinions, conduct investigations on its own initiative, subpoena witnesses and documents, refer cases for prosecution, and hire independent counsel. The City Council shall appropriate sufficient funds to the Board of Ethics to enable it to perform its duties.

    http://locallygrownnorthfield.org/post/23666/comment-page-1/#comment-232762

    I have taken the liberty of highlighting a couple of the most remarkable parts of the Charter Commission’s proposal: 1) that future Councils would be compelled to create an independent investigative body to investigate each and every written complaint of an alleged ethics violation, regardless of any consideration of merit or frivolousness, and 2) that the body so created would be given free power to subpoena witnesses, hire lawyers, and issue binding advisory opinions.

    Ms. Buckheit also points to several additional concerns, again in post 24.

    It really is a remarkably open-ended proposal, rife for abuse.

  • 28
    Stephanie Henriksen says:

    Thanks, Patrick. Has the memorandum from Attorney Chris Hood been posted somewhere?

    Some of the Charter Commission members, I understand, are also attorneys. Surely, they crafted the language with problems you cite in mind. Have you spoken with any of them personally?

    And again, why isn’t the Council working on a more palatable version?

    • 28.1
      Patrick Enders says:

      Stephanie,

      I have not had time to speak to members of the Charter Commission on this issue, and it hardly seems necessary given that their proposal is not going anywhere at the moment.

      However, when making an amendment to the city charter, it doesn’t matter what someone claims to be the intent of the amendment. What matters is: what, exactly, does the amendment say? I don’t see any text there which might address the obvious concerns of the Council. According to Councillor Buckheit, above, the Councillors don’t see it, either.

  • 29
    Stephanie Henriksen says:

    Even if Council votes it down, it can still go to a public referendum (?) if the Commission chooses that route, right?

  • 30
    Patrick Enders says:

    Stephanie,
    If they choose to try to do so, perhaps you should ask the Commission members why they would want to push this particular, peculilarly-crafted proposal?

    The merits (or lack thereof) of their proposal seem quite obvious to me, and I’m faily certain how I will vote if it ever comes to that.

  • 31
    kiffi summa says:

    Just to answer some questions, Stephanie and Patrick:
    1. The Charter Commission is by statute allowed to take any proposed amendment to the citizenry for a vote, with or without the Council’s approval.

    2. The Council is Not working on their own wording because they stated that they think there are adequate protections in place.

    3. The Charter Commission, which by the way voted unanimously to present this to the Council, does not believe any Council should have sole discretion of whether or not to pursue an ethics violation claim, as they may have political motivation to not do so.

    4. The Charter Commission member who prepared the text is a practicing attorney, an arbitration expert, and spent two years researching various ethics board structures across the US , and as implemented by various sizes of government units.

    5. The attorney memo may be attached to the December 1 City Council Packet, if it came in on time for the packet delivery, prior to the meeting. However, it did not speak to the merits of the proposal, only to the timeline/process the Council is obligated to follow by state statute. The Council has not authorized a full legal review.

  • 32
    Stephanie Henriksen says:

    I obtained a copy of the 5-pg Flaherty and Hood memorandum which has a good list of questions on the proposed amendment they would address if they were asked to do a legal review. I think the ethics matter is important enough that this should be done.

    On page 5, they say “We recommend that the public hearing not take place until our legal review of the proposed charter amendment is completed in order for the public hearing to be as informative as possible, and that our office be given adequate time to review the amendment.”

    Perhaps Northfield Council does not desire full airing of this matter before the public on Jan. 17, since most members have their minds made up. Reminds me of the public hearing on the need for an EAW on the building plan for the historic Holy Cross Church site on April 25. A Dundas Council member asked the city attorney what she thought and she said she had not been asked to look into the matter. The Rejoice argument against the EAW was well represented in the Council packet and missing documents on the other side were not brought forward. Dundas Council went ahead and voted 4-1 against the need for the EAW.

    • 32.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Stephanie: The Council had plenty of time to get a legal review, as their attorneys advised them, if they had not ‘dragged their feet’ when the proposal was first presented by the Charter Commission.

      They don’t want this; they made that clear with their comments. They feel that the sections of City Code that deal with ethics are adequate. They do not want the right to decide what should be followed up on to be taken out of their hands.

      From the beginning of this discussion, I have said that there is great possibility for abuse in a process like this IF it is not made as fool proof as possible; but the Council has shown no inclination to work on it to everyone’s satisfaction.

      There has been no discussion venue that has been adequate for the public to have much of an informed opinion; I can’t imagine of what use the Public Hearing will be.

      I hold to my original criticism: that the joint meeting, Council and Charter Commission, on January Third, was a great discredit to this Council; they are too smart to treat the equally serious Charter Commission members with disdain, disrespect and ridicule… but in my opinion they did.

      This Council has been criticized by one of their own members who alleged that they had illegal meetings, alleged that in complaints to the newspaper, and never spoke of it in a council setting… and the Council who was accused refused to ever have a public airing of this accusation for the 9 or so months following.

      I frankly do not believe those accusations, but I do believe that such statements cannot be ignored; furthermore , I believe it was disrespectful to the electorate to ignore those statements.

      If those accusations were not true,(and again, I do notfind them plausible) but were in some way a ‘political’ maneuver meant to discredit those of differing opinions, then I think that must be cleared up, or it forever lingers.

      That alone, aside from the past cases cited by Peter Dahlen, would be enough to show the need for some kind of ethics procedure which can be brought by a citizen, and is outside the Council’s, any Council’s, control as to whether it will be heard or not.

      I really can’t imagine how this will end up, but I do not think the ‘High Road’ is anywhere but in the ‘sunshine’.

  • 33
    kiffi summa says:

    Watched last night’s Council meeting… unless there is some ‘straight talk”, this situation with the Charter Commission is going to be a long, drawn out mess just like the extenuated EDA discussion.

    There were statements made by councilors last night that I do not think can be justified as factual: (these are not in quotes because they are close, but not complete)

    Example: they (ChartComm) didn’t listen to our suggestions…
    IMO: this refers to the joint meeting where the council made NO specific suggestions, and indeed when one councilor touted the MN League of Cities doc, and was then asked by Peter Dahlen if that councilor could “champion” that wording, the councilor said No, absolutely not.

    Example: …8 concerns by attorney (City’s) made it (Ethics proposal) not viable…
    IMO: it is a fact that there has not been a full legal review by the City Attorney. the “8 concerns” were a list on the attorney’s December procedure memo to the Council of the types of issues they would look at IF authorized to do a legal review of content.

    Example: …just got policy tonight … timing off … because of timing set by Charter Commission…
    IMO: The Charter Commission itself has no control of ‘timing’ ; that is set by statute, and the city’s attorney has given that timeline to the Council several times, and told them they had to adhere to those statutory guidelines.

    So my point here is that the ‘attitude’ expressed to the ChartComm., by some council members, is the same as it was at the joint work session, when the Mayor told Peter Dahlen that the Charter Commission was not there to argue with the council, but to listen to the Council’s suggestions.

    Again, there were no concrete suggestions, only admonition to find another proposal that was more to the Council’s liking.
    There have been charter commission members, who have since the beginning of this discussion said they were willing to have a thorough discussion with the Council, in hope of arriving at a mutual agreed to mechanism ; it cannot be done when the Charter Commission is directed to move ‘off point’, but the Council, by their own evidence of lack of real suggestions (not the political ‘spin’ which then follows immediately after criticism) has not budged an inch.

    More succinctly, :-) , if a proposal is offered to an entity, then it is not good enough to say you don’t like the proposal; to continue the dialogue ,one must offer an alternative.

  • 34
    Kathie Galotti says:

    From Kiffi;

    More succinctly, , if a proposal is offered to an entity, then it is not good enough to say you don’t like the proposal; to continue the dialogue ,one must offer an alternative.

    Agreed. Just not liking something, if it’s important to you, is insufficient. The Council is not behaving responsibly on this issue, it seems.

  • 35
    kiffi summa says:

    where, o where, are we heading?

    The article in the NFNews about the firefighters request to meet with the Council, and the Mayor’s response is sooooooooooo disheartening!

    I hope the entire fire dept turns up at the next open mic and each of them speaks their mind; this has gone on too long. What is it they want to say that the Mayor does not want discussed in a public meeting?
    Once again there’s that big dark crevasse ‘under the rug’ … don’t people realize that the longer you refuse a public discussion, the more rumor and supposition will prevail?

    Enough, already!

  • 36
    kiffi summa says:

    A very interesting article in the Jan.30th New Yorker magazine on the nature of the dynamics of creative discussion; it’s entitled “Groupthink; the brainstorming myth”.

    Based on studies done by a psych professor at UCBerkeley, it purports to ‘prove’ that brainstorming is ineffective if criticism or debate about suggestions are not allowed.

    From the article: “Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas, but , rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition”.
    and: “Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it (imagination) can thrive on conflict”.
    also: “There’s this Pollyanna-ish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is to stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she (Prof Nemeth) says. “Well, that’s just wrong. maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive.”

    This flies in the face of what people have said about NF’s preferred ‘don’t make waves’ culture … i.e., The EDA should not have members who are considered to be minority rabblerousers because they raise issues,the Mayor should not tell the Charter Commission they are meeting with the Council not to argue but to listen to suggestions (although there are no suggestions) etc. etc. etc….

    Sounds to me like the Council should talk to the Fire department, after doing a good bit of listening!

    • 36.1
      john george says:

      Kiffi- This is a good article, and I agree with most of it. Just thinking about my kids in their youth, there was always some conflict between them, but our goal as parents wasn’t to force them into some weiner form but to help them understand diverse observations and be able to come to agreement. What we didn’t allow was character defamation. I think the same principles apply to adult discussions. As far as the conflict within the council and their relationships with the various departments, if conflict is actually constructive, then we should have all kinds of things accomplished. The fact that there are decisions to be made that have languished on the table for some time would seem to indicate that something else is needed.

      • 36.1.1
        kiffi summa says:

        The issue could be considered to be: what is “conflict”, and what are two sides of a discussion…

        see #33 re: the Mayor’s admonition to Peter Dahlen at the joint Council/ChartComm meeting.
        I don’t see how “actually constructive” ‘dialogue’ can occur when that kind of putdown precludes the exchange of ideas.

      • 36.1.2
        john george says:

        You are correct. That is why I didn’t allow my children to attack the character of their siblings just to support their position. There do need to be some kind of ground rules in any discussion so as to keep individual expectations in line with reality. IMO, it is best to have these laid before the discussion starts rather than appearing to switch horses in mid stream. What these should do is keep emotions in check so that the focus can be on the issues. One would hope that adults would be able to do that, but I have been in many meetings with adults where the emotional response to the discussion has hampered, and even eleminated the possibility of, agreement.

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