Podcast – Suzie Nakasian on: Carleton’s Art Center; the City’s Charter; the special election; EQC scandal; Comp Plan

Suzie Nakasian, Tracy Davis, Ross Currier (I’m going to experiment making one podcast blog post do double duty, ie, both a preview and a postscript.)

Our guest this week: Suzie Nakasian, Secretary of the League of Women Voters of Northfield, EQC co-chair, member of the East Side Neighborhood Association, and known as a menacing person when it comes to buckthorn.

Among the topics:

  • the LWV/Charter Commission campaign to educate the public about Northfield’s City Charter.
  • the LWV push to inform the public on how to obtain and file Absentee Ballots in both the upcoming Special Primary Election and the General Election for Senate District 25
  • the Carleton Arts Center. See Ross’ NDDC blog post from earlier today. (Note that there’s a public meeting about the Center at Carleton tomorrow/Wed. night). Suzie will change hats for this discussion, speaking as a citizens and a designated representative from her neighborhood association
  • when we can expect a scandal to emerge from the EQC and other relevant environmental issues.
  • an update on when we might expect to see a draft of the Comprehensive Plan

If you’ve got questions you’d like us to ask Suzie when we record the show, attach them here as a comment.

Click play to listen. 30 minutes.

Our radio show/podcast, Locally Grown, usually airs Wednesdays at 5:30 PM on KYMN 1080 AM. You can also subscribe to the podcast feed, or subscribe with iTunes. We seek your comments and suggestions.

14 thoughts on “Podcast – Suzie Nakasian on: Carleton’s Art Center; the City’s Charter; the special election; EQC scandal; Comp Plan”

  1. Hey Griff…

    How about a “Public Service” post on:
    ‘inform the public on how to obtain and file Absentee Ballots in both the upcoming Special Primary Election and the General Election for Senate District 25’

    I, for one, would like to know, especially during this busy season, so that I do not miss the primary.

  2. Suzie; I posted this a couple of weeks ago in response to Alex Beeby’s podcast re The Charter Commission. Since then, ther has been no comment from anyone. At this time, the start of your education campaign on our Charter and its mysteries, do you have one?

    Not many years ago the citizens of Northfield, when given the choice between the city being governed and lead by a mayor or an administrator, voted for the former.

    Since then, I thought that was the case – and have spoken up as if it were – only to realize now that, in the intervening years, the Charter Commission and Council got together (all very legal and process-correct as I understand from listening to Alex) to produce a a Weak Mayor-Council System with a (resulting) strong(er) administrator (intended or otherwise – since politics like nature abhors a vacuum). Much misunderstanding even mischief has resulted therefrom.

    The poll a few years ago sought to educate City Hall regarding the roles of the mayor and administrator – a strong mayor was requested and required by the citizens. Now the citizens are about to be educated by City Hall on what they have got… not what they voted for.

  3. Suzie: The ballot language was given in the two page flyer distributed with the Sept. 2001 utility bill.

    Shall the Northfield city charter be amended so as to establish a “council-manager” form of government for the City of Northfield, the general nature of the proposed amendments being briefly indicated in the explanatory note below, which is made a part of this ballot, all as stated in the proposal of the Northfield charter commission dated August 10, 2001?

    Explanatory note:
    The existing Northfield city charter establishes a “mayor-council” plan of government under which the mayor is the chief executive officer of the city and directs the administration of the city’s affairs. The charter is proposed to be amended to adopt a “council-manager plan of government.

    Under the proposed plan:
    1) The Mayor will be the official head of the city, the presiding officer and chief spokesperson of the city council, will study the operations of city government and report to the city council regarding the same, and will offer the city council leadership in the formulation of policy.
    2) The mayor and city council together will exercise the legislative power of the city, determine all matters of policy, approve the annual budget of the city, review the performance of the city manager, and investigate or audit the city’s affairs and accounts.
    3) The city manager will direct the administration of the affairs of the city, including appointment and removal of employees, direction of departments of the city, preparation and enforcement of the annual budget, and other responsibilities, subject to review by the mayor and city council.

    FYI Suzie: the referendum failed, the initiative to create a city-manager was defeated. IMHO, this means the citizens voted their preference for a strong mayor system. I now refer you to the Northfield News article page 1, Nov 28th, 2007. I can hardly sit still in anticipation of your response.

  4. Sorry I didn’t respond to you earlier Norman. Griff just gave me a head’s up on your question. I do not intend to represent the Charter Commission in this response.

    I could see how many people could, and probably do, see the situation as you describe it. Some people likely felt they were voting for a strong-mayor system, thought we had one, and are just now realizing we don’t. This could, certainly, seem a bit disingenuous, legal or not.

    Others, however, could have seen the vote, rather, as against the administrator at the time, and not necessarily for or against a form of governance, even though that’s what the ballot question said. Since the city was still running closer to a manager form several years later, it could have been seen that the strong-mayor form just wasn’t realistic for Northfield. Choosing to make charter changes to reflect this reality in a manner that avoided the intensely political nature of the debate, could likely be seen as a preferable route, especially given the amenability of the council to approving the changes.

    Of course these are simply my perceptions garnered from a variety of conversations with those involved — not having actually been a part of that process myself, however, or present at the time of the vote. Hartley Clark and Jim Finholt are probably the best people to explain the process reasoning.

    Regardless of how we got here, however, the important part now, IMHO, is what’s best for the city today. Personally, I think both systems can be good systems with the strong-mayor form being more responsive to political winds and the manager form being more efficient (note how the school board works).

    Changing to a strong-mayor form at this stage in the game would probably be rather difficult; this might have been why it never actually changed after the vote. We would have to pay much more for a full-time mayor, and I question the likelihood of finding one in Northfield with the training to run the operations of our city.

    At the same time, we probably aren’t paying proper “City Manager” wages to our “City Administrator,” but I don’t know that for certain. Further, if we lose two city administrators in less than four years because of turf wars, I wonder how much more difficult it will be to hire a good replacement this time. If I recall correctly, it wasn’t a cinch last time.

  5. Unfortunately the saying is true that “stuff” runs downhill, and we citizens have to suffer accordingly. Not only that, however, but the hard-working city staff is suffering as well (Griff, note: this is not a sarcastic statement.). Too much of their good work goes unnoticed amidst all of the demonizing and rhetoric. Instead, they are asked to put up with more and more “stuff.”

    As a prime example, look at the city clerk’s office where they suddenly have to deal with an unscheduled primary and election in addition to their normal tasks. They have to come in early this Monday to prepare for the primary, stay until the council meeting (you know, the one with the full agenda) is over, get up bright and early on Tuesday to help the election judges start at 6 a.m., help us run the polls from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., help us close the polls, and run the results to Faribault — finishing about midnight. Deb and Jennifer are passionate about Northfield, we are lucky to have them.

    Also, look at poor “Mac,” the finance director. Here she is uncovering and fixing problems left and right (PERA, CIP, $4mil mystery bonds, etc.), and she’s the one who gets the heat for the possibly missing bonds — bonds “purchased” before she was hired, bonds through a respected vendor used by multiple cities who is cooperating fully with the FBI investigation. She also takes the time to educate citizens on city financing; she too cares deeply about her job and our city.

    These are just two examples — I could provide more — of people who have dedicated themselves to the wellbeing of our community. Sometimes we might not agree with one action or other, but it would be seriously unfortunate if we ever underestimated how valuable they are to us. Let’s not lose sight of what’s right in all of our complaining about what’s wrong.

    Well, that felt good. My tongue (fingers?) loosened up a bit much there, so I’ll shut up again now for a while.

    p.s. This isn’t aimed at you Norman, I’m just taking advantage of the space to say something I feel needs said.

  6. Alex: Many thanks for your thoughts on this important matter.

    Notwithstanding your informed consideration of the pre- and post-referendum situations – and what was and is realistic or workable in a City like Northfield – the citizens when formally asked (and encouraged by City Hall) in the 2001 referendum to change the management of the City of Northfield from the then government system to a City-Manager system….rejected it. They did this with a margin greater (?) than the referendum on Target which, as we all can see, has resulted in a whole new commercial shopping district along H3.

    I would appeciate Hartley Clark’s and Jim Finholt’s – and indeed former Mayor Covey’s – further reflections on this matter.

    Is it reasonable to assume that Administrator Roder, having been recruited under the new City Charter, took up his post in 2005 on the understanding that he was to be Northfield’s first City Manager?

    Is it also possible that Mayor Lansing won the election in 2004 on the understanding that he was to be the first mandated ‘Strong Mayor’?

    Is it possible that much of the confusion and acrimony in City Hall is a direct result of this mutual misunderstanding? Not to mention the citizens who have spoken up with the 2001 ‘will of the people’ in mind. We’ve all been singing off different hymn sheets.

    How on earth can City Hall operate in a such an aristocratic fashion? Suzie Nakasian has her work cut out for her in the campaign to educate us lot; IMO it should result in another referendum to coincide with the elections in Nov 2008 (and that’s putting it nicely).

  7. Alex, thank you for your very thoughtful comments. I also appreciate your pointing out some of the specific details that city staffers have to contend with…. most people have no idea of what’s involved in running this city.

    Norman, I don’t agree with your characterization of what occurred, but as I said to Suzie after our podcast last week, it seems obvious that the roles of Mayor and City Administrator need to be defined a bit more clearly, and the charter is probably the place to do it. There are other related administrative items that need clarification; for example, are City staff people accountable to the City Council for their performance, or are they accountable to their respective department heads/City Administrator?

    Alex, what’s your view? How much of this is within the purview of the Charter Commission?

  8. A couple, personal again, responses:

    I do not think it would be a good idea to make any changes within the charter to our governmental structure at this time of heightened political fervor. Indeed, I think it would be a particularly bad idea. The risk would be significant that, if it went through referendum, people would be voting for or against someone rather than a reasonably objective assessment of the preferred form of government. In fact, in the heat of battle, as we are now, is not the time to be judging our form of government. Instead, after things cool down, we can look back with the advantage of hindsight.

    I, personally, think the roles are quite clear in the charter. There may be a couple of areas that provide flexibility that are points of contention in power struggles, but I doubt that potentiality can ever be resolved. A charter is meant to be a framework. It does not, should not, and cannot cover every single possibility. To do so, it would have to be constantly changing with the circumstances. This is where ordinances and council policies are meant to take over.

    City staff people, according to the charter and city ordinances are accountable to the department heads and administrator (7.3 subd. 3). The department heads are responsible to the administrator, who, with approval of the council, has the discretion of hiring and firing (7.3 subd. 2). The council (including the mayor) does not have the authority to hire or fire the department heads or subordinate staff without the administrator’s initiation. The administrator serves “at the pleasure of the council” and is “responsible to and serve(s) under the control and direction of the council” (7.1 and 7.2)

    The mayor studies city operations, and reports any issues to the council. If there is a vacancy in the office of the administrator, the mayor, with council approval, may appoint a temporary administrator until the council hires a replacement. In a declared emergency, only, does the mayor direct the city’s response. That is pretty much the extent of the mayor’s “executive” functions (see charter 3.8 subd. 2).

    The one area that might be unnecessarily problematic, IMO, is in the setting of the agenda. “The administrator, in consultation with the mayor, shall prepare the preliminary agenda for each council meeting” (7.3 subd. 10). But the mayor is “the presiding officer of the council” and “shall exercise leadership of the council in the formulation of policy” (3.8 subd. 1). My understanding is that, normally, a presiding officer of any board sets the preliminary agenda. If the mayor and administrator get along, or both try to, this shouldn’t be a problem, but…. There are advantages to having the administrator set the preliminary agenda, that can be modified in the actual meeting, but this section probably warrants some review when things settle down.

    This is a good time to take advantage of interest to educate people on our charter and city governance. This could even provide a foundation for informed discussion of what type of governance would be best for Northfield. Reactionary changes, however, to our governance would, in my humble, but passionate, opinion, be highly detrimental to our community — even worse than the mess we have now.

  9. FYI – For those interested in this type of thing:

    There will be a couple of openings on the charter commission. If you are interested in an appointment, Kathy Fredrickson has applications. The appointments are through Judge William Johnson, chief judge of our district. If he doesn’t appoint within 30 days of a vacancy (January 30), the council can appoint the replacement.

    My term is one of those that is ending at the end of the year, and I have chosen to not seek reappointment. I will, however, continue to serve, as noted in state statute, until a replacement is appointed.

  10. Alex – my sense is that you’ve really responded well to the needs of trying to make the Charter Commission a responsible and effective tool to the community’s growth and better government. I wonder if you might share with us what is driving your decision to not seek another term. Continuity may be second to the needs of any Board or Commission, but vitally important. First (IMHO) is a diverse spread of good thinking individuals. Seems the Charter has this… and needs to retain its continuity.

    As you might recall, earlier this month I took it upon myself to address the Charter Commission on the issue (My opinion) of the Council seemingly not seeing the autonomy of the Charter Commission as the vital first step to keeping the Charter effective. In short, I believe, while the Council has authority to accept the Commission’s suggested changes or additions to the Charter in the simplest manner [sic] seven votes – and it is also privileged to be able to personally assess the Charter Comm’s goals and methods … this Council, has too often in the recent past, taken a particularly adversarial role in its interaction with the Commission.

    The other available avenue to the Commission to seek action on a suggested change, if rejected by the Council, is to take it (A Change) to the citizens through referendum – an expensive and possibly more aggressive method than many of you might wish to pursue, although not without some precedent in the recent past. Possibly perceived as not MN Nice!

    I’m wondering if this (rejection) is a part of your decision to not reapply … and I’m also interested in the Charter Commission general reaction to the nature of the reception extended by the Council to the Commission when you have presented to (the Council).

    As I know personally all of the currently seated Commission members and find them all a great fit for the job, I’m wondering who else is not seeking reappointment – and why?

    Finally, on a slightly tangental issue … in as much as we are having an election on Jan 3, does anyone find it provocative and useful, to add about ten Non Binding Questions to the ballot, the purpose of which would be to poll voter’s opinion on issues such as:

    Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the Council person representing your ward?

    Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the Mayor’s efforts on behalf of the City?

    Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the City Administrator’s style?

    Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the manner in which the Council has pursued providing answers to the public of many questions coming before us recently?

    Would you support a referendum to get answers?

    Do you feel it is appropriate or inappropriate for the city to move forward with plans for a Liquor Store on the 600 block of Division street?

    Do you support a low speed limit on the Woodley Street, expansion?

    Do you support a SkateBoard Park in Ames Park?

    Do you like white cheese on tacos?

    or many more…

    vs

    vs

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