Ross Currier says there’s been a 180 degree change in the attitudinal culture of City staff

City of NorthfieldWhile I was gone, NDDC Executive Director and former LoGro blogger Ross Currier posted this comment to a 2007 blog post of his titled Is Northfield Business-Friendly?

I’m elevating it from a comment to a blog post because A) I agree with him; and B) it’s a big deal.

Ross CurrierGriff has suggested in several recent comments that my overall evaluation of City staff may have changed. Actually, my valuation system hasn’t changed. However, over the past eighteen months, there’s been quite a bit of staff turnover down at City Hall.

I haven’t attended any of what I’ve heard to be excellent Candidate Forums at the Contented Cow. From what I’ve heard, one of the most-promised deliverables by the candidates is to “increase the business-friendliness” of Northfield. Apparently, it’s repeated like a slogan, something along the lines of “I’m for Mom, Apple Pie, and Increasing Business-Friendliness”. However, there has been very little definition of “business-friendliness” and even less on specific steps to take in order to increase it.

I’ll offer one definition of “business-friendliness”: a good attitude. In this specific case, I’m thinking of the attitude of City staff. Most the staff I’ve worked with down at City Hall over the past eight years have been great; more importantly, they have that good attitude that is a key component of “business-friendliness”.

Most of my work has been with the “worker bees”. If the City’s organizational structure is a pyramid, I’m working with the folks down at that rock-solid base of the pyramid. In thinking about the staff turnover over the past eighteen months, most of it has been at or near the top of the pyramid.

In my opinion, the staff members who departed from the higher strata of the City staff pyramid over the past eighteen months (or so) did not have that good attitude. I don’t wish to be overly dramatic, but with the City staff who departed, the City staff who were added, the City staff who were (at least on an interim basis) elevated, and the City staff who had been there for a couple of decades and were finally recognized for their long-standing good attitudes, there has been, in my experience, what feels like a 180 degree change in the, let’s call it, attitudinal culture of City staff.

The four “newer” Councilors, Buckheit, Ganey, Nakasian, and Zweifel, have been frequently criticized, at least by specific segments of the population, about their approach to economic development. They have been accused of being stuck in amber, trying to turn a lawnmower into a go-kart (which, frankly, made me think of Steve Jobs, who tried (successfully) to turn a telephone into multi-media device), and, most remarkably, “mean”.

Now, I admit, I generally limit (in fact I work hard to limit) my observations of the City Council to those times where they are discussing issues that have substantive impacts of areas or functions for which I believe I have some interest or responsibility. However, I have observed several instances in which some or all of the four “newer” Councilors were accused of being “mean”. At the risk of generalizing, the majority of these instances, in my opinion, seemed to be based on situations in which the Councilors were accused of being “mean” to City staff.

“Mean”, in my opinion, was not the appropriate word to use. In my personal observations of this handful of instances, it seemed to me that the Councilors had requested information from City staff at a previous meeting and City staff had not delivered the information, or at least not in the format or to the level of the Councilors’ expectations. Perhaps a better word might have been “tough” or “demanding” or even just “following up”.

It is interesting to me that the City staff members who were subject to this alleged Council “meanness” are the same City staff members who have moved on. Yes, that’s right, these victims of “meanness” were the same City staff members whom I, personally, thought lacked good attitudes.

So, were these Councilors “mean” to the staff with bad attitudes and “nice” to the staff with good attitudes? Perhaps it could be considered effective management, enforcing a policy requiring good attitudes.

Perhaps it is a management strategy shared by the chief of operations, in the last eighteen months, City Administrator Madigan. Certainly he has been clear from the beginning about his expectations for the attitudinal culture of the City staff.

Perhaps most importantly, there appears to be more agreement between a majority of the Council and a majority of staff on attitudinal culture at City Hall. From my perspective, over the past eighteen months, this certainly has been a rapidly and clearly emerging trend.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. After all, I’ve only had my current level of involvement with City staff for the past eight years. Perhaps six and a half years of a bad attitudinal culture and a year and a half of good attitudinal culture is not an adequate period of observation from which to draw a conclusion.

Then again, maybe there is a connection. Maybe the “newer” Councilors’ “meanness”, or “demanding” management style, or simple “following up” and the City Administrator’s “severity”, or “clarity” of expectations, or simple “following up” has played a role, perhaps even a key role, in the 180 change in attitudinal culture of City staff.

In which case, perhaps I owe them my thanks for the recent, steady, even dramatic increase, at least in my experience, of the “business-friendliness” in Northfield. Oh, and I guess I owe my thanks to Griff for pointing it out to me.

21 comments to  (Including 5 Discussion Threads) Ross Currier says there’s been a 180 degree change in the attitudinal culture of City staff

  • 1
    Ross Currier says:

    Wow, I’ve been elevated.

    By the way, who is that old guy in the photo?

  • 2
    David Ludescher says:

    Ross and Griff,

    I don’t have much contact with the staff so I can’t comment on its “friendliness”, but I think this Council is almost hostile to businsses. The current City Council has gutted the EDA, put no effort into the business park concept, and ignores the Chamber.

    What has the Council in general, or the Carleton Club (Gainey, Zweifel, Buckheit, and Nakasian) specifically done which you would consider to be business-friendly?

    • 2.1
      kiffi summa says:

      David: I think when you make statements like: “…this Council is almost hostile to businsses” (sic), you need to be a bit more specific than your three phrases in the following sentence.

      IMO, 1. re: the EDA … it “gutted” itself by functioning so poorly, and so personally that it got rid of the two members who were trying, against all odds, to get it back on a legal and productive path. The Council not able to deal wth the personalities involved that were mis-behaving, took a broader way out by looking at the entire organization, instead of the Staff responsible, and the mal-functioning Executive committee who were holding the full EDA board hostage by their tactics.

      2. Re: Biz Park: There was an enormous amount of effort and $$$ put into the Business Park “concept” and that is just the base of the problem… it can only be a “concept” … because there is no money for the development of the infrastructure that would make it more appealing to inquiries for land.
      Where do you think those 100′s of thousands of dollars, millions actually, are going to come from?
      So there’s a very thoughtful, well developed “concept” and no ability to move further at this point.
      What specific effort do you think the Council should put forth now?

      3. Re: the Chamber and whether or not the Council ignores it….I have seen the Council bring the Chamber in to discussion much more than in the past, in discussions about the CVB, in discussions with the EDA and its partners , just for starts.
      But there is one thing that you just don’t get: the Chamber is not representative of all business investment in Northfield. Maybe the Chamber will be able to grow itself stronger in the future, but there are a lot of $$$ invested in Northfield business by people that do not belong to the Chamber.

      And I will re-iterate something I have said several times before, and that is that one hears a lot of grumbling at Chamber forums in one-on-one conversations, but they don’t get expressed in much better than a mixed message when being addressed to the Council.

      Here’s a statistic I would like the numbers for: Of all the businesses and commercial building owners in NF (what is that total number?) how many are members of the Chamber of Commerce?

      Sorry, if my questions/comments sound harsh, but I am soooooooo tired of the “NF is not business friendly” line being delivered without specifics; I would hope the candidates who are all mouthing this ‘mantra’ will be getting some specific, factual examples.

    • 2.2
      David Ludescher says:

      Kiffi,

      1. The EDA -- the EDA is a statutory authority, not a committee, commission, or task force. The Council should not be telling them what to do or how to do it. Period.
      2. The “business park” -- My main point is that development has to be a possibility; any person who wants to move to town can; but there is an attitude we should businesses to those that “we” want. So, the Council should: first, get rid of the mixed-use requirement, second, consider how the infrastructure can be developed without cost to the City, (two options are to let companies build their own sewer and water until there is enough mass to pay for an extension or do what we did for the hospital.) third, open up a conversation with those who know something about development, e.g. Malt-O-Meal, College City Beverage, the hospital developers, and St. Olaf.
      3. Business-friendliness -- Let me give you an example of business-unfriendliness. We have a 300 page land development code. Here is another one -- the Historical Preservation Commission. Every time the people (through its government) develops a regulation, it has an braking effect upon getting anything done. Here’s another one -- the rental ordinance. Here is an old one -- Target. We should also be working with the state development office. In a meeting with their representatives, the Chamber was advised that Northfield has a reputation for being extremely difficult to deal with.

      • 2.2.1
        kiffi summa says:

        David: 1. re the EDA: you are ignoring the fact that the EDA is bound by its Enabling Ordinance which gives a lot of power to the Council, and so that is a restriction on its statutory framework.
        This cannot change unless the Enabling Ordinance is changed. Period.

        2. Re the Biz Park: Companies do not want to build their own sewer and water; if you don’t believe that, look at the inquiries that come from the State Economic office to the City. The ‘blind’ one that turned out to be from Google, stated ‘ready to build’.
        Your insistence that the incoming company should build its own infrastructure is , it would seem, as big, if not the biggest ‘turnoff’.

        3. re Biz un-friendly: I think it is a mistake to put the rental ordinance in the same category of “business un-friendliness” as commercial development; it’s a separate issue that is as much citizen unfriendly, as business unfriendly.
        As far as the HPC goes, you would have to get rid of the Historic District to get rid of the HPC.
        I would agree that in some cases, such as that of Norman’s windows, they (HPC) need to find measures that will accommodate biz realities ($$$)

        In your meeting with the state development office what were their specifics that made them feel NF is “extremely difficult to deal with” ? … and if you did not ask that question, and insist on an answer, then you’re just ‘trashing’ your town.

      • 2.2.2
        David Ludescher says:

        Kiffi,

        1. The EDA power is limited by the City. My understanding is that it, like the HRA, is an independent legal entity. And, like the HRA, it, not the Council sets its missions and policies. It is my opinion the Council is confused, just like it was when it tried to ramrod the Safety Center down the throats of the HRA.

        2. We might all be surprised how many companies would be willing to build their own water and sewage systems.

        3. I believe that the Council is interested in being business-friendly when they stop spending millions of dollars on latte projects. It seems to me that the state folks have a much broader experience, and are in a much better position to give us an honest opinion.

      • 2.2.3
        rob hardy says:

        David: While I do respect your opinions, I object to your constant use of disparaging terms like “latté projects” and “the Carleton Club.” Like Suzie and Betsey, I am married to a Carleton professor, but this fact by no means predetermines my stand on local issues. For example, like you I strongly object to the current discriminatory rental ordinance. I think you might broaden your base of support if you refrained from simplistic and divisive rhetoric.

      • 2.2.4
        kiffi summa says:

        David: re: #2: the Blind inquiry which turned out to be later found to be from Google, to build an info storage warehouse, was only interested in land that was fully ready to be built on. Since the number of acres they wanted would have only been available in what Ross calls the ‘Northwest Territories’, and there s not sewer and water supplied to the parcels, they went to build, and have built in Oklahoma.
        Also keep n mind that although NF has annexed that 530 Acres, NF does not own any of it.
        The problems with the so-called ‘Business Park’ are much, much bigger than you would allow.

        Re: #3… I also find your use of the word “latte” to be unproductive, as it implies that you find projects you identify as such to be excessive; but I think you need to find a way to object to those projects in a more factual and less demeaning way.
        I personally will take a “small skinny latte to go” on all but the very hottest days, and consider myself to be a frugal person. (One must be frugal at my age and on a fixed budget).

        It also is not, IMO, productive to create a “Carleton Club” when we look for more integration with the colleges, not less. The colleges could provide the ‘town’ with a fabulous think tank if they were not always needing to be wary of negative town/gown attitudes.

      • 2.2.5
        Jeff Ondich says:

        I agree with Rob in 2.2.3, David. You have lots of great ideas to add to the discussion. Using disparaging names for people and their ideas doesn’t strengthen your arguments, but it does make me less likely to take your arguments seriously, which is unfortunate.

        Also, regarding your #3, do you believe that the councilors you disagree with are giving dishonest opinions? That seems to be your implication. For whatever it’s worth, I have found the councilors to be upright and honest people who want to serve Northfield well, even when I disagree with them.

      • 2.2.6
        David Ludescher says:

        Rob, Kiffi, and Jeff,

        Your objections are noted.

        Nevertheless, I stand behind my conviction that this Council has approved many government spending projects that provide little or no return to the business community.

      • 2.2.7
        Kathie Galotti says:

        Counselor,

        As a latte-loving Carleton faculty member, I must move to strike your comments (2.2.6) on the grounds that they are non responsive to the objections. That is to say, I think everyone takes your point about some council-approved projects having little return for business.

        However, I think the general point others were making is that there are other goods or criteria worth thinking about in Northfield. Stuff like community building.Example: Personally, I am less of a fan of bike paths and poetry-stamped sidewalks and hanging flower baskets and bike races that close traffic to all than many other latte-sipping residents are. BUT, I can understand how, even if these don’t have great value to ME, they might (and do) to others. My dog-training buddies in Lakeville and Richfield and Bloomington come regularly to Northfield to stroll our “lovely” downtown and shop in our quaint stores. Probably the “latte” projects you refer to contribute to building an ambience that invites folks. And those visits do have monetary payouts to business.

        I am not at all a fan of the recent shenanigans the council pulled with respect to the HRA bonding attempt. It’s probably going to cost some folks my vote. But, I don’t think that just because certain councilors have an affiliation with Carleton that that means they aren’t acting from their convictions or their visión of what does the most good for Northfield.

        And, believe it or not, I AM a big fan of your question, are the costs worth the benefits. (I was a double major in Econ in college). I’m also a big fan of calling out elected officials on cuestionable spending, and I think you do that well.

        But I don’t think you need to be quite as arrogantly dismissive of whole groups of town residents to ask the questions. And I especially don’t think you need to lump all latte-drinkers or all Carleton-affiliated folks or all latte-drinking Carleton people into one group and then mock them.

        And I must warn that further remarks might be met with lawyer jokes….

      • 2.2.8
        David Ludescher says:

        Kathie,

        The arguments that these Streetscape projects have a definable monetary value to downtown businesses lacks any credible evidence. Some projects, like a bike path upon which you cannot ride your bike, by definition, have a negative value. The Streetscape projects are funded entirely by taking the downtown business owners’ tax dollars away from the City, school, and county. As a taxpayer who is actually paying for these projects, I would much prefer that the money go to pay for needed government services like textbooks and subsidized housing.

        I feel the same way about spending $1.6 million to build an underpass on Highway 3. Even if the money is not our taxpayer money, it is still someone’s money that could go for textbooks and subsidized housing.

      • 2.2.9
        Kathie Galotti says:

        David: Fair enough. On many of these I’m in complete agreement with you.

  • 3
    norman butler says:

    David.
    The best effort the Council can put into the Business Park concept -- located where it is, on the scale it is, and at the cost it has and will incur, and in the context of the biggest financial crash since Creation 7,000 years ago -- is to ignore it, in the hope it will go away. The only tangible ‘growth’ the BP has to offer is housing estates and big shops which will only serve to cripple the Downtown much as they have done in many if not most small to medium towns throughout the nation, like Mankato & Chaska, that have succumbed to them.

    However, non-local businesses are welcome to Northfield and an approach from them to the City can be accommodated….and will be I am sure: the ’2005-2010 Reign of Error’ which brought much that is bad (Rental Ordinanace, Land Development Code) and chased away much that was good (CCB, Mulitplex etc) is over..fingers crossed!

    The principle function of the EDA is an enabling one. Not much chance of that when the committee itself is (or at least was) disabled. Heal thyself. Same is (or was) true for the Chamber which during my time in business here has tended to gaze over the horizon in the hope of catching the eye of a non-local big fish (Google?!) that offers ‘real jobs’ and expects in return big concessions from us instead of paying attention the the enthusiasms and needs of our own local businesses and entrepreneurs.

    And, of course, more parking spaces downtown are urgently needed. Most assertions to the contrary are from people who come downtown when its not busy rather than when it is busy. Busy times are when the businesses need, and the downtown ought to offer, sufficient parking (much like a big box overbuilds its car park knowing that whilst most of the time it seems empty, it is more than compensated for by the times it is full to capacity). The space and price of the land and property between the library and the Grand is good enough -- as is that behind Jacobsens’s. Money well spent!

    I think the message to all of us from the Reign of Error and its coincidental (?) Financial Crash of 2008/9 is to not employ or pay much attention to those who don’t give a crap about, or even dislike, us; be they individuals, so-called professionals and consultants, and big non-local businesses -- ….a pox on them all. Good place to start.

    • 3.1
      David Ludescher says:

      Norman,

      I have mixed feelings about spending money on additional downtown parking. While the downtown could use additional parking, here are fairly strong arguments against public-funded downtown parking: No matter where it is located, shoppers are going to use it for only the businesses within one block or so; some of us maintain and pay for our own parking; it is extremely expensive -- $20,000 to $40,000 per stall; and there would be more parking space if owners and employees stopping parking in the good spots.

      Regarding the business park -- I am not if favor of the government actively developing the land. But, I am in favor of having the land ready to be actively developed. The cost of being ready is less than the cost of most of our latte projects. When the school district wanted to build a big-box facility on the south side, the City accommodated them. When the hospital wanted to build a big-box facility on the north side, we accommodated them. We should also be willing to accommodate someone who has to pay property taxes.

  • 4
    Tim Madigan says:

    Griff and Ross – thank you for your positive comments on the City of Northfield’s customer and community service. The Mayor and City Council has been clear about their expectations in these areas and the City staff has been responsive to this direction. My experience in Northfield is that the City staff work hard to serve the community in a professional and positive manner. Your recognition of these efforts is appreciated by all concerned. Tim

  • 5
    Randy Jennings says:

    David,
    This might not be the right thread for this question, but I’ll ask it anyway. You’ve been aggressive in voicing your objections to various things the city and its boards and commissions have done over the past few years. We know a lot about what you wouldn’t do. Could you shift gears and provide some examples of positive things you would do to build on Nfld’s strengths or to enhance our community?

    We can stipulate that you’ll be a spending hawk and that you’ll be a champion of business interests. With those out of the way, what would you do to make this a better place for all?

    And Betsey, if you’re reading, I’ll ask the same of you: other than continuing to “build on the work of the incumbent council” (a rough paraphrase of your statement in the Nfld News), what will you do to improve the community if given another term?

    I know I’m not alone in struggling to find a reason to vote FOR either of you, as opposed to voting against one or the other. I’d really prefer to cast an affirmative vote rather than a negative one.

    • 5.1
      David Ludescher says:

      Randy,

      I’m not sure why you would view being a “spending hawk” and “championing business interests” as being negative things. There should be at least one councilor who is willing to watch the pocketbook and at least one councilor who is willing to consider how the Council’s decisions affect those who can’t vote (businesses).

  • 6
    Randy Jennings says:

    David,
    I don’t think I said your interests in being a spending hawk and business champion were negative, but rather that you’ve already made those priorities clear. I know that one presidential candidate thinks corporations are people, but I’m interested in what you have to offer actual human people. I was intending to offer you and Betsey a softball question highlighting something you’re optimistic about. Got anything?

    • 6.1
      David Ludescher says:

      Randy,

      I’m optimistic that the City of Northfield can maintain a high level of services (without substantial tax increases) to all citizens even though the City is losing LGA funding. If we have a shared sacrifice mentality, Northfield will come out better in the end. I think it would be mistake to offer “actual human people” promises to spend thousands and millions of dollars on (pork-barrel/pet/latte) projects that deliver limited value to a limited part of the citizenry.

      For example, I am more than optimistic -- I am confident that we can spend less than $7.2 million dollars to continue to get the same high quality police protection.

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