Why the fuss about the City Charter, and why should we care?

In Minnesota, cities take one of two basic forms: statutory cities, which operate as enabled in a section of Minnesota state law, and charter cities, which operate under a local charter. Northfield is one of the latter, primarily because Northfield was established as a city before Minnesota was established as a state. The City Charter is the “constitution” of Northfield’s city government.

Charter cities, sometimes referred to as “home-rule” cities, are allowed to establish any form of governance they choose. Typically this is either a council-manager or mayor-council system. Under the mayor-council system, government may be further defined as a “weak mayor” ceremonial form, or a “strong mayor” executive form. Our current charter states that Northfield has a mayor-council form of government; Northfield is one of only four Minnesota cities (the others are Duluth, St. Cloud, and St. Paul) which is technically considered to have a “strong mayor” system. See the League of Minnesota Cities for more definition of forms of city government organization in Minnesota.

The Charter Commission

Northfield’s Charter Commission is, as stated on its page of the City website, “responsible for reviewing and revising the City Charter to ensure that it meets all applicable State and Federal laws and meets the needs of the citizens of Northfield.” The Charter Commission is fundamentally different from other City boards and commissions. It is not an advisory board; it’s an independent political subdivision. Members are appointed by a district court judge, not by anyone elected, appointed, or employed by the City. Serving on the current Charter Commission are Bill Beck, Betsey Buckheit, Peter Dahlen, David Emery, Jayne Hager Dee, Victor Summa, and Elaine Thurston.

Recent History

In November 2001, Northfield’s ballot contained a referendum to change from a mayor-council system to a council-manager system, largely because the function and job description of the “city administrator” was moving closer and closer to what is usually considered to be that of a “city manager”. Voters rejected that referendum, choosing to maintain the current form of government. Okay. Except that the issue that prompted the referendum—that City Hall was functioning in a structurally different manner than what is described in the City Charter—still existed.

Over the next couple of years, the Charter Commission worked to research and recommend changes to the charter that would better reflect both the will of the citizens and the realities of how City Hall was run. In 2004, the city council unanimously approved a charter change which officially moved many administrative responsibilities from the mayor to the city administrator, since these were functions the city administrator had been doing for years, and the mayor typically had not. As a result, we now have a sort of a hybrid, which looks (and functions) more like the council-manager form than it does the strong mayor form.

David Koenig, a former City Councillor and professional advising on governance and risk management, is in the midst of a series of guest columns for the Northfield News relating to City government and the charter. His first article, Someone Should Be the Leader, sheds some light on the governance issue, and why it is currently a problem; the second article, Who Will Be the Leader?, illustrates the pros and cons of the different forms of government. There will be another guest article published on July 26; I’ll put an addendum linking to that and any others later.

Last fall, in an effort to try to educated the citizens about the City Charter, the Charter Commission drafted a letter which they asked to have enclosed with the monthly water bill. For various reasons, permission to do so was not given. But the letter is helpful, so I posted a PDF of the draft here.

In our LoGroNo history, we’ve had several posts and comments on the City Charter:

Anyone who wants to know about the recent and remote history of the City Charter MUST read the entire 2001 forum. There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9, but I can’t link to it).

Issues, Challenges, and Possible Solutions

As an example of why our current hybrid may not be adequately serving the citizens of Northfield, consider the following. The charter states that “the mayor shall be the executive officer of the city government, accountable to the council for oversight of the administration of the city.” The charter also states that the city administrator “… shall be the chief administrative officer of the city. The administrator shall be appointed by the council. . . and shall be responsible to and serve under the control and direction of the council.” Furthermore, the job description and contractual employment terms of our city administrator position are in line with those of a city manager in the council-manager system. So already we have a built-in tension between the mayor and the city administrator. Who’s in charge? Is it the mayor, being accountable to the council for oversight of the administration? Or is it the city administrator, under the control and direction of the council?

This isn’t just semantics. The citizens of Northfield will be choosing a new mayor this fall. How many of us think that we’re just electing a figurehead who will give speeches on Memorial Day and run meetings? How many of the candidates think that’s what they’re running for? The charter says that “The mayor. . . shall exercise leadership of the council in the formulation of policy.” However, apparently that leadership does not include setting the agenda for meetings; under the current charter, council meeting agenda is prepared by the city administrator “in consultation with the mayor”.

The City Council needs to either bring City policies into conformance with the Charter, or revise the Charter to reflect the actual practice of the City. (I’m trying to ignore the philosophical implication which feels to me like saying that either we crack down on underage drinking, or we simply lower the drinking age to 13 to better reflect what’s going on in the real world.)

It seems to me that Northfield has two options, both of which involve revising the charter in some way.

1. Retain the mayor-council system of governance, clarify the responsibilities, and vote for a salary for a full-time mayor in order to do the job properly.

2. Change to a council-manager form of government, clarify the responsibilities, and make it clear to citizens, mayors, and staff where the accountability lies.

Note the common theme: Clarify the responsibilities. Some of the current problems at City Hall may be largely due to personalities, but I’ve lived here long enough to see that at least part of the problem is structural – and frankly, fixing that is fairly straightforward.

In Griff’s post last November, Charter Commission member David Emery said,

…a few years ago, Northfielders rejected a referendum 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 referendum, 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?

I couldn’t ask the question better. What do you say?

72 thoughts on “Why the fuss about the City Charter, and why should we care?”

  1. David: Thanks again for your continuing provocative series of articles; I wish they had allowed you more words, as some of your points would be enhanced by a longer text.

    Here’s a question that I wonder if anyone thinks worth a discussion: What would be the benefit, or detriment, of NF going to an all at-large system of elected representatives, rather than continuing the ward system?

    Would long term and newer residents view this differently?

    Are there specific issues still in wards, or are all decisions best made for the common good?

    Anybody got any ideas ???

  2. As a summary, here are the links to the five articles in the series:

    Someone Should be the Leader

    Who Will be the Leader?

    Investing in Leaders

    How do we know if we have good governance?

    Improving Governance through Competition and Distribution

    I hope that these were at least helpful in stirring some discussion and consideration. I am also hopeful that “discussion and consideration” will not be where we stop. There is a need for change and I hope that our charter commission and future mayor, adminstrator and council will change how we are governed.

  3. At the Sept. 15th City Council meeting, the Charter Commisssion brought back a revision of their wording re: the disposal of the hospital operations, I believe a new section of the charter (14.7?) but it was not voted on, as the motion to consider failed for a lack of a second.

    At the next Chart/Com. meeting, the commission voted (5-2) to shut down until next February. I would presume this was because of the council’s action, and the commission’s presumption that it was best to wait for a new council (one not so adversarial with the Charter Commission?) to try to accomplish any further amendments, or new proposals.

    I have never understood the negative reaction of some of the council to the Charter Commission, and I think it is just another “black mark” on this council’s record. If there are sincere differences of opinion, they should be discussed. This hospital amendment had a letter of approval from the hospital board.

    Letting a proposal from a board/commission die for want of a second is an inappropriate power play. How was this consensus achieved?

    The resulting action of the CharterCommission (shutting down til a new council comes on) was a pragmatic choice, but in my mind, an unfortunate one.

    At any rate, the proposal is back on the council’s regular agenda this week, presumably at the Mayor’s behest … what will happen?

  4. David K: In your opinion, to what extent does citizen involvement make city governance more difficult, and less effective than it could or should be? It seems to me that our city government is far too responsive to complaints to be effective.

    I would cite the City’s new rental code as an example. Isn’t that a case where the City government should have “distributed” the job of managing unruly tenants to the citizens?

  5. Kiffi,

    Just a little reminder:

    The terminology “black mark” is negative racial term. Using the phrase “another negative mark” avoids equating black with bad or as a negative.

    I want other readers to understand where I am coming from on the use of color descriptors when communicating. I am the mother of a black child and a biracial child. I know first hand how these color descriptors can hurt a child’s self-image.

    Thanks for understanding.

  6. martha: obviously there was no denigrating racial slur intended, and I apologize for your discomfort in taking it that way.

    However, I am interested in your source of that etymological basis for the phrase “black mark”, as I can only find it being first used in the time of Charles II in England, as a way of defining lists of royalist supporters, or adversaries.

    ( Sorry to be so pedantic, but coming from a household with a grandfather who was a linguist speaking 17 languages, and where word origins were a dinner table game, I am always curious.)

  7. Martha, I certainly understand the plight of minorities in this country and around the world. But must we change the description of every black or white or red or pink or brown or yellow or gold thing so that people don’t feel bad about themselves, when I am sure Kiffi and I and a lot of other people would be referring to the color of ink used to make an accounting mark, or the color of the column lines where accountants put losses and gains on an accounting sheet, which btw are red or black, usually. It’s an accounting term, nothing more, nothing less.

  8. David L,

    The effect of network and distributive governance is to bring more people into the process, who are closer to the place where initiatives are applied. It helps effectiveness by granting them the ability to make real decisions, not just offer advice, while providing governance through stakeholder oversight.

    A Strong Mayor system at the council level, in combination with networked and distributive governance, would allow the directly elected officials to more efficiently define, articulate and fund a vision.

    Decisions in this model are improved via direct feedback from the stakeholders who evaluate the performance of the groups who have been empowered to take actions and swift corrective or supportive action at the mayor/council level.

    There are many more people involved in this kind of a system and it can be both more efficient and more effective.

  9. Bright,

    I respectfully disagree with you. Words do matter and can be judgemental. Once your awareness is raised you would be amazed at how easy it is make the adjustment.

  10. Hi, Martha. Well, I can agree that words matter. The idea that I am trying to promote is just that. Words have historical meanings. When they were never used to hurt people of color or otherwise, they should not now be given new meanings. You are trying to make people with no harmful intent look bad now.

    Instead of trying to get everyone to change innocent language, I would spend the time teaching children that there are no words on the planet that should make them feel less than any other being. I would spend the time telling children that this is not a world full of people who with every utterance are putting them down, just because they are describing a situation that has nothing to do with who they are. It’s very divisive. IT makes your best allies afraid to speak. No one is calling your children or any children bad names. Really.

    If someone here spews racist crap, I will be in the forefront of people who support you and your family. I Promise. Double Promise.

  11. Kiffi, I believe the word associated with Charles II is “blacklist,” not “black mark.” My dictionary dates the latter to 1835-45 (with no other details). But, Bright, I don’t think “black mark” is an accounting term — that’s “in the black” (which carries a positive connotation, of course).

    Etymology aside, though, words do acquire new connotations, new meanings, and new referents. It’s impossible anymore, for example, to hear the word “lipstick” and not immediately think of pigs, pitbulls, and Sarah Palin. To the extent we wish to make our ideas clear to others, it’s important to understand how others understand our words.

  12. Bright asks:

    “what do I call the stuff I use to color my face part?”

    Assuming it’s a shade of red, how about “republicanizer”? And maybe a little blue democratizer around the eyes….

  13. My posts have not been intended as divisive or punitive. I too looked at color descriptors as being pretty innocent. However, I can assure you that not everyone shares this view.

  14. Hi,Martha! Not a problem, I hear you. And I did say ‘it is’, not’ your posts are’…see I do think about my words.

    Anybody, I would like to see a list or book or some offical list of things people cannot legally say and where some official book like the dictionary, which I know lags behind usage, but really the only standardized way of going about educating the adult population. I go by the dictionary for most of my understanding of words I am only partly familiar with. Even there, ‘black list’ is not a problematic or racist phrase.

    I have just spent ten minutes looking for a PC list and find only bits and pieces and mostly anti PC comments.

  15. Kiffi & Bright,

    I am not referring to the etymology of the phrase and, I know that you certainly did not intend it as a slur.

    I am merely communicating the education and awareness that has been shared with me by those who do take offense by the use of these phrases.

    I think Barry has hit the nail on the head by stating, “… words do acquire new connotations, new meanings, and new referent.” I know this to be the case.

    I point it out as an opportunity to learn.

  16. In posting #66, Bright writes:

    ” I did say ‘it is’, not’ your posts are’”

    Bright, I assume you are referring to your sentence “It’s very divisive” in posting #61. What is the antecedent of “it” there?

  17. ‘It’ refers to the act of giving new meanings to words not your own. I never mentioned ‘post’ or ‘Martha’ or ‘your post’ in that post. And here, I mean your in the general sense of you, not the personal, pointing a finger sense.

    Can I go home now? 🙂

    Next time, I’ll pull the ambush the handicapable card.

  18. Bright, thanks for the clarification. The most logically grammatical reading I could give your original post had the “it” referring to “trying to get everyone to change innocent language,” which could easily be interpreted as referring to “my [i.e., Martha’s] posts.”

  19. If anyone would care to get back to the Charter issues …

    Last night the Council tried to “clean up its act”. Unfortunately, they seemed to only further “muddy the waters”. (see my comment of Oct 4, 11:19 am for some history, so I don’t have to re-explain)

    It appears, according to MN state statute 410,12, subd.7, that the council was in violation of this statute by not voting on the charter amendment proposal within a month after the public hearing. A bizarrely comic/tragic discussion occurred, in which the City Attorney advised the councilors that it really didn’t matter, they were just a little bit late, (Sept 15 – Oct 6) and they should just go ahead and vote (sort of in the spirit of “better late than never”)!

    !!!! ??? **** (These in place of an oft used three letter phrase, ending with a possibly unacceptable word)

    So, after “sort of fighting” with the Charter Commission over this hospital amendment issue for some months (although the hospital board had sent a letter approving the wording), and then refusing to even discuss it at the Sept. 15 meeting (letting it die for lack of a second), resulting in violating a state statute, they now are told they can fix it all by just voting, so they do, and vote it down.

    You cannot blame this one on Mr. Roder, although an ( possibly arrogant ?) attitude lingers. I am reminded of the the meeting last summer when Councilor Davis said: “We’re not breaking any rules; we’re just making up our own!”

    Yup … I think that was a correct analysis.

  20. Barry, yes and your words could be easily interpreted as someone who is trying to discredit me cuz I don’t think like you do.

    Martha, I am in no way trying to start any problems with or for you. I am happy to see people stand up for their children. There was a time when I stood up for someone else’s child who was being publicly abused by the parent, who btw, was at least 6’4″ to my 5’6″. There were dozens of people laying around enjoying the spectacle. Not bragging, but giving an example of how much I do not like to see children being abused.

    But, if I were, I could be very upset by your remarks. See post #60.

    Once your awareness is raised you would be amazed at how easy it is make the adjustment.

    If nothing else, it sounds very condescending, and presumptuous. But, I can let it go in view of the fact that you don’t know me, and either are ignoring my other posts or simply haven’t had occasion to read them.

    However, a lot of this is beyond me. As an artist, I am aware of color as a way of looking at everything. People aren’t black or white in color. They aren’t red or yellow. I think it’s insulting to paint every race with a color name and then put that on every individual of that race. We all know that people of all races come in various shades of brown to beige with some having a bit more pink or gold and even greens and blue tinges to their skin. It has nothing to do with black, white, red, yellow, brown. What, are we children who are first learning our primary and secondary colors and cannot be trusted with the tertiaries? Please. The system is even more prejudice making, imho.

    I still don’t see any official document by a recognized authority. We as a country have long ago released the intentionally insulting words that I won’t even print out here. We all know what they were. Other than that,
    I am not going to automatically obey some people who either disagree with my views politically or otherwise on this forum, or any other.

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