Is the city’s Charter partially to blame for the woes at City Hall?

Al Roder and Lee Lansing Northfield News publisher Sam Gett and managing editor Jaci Smith make the argument in an editorial on Saturday that it’s the City Charter’s vagueness about executive branch functions that are contributing to the power struggle between Mayor Lee Lansing and City Administrator Al Roder. (Photo of Roder and Lansing is from an NDDC forum in March, 2006. The Northfield City Charter can be found on the Municode site.)

Jon DenisonA related issue initially surfaced back in September when Councilor Jon Denison asked the Charter Commission (Alex Beeby, Peter Dahlen, David Emery, Jayne Hager Dee, Dan Hofrenning, Mary Savina, Elaine Thurston) to change the mayor’s agenda-setting authority. See the paper’s story on this.

I’m clueless about the Charter so this seems like a good time to get more informed about it.

32 thoughts on “Is the city’s Charter partially to blame for the woes at City Hall?”

  1. As anyone one who has watched Yes Minister knows – bureaucrats have a great deal of influence in democracies. However City Administrator Al Roder does not constitute a “branch” of government. Power sharing branches do not exist within the city like they do at the state and federal government levels because running the city should Just not be that hard.

    Many in Northfield would like to think of the place like Northfieldilvania but the fact is Northfield is a city within a county within a state within a federal system. Keep garbage from piling up, put out fires and pay obsessive attention to signage and you are pretty well good. Anyone who cares to be elected to local government has inherent conflicts of interest. Everyone voting for them knows these conflicts of interest and factors these into their personal voting decision. So when the issue arises that something new (like a Muni move) needs to happen around Division St – everyone who voted for Lee probably did not expect him to say “well for sure don’t do that around my hardware store!”

    Most of his constitutes likely figured that if something is good for Lee then it’s good for Northfield. As long as Lee buys his expensive cigars at Tiny’s and repairs his limo at Churchhills then benefiting from public policy probably would get him reelected. This is the absolute beauty of local elections, cities do not need to waste money and time on fancy lawyers and special investigators to thwart the obvious will of the people.

  2. Griff: The Charter is a clear document written in accessible language. You should read it, before you make any judgments about its efficacy.
    I personally believe the editorial is wrong; I think it is another instance of their one sided opinion/reporting.
    The overarching statement is that the Mayor is “the Chief Executive officer” of the city; the rest is details of responsibilities.
    The charter is not meant to go into details; those are in the city code. The charter is meant to give direction as to intent, much like the US Constitution, rather than deal with each little specific situation.
    Some of the adjustments both to the Mayoral and City Adminstrator sections, that were done in the last few years, are probably getting a little bit too specific in defining roles. I believe they were done in a “tad” too reactionary mode.
    Anyone can read the Charter, and understand it; it’s not like trying to muddle through the city code or state statutes.
    Try it; you’ll like it!

  3. I think that we need to stop looking for someone to blame for all our troubles and a magic elixir to cure all our ills. First it was popular to blame the Mayor, next scapegoat was the Council, now it seems to be the City Administrator. First the solution was to force out the Mayor, then the fix was to sue the Council, now the panacea is to fix the Charter.

    I share my opinion on this topic with hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens: put the liquor store on the back burner. Stop focusing so much time and energy on assigning guilt and pointing fingers. Use the $3,000,000 in the 2008 for the liquor store for higher priorities (PDF).

    We should all take responsibility for our role in creating the present situation, focus on the five plus or minus two most important priorities (challenges or opportunities), set aside our petty differences, and work together to achieve our goals.

  4. Well said, Ross. If I’m not mistaken, the council is going to take a belated, but welcome first step with their November 26 meeting devoted to the capitol projects. According to Ms McBride, they willl have a facilitator, Mark Ruff, to walk them through the process.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the rules; the problem is the players. My observation is that when a governing body is disfunctional, the staff is free to run things as they deem best, which is another way of saying the public oversight can be totally lacking. There is nothing in the Charter or Ordinances which can fix that. The responsibility is on the council to get their act together and get on with the city’s business.

  5. Jane, you’ve watched City process for a number of years now, and I think you’ve provided an accurate diagnosis of the current symptoms. I’ll repeat it again for emphasis because I agree completely and couldn’t have said it better:

    My observation is that when a governing body is dysfunctional, the staff is free to run things as they deem best, which is another way of saying the public oversight can be totally lacking. There is nothing in the Charter or Ordinances which can fix that.

  6. I have two comments. First, the Charter is just a document. Documents are rarely effective in prescribing how people should relate to each other. I doubt that “fixing the charter” is going to solve the current problems within our city government.

    Second, I think the News editorial has some validity. You may recall that a few years ago, Northfielders rejected a referundum brought by the Charter Commission that would have moved Northfield to a “city manager” form of government. As a result of the failure of the referundum, the Charter Commission and the City Council patched together language in the charter and city ordinances that transferred most responsibilities to a city administrator, but left some powers to the mayor. We thought we were fulfilling the wishes of the voters. If the present distribution of power between the administrator and the mayor is not workable, I (as a member of the Charter Commission) need some guidance from the voters. Which way do you want us to move–to a city manager, or back to a stronger role for the mayor?

  7. I heartily second Jane Mac’s comments. And let me observe that a part of our problem may be that our new city administrator has either never understood or does not want to accept the fact that he is not hired and is not expected to function as a city manager. The voters of Northfield rejected that possibility six or seven year ago. The Charter is clear enough for those who want to honor it. Our current councilors did take an oath to honor that document.
    Can someone explain to me why sharing responsibility for proposing an agenda is such a difficult concept? It seems to overwhelm our administrator , please explain.
    Elaine Thurston

  8. I will no longer point fingers, but one thing I will do is be extremely wise about who I vote for. I want someone to represent me as a citizen & make decisions that is best for our community now and in the future.

    I am waiting to see who the warrior will be that will rise above all the smoke & ashes and lead us on to a greater future. Northfield has always been a great community, and I long to see it rise up and be a example for other communties.


  9. Lisa- I’m not sure there is one person who can be the “warrior … that will rise above all the smoke & ashes and lead us on to a greater future.” (Although I do know of One who is presently doing just that.) I would hope that we as a community can come to agreement and proceed onward. I don’t even think we need to “get rid” of anyone to do that, but, perhaps, I have too much hope in people being able to lay their differences aside and make decisions for the greater good. For that to happen, everyone involved needs to assume a selfless attitude. That will take a change of heart and a commitment to be pragmatic and not selfish, and that takes humility.

  10. I saw this article on today. The headline reads “Wanted: Workers who play well with others.” It seems that skills are not the only thing employers are looking for. As we can see by the state of our local government today, the business world is not the only place where people skills are anvantageous.

    I could not help think of our education system when I read this article. With so much focus on academic achievment in our public schools, it is good to remember that there are also other qualities we need to encourage in our children.

  11. As David Emery said, the Charter is a piece of paper; a document. It can no more willfully, or certainly, control behavior than can a speed limit sign.
    The speed limit sign analogy is a good one, because things are out of control at city hall, and the power struggles are “Full speed ahead”.
    We cannot continue to allow what the public perceives as “cover-ups”; I’m tired of council and staff hiding behind lawsuit or investigation issues. They can choose to have every meeting be open if they agree to those rules; lots of luck … they don’t even release summaries of the content of their closed meetings, and that is required by law.
    The public was pretty darn mad at the Nov. 1 special meeting; that’s not just me, but the 16-20 people who chose to comment.
    Did you hear it make a difference?
    Did anyone say they were sorry?
    Did they give any information that was not even MORE limiting, as to forthcoming facts from investigations?

    And please, don’t say it was not the “public” who was there; It was the public, as represented by those citizens of this community who chose to come and listen in person, or to speak. For those who choose to say the public who speaks, speaks not for them … well, then show up and speak for yourself.
    Thank you.

  12. Griff and Tracy: You didn’t say why Alex is no longer following LG; since you put it on this thread, is it because of this discussion? Did you find out why he’s no longer following LG before you perpetrated such violence on the poor fellow?
    Tracy, I’m shocked at your reported behavior !!!

  13. You all…

    Not ever thinking of putting words in Alex Beeby’s mouth – still, in a very casual conversation I had with Alex – I believe he said (or implied) – his reading of LG has tapered off due to its mass of material he found not too interesting… (NOT TOO INTERESTING – are my words)

    In any event, I definitely felt Alex was saying to me, “the information he received… was not worth the time necessary to follow LG”.

    I’m not saying this to put LG down – not at all. I wouldn’t have to quote another, to make my charge on the blog… but, He’s busy, works, goes to school, has kids (2 or is it 3?) and simply is not at this time allocating any of his spare spare-time, to follow LG threads as they meander on or off course.

    As one casually stands in line waiting for a subway, perusing the News is easier, than a read of LG. That makes sense.

    Nothing sinister here – simply a best use of time, decision.

    As we’ve read, Alex commented to the N’Fld News in response to an article they published – correcting information the News felt compelled to disperse.

    What perhaps is interesting to note -sociologically speaking, is, the usual suspects who comment on LG… are seldom seen in print in the Nfld News Opinion pages… and as Kiffi often points out… seldom appear at the City Council’s Open mic, giving credence to Griff’s sense: many have something to say – but evidently feel uncomfortable saying it in public. Hmmmmm?

    Perhaps as another thread explored, there’s fear of the public’s wrath.

  14. “Woes at City Hall” are being discussed tonight t the council meeting, as they receive a proposal from the mediation team …What will the CC do? Will “it” be effective?

    Just so it “fits” the thread… there is also an amendment to the hospital section of the charter on the agenda tonight. The council must approve it unanimously for it to be adopted; two options if they do not unanimously approve,send it back to charter commission, or charter commission can take it to public vote.

  15. There is a new and fascinating “twist” to the interaction of the council and the Charter Commission…
    Here’s a quote from the 12.26.07 NF News:
    “City councilors have taken the unusual step of asking to look at a Charter Commission letter before it’s sent to residents.
    The commission, an independent group whose members are appointed by a district court judge, has no oversight from the council.”

    I think the words which raise a serious questions here are “unusual”, “independent”, and “no oversight”.

    Further on in the article this statement appears: “While other city boards and commissions have sent similar mailings without getting council approval, Roder said it’s the charter commission’s independence that necessitates the oversight.”

    The charter commissions “independence that necessitates the oversight”…
    Hmmm… sounding a little like 1984 , and we are sooo way past that; at least I had thought so.

    Does this concern about “independence” mean that all other boards and commissions are not independent thinkers… No way! I am very proud of the fact that NF has all these citizen boards and Commissions; that reflects the level of involvement people in this town wish to have, in order to keep citizens’ strongly held values in front of the community, and its city council.

    I strongly hope that this council “review” does not impact negatively on either the council’s credibility, or that of this court appointed body of diligent citizens.

  16. In today’s Nfld News: City attorney, Charter Comm. at odds over request Commission has questions about citizen’s questions

    A letter from city attorney Maren Swanson to members of the Charter Commission could signal the start of yet another political tug-of-war. In a Dec. 21 letter, Swanson tells commission members that their request for answers pertaining to city engineering contracts is outside the commission’s scope and that she has recommended that the council not respond to the questions expected to come before it Monday night.

  17. Griff: It should be noted that the link to the other docs from that article, attorney Swanson’s letter, etc., come up as”page not found” on the papers online site.

  18. Griff: I get the distinct feeling that the newspaper doesn’t “like” me: I’d rather not correct them again.

    I have been critical of what I perceive to be their bias, and on two issues re: their website ( 1. the initial problem of a hyperlink opening to each e-mail address of a submitter of comment and 2. their permission of anonymous on-line comment submissions, when that is not allowed policy on letters to the editor).

    Why don’t you do it?, especially since it was your link…….

  19. Kiffi, I wonder about the paper not “liking” you. I think it’s hard for some people to get printed, while others easily find space, and I wonder if it has to do with political leanings.

    Take this last Saturday’s editorial. I read a hint of “threat” in there… did anyone else, or was it along the lines of being a good citizen?

    “Congratulations, and good luck. Because, rest assured, we will hold you and your colleagues accountable.”

    At least I wondered if they would have said the same thing if Ray would have won.

  20. Holly,
    Sam Gett came on as publisher after the last election, and Jaci Smith came on as managing editor last fall. I didn’t read a threat in the words you quoted, just the usual hard line from editors who want readers to know they are going to go all mushy just because they congratulated him.
    There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about how the newspaper business works, which is very, very common and understandable. Trust me, decisions almost never involve as much coordinated strategy and deliberation as most people think.
    Read back over every post on any of these threads and you can see people misunderstanding each other’s comments all the time. Getting your thoughts out in a way that’s absolutely clear, detailed, brief and on deadline is an amazing juggling act.
    It might be a great idea for someone to invite the paper to do a town hall meeting or an informal Q & A session some time. It’s really an interesting business…

  21. Jane McWilliams included these comments in her LWV blog post about this week’s City Council meeting where Charter Commission was discussed:

    Two communications from the Charter Commission were tabled for further study. One was an information item informing the council that the commission would send a letter to residents in the next city utility bill mailing. Councilman Cashman explained that the commission is not an advisory board or commission. It is considered an independent political subdivision and doesn’t go through the same channels as other boards.  He said the council has a responsibility for what goes out in the water bills. (The League had gone to the commission to suggest that they and the League work together to inform the public of the charter’s contents. The commission took on the job of drafting the letter. The League may work on  additional ways to educate the citizens about this document.)

    The other commission request was for answers to questions about whether the City has violated the charter, whether the charter is clear or unclear and needs amendment. The issue arose when a citizen, Dave Maroney, appeared before the commission alleging that the city had violated portions of the charter in hiring as City Engineer a shareholder and employee of a company which was doing road construction for the city. At issue is whether the commission has authority to take on matters like this one. An advisory letter from City Attorney Swanson was mentioned, but not seen by the observer,  which said it was outside the authority of the commission.

     Kathy E. Tezla, president of the League of Women Voters Northfield/Cannon Falls, has a letter to the editor in today’s Nfld News.

    Our recent initiative with the Northfield Charter Commission, suggesting that the commission write a letter to the public encouraging residents to become familiar with the content of the charter and ordinances, is part of that ongoing commitment. The LWV plans follow-up opportunities for community education about government issues in the coming year with the goal of promoting the kind of informed political involvement on which a healthy democracy depends.

    And for reference, Charter Commission Chair Alex Beeby appeared on our Locally Grown radio show/podcast last November

  22. This was a great discussion Monday night. The council invited Charter Commission Chair Alex Beebe to have a joint work session including the council and commission to discuss how the two groups should interact. The councilors acknowledged that while the commission is a separate subdivision of the state, it might be good for the city to appropriate a budget so the commission can send out educational materials to the public. They also discussed the questions brought by a citizen to the charter commission and while they didn’t think the commission’s role included investigating the council, they agreed to discuss at the work session how to deal with such issues in the future.
    All in all, a very respectful effort to open an ongoing dialogue with the commission.

  23. In today’s Nfld News: Charter Commission official seeks meeting.

    Alex Beeby says when the Charter Commission meets Tuesday he will recommend it sit down with the city council to work through several councilors’ concerns. The commission chair said he believes the commission needs to steer clear of the controversy that’s enveloping Northfield. “I think it’s what we need to do,” he said.

  24. In today’s Nfld News, Suzy Rook has an article titled: Council to charter group: Edit letter or pay up.

    While the Charter Commission is an autonomous board, some councilors felt the council should approve the letter because the city is paying to mail it out. Councilors on Monday asked the commission to take out large chunks of the letter, including specifics phrases quoting the charter.

    We’ve had other discussion on the Charter here.


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