Should Northfield Consider Town Hall Meetings?

NormanRockwell.jpgIn today’s Star Tribune, there’s an article titled “Edina aims to let residents have more say“. It’s about the city’s planned experiment with town hall meetings.

Apparently some citizens of Edina have felt that they’ve been limited by the city council’s rules on topics for public comment. The town hall meetings will be open forums for citizen comments.

Other cities have held town hall meetings and have had a variety of experiences with them. In some communities, there seems to be little interest in speaking up, while in other towns, the citizens seem to welcome the loosely structured opportunity to request a stop sign or question budget priorities.

I wonder if it’s a concept that Northfield should consider. Some citizens feel that there isn’t enough citizen input into city government, while others believe that there’s too much input from citizens. The city councilors seem to have mixed reactions to public input.

Edina is considering twice yearly town meetings. Northfield would probably need them at least quarterly. Perhaps if the city council met four times a month, twice for regular meetings, once for a work session and once for a town hall meeting, all of the meetings could be much shorter in length.

Would it be worthwhile for Northfield to experiment with town hall meetings?

17 thoughts on “Should Northfield Consider Town Hall Meetings?”

  1. Gee, David, I wonder what you meant to say. 🙂

    I would like to see Town Hall Meetings, but I would give them a different format. Like this; people could have a choice about how they would like to
    submit their ideas…either in person, or email in their opinions and such, but the emails appear on a big board somewhere in the meeting. For those who have no computer, a note could be read by a reader at the meeting.

    Everyone is limited to exactly two minutes or two hundred words, for instance, and all the references they need to back up their ideas, which would be looked at only if a certain number of people agreed that the original statements by the citizen were usable enough to warrant more investigation.

    Any citizen may be asked to return and or expound if they want to, at another time and or place, if their ideas seemed worthy or usable enough. Something like this would allow people who are shy to contribute, and still allow the regular type meeting. But I think people should bring up ideas that are well thought out and feasible, and if they need help with that, maybe some classes could be given on how to self determine that and ways to pose a proper question or idea.

  2. To help decide this question, people should come to the town hall meeting style debate between Mary Rossing and Paul Hager on October 7 at 7 pm. Audience can pose questions to the Mayoral candidates. It is in the Great Hall at Carleton College.

  3. The initial meeting on the Comp Plan, at the Armory, was essentially, no actually, a “town meeting”.

    David: you had a lot to say there, and have been reiterating your points ever since. Why then, are you opposed to this concept?

    Your participation at the Armory meeting seems to be in direct conflict with your oft-stated comments that the council, or whoever, listen too much to public comment?

    Can you explain?

  4. I support town hall meetings for only particularly important topics. I assume that over time, *routine* town hall meetings will fail to draw attendance from the vast majority of residents, which would defeat their purpose to maximize input.

    Northfield residents have a variety of means to communicate to the City Council, in person, by (e-)mail, by telephone. If they don’t use these means, I don’t assume that they would use town hall meetings instead.

    With a new mayor and some new councilors, the next administration may be more efficient. So having more City Council meetings to reduce their length should be considered after the next administration has had a chance to operate for awhile.

  5. Ross: Why would this be a good idea? There are real dangers to having “town meetings”. For example, when the Planning Commission had a town meeting on the Comp Plan, the meeting was used by the Planning Commission to justify the will of those in attendance, not the majority’s will.

  6. Townhall meetings are a great idea. Based on the political drama of late, it seems worthwhile getting more common sense input.
    Certainly for the important issues. Emails and letters are not enough they tend to be disregarded in the long run.

    There is a real disconnect between what the public wants, what those in charge want and what is financially prudent.
    Having people closer to the process would go a long way in transparency and understanding.
    All to often the city council and the mayoral process are only understood and managed by a few, which leads to misunderstandings.

    Great idea.

  7. Peter: Why would town hall meetings be given more attention than e-mails? Doesn’t it depend on the councilor’s attitude toward receiving citizen input, not the method of input?

    As David L. commented, town hall meetings cannot be rubber stamped as the will of the citizens. If 200 people show up to a City Council or town hall meeting and voice an identical opinion, there are still 19,000 or so Northfield residents who haven’t voiced their opinions.

    Again, I think that a town hall meeting could serve a meaningful function on some subjects, but I think they would serve no long term good if used routinely.

  8. Jerold: I don’t understand your logic re: unvoiced opinions in your post of 10.5,7:09 PM… Aren’t all elections, plebiscites, referendums, determined by those who show up and express their opinion/will, i.e. vote?

    Those who do not speak/vote, lose their “vote”.

    Example: A few weeks ago, 8 people showed up at the council to complain about the fairness of sudden enforcement of rules relating to the storage of recreational vehicles on their property, in situations that had been allowed, unquestioned by either “city” or neighbors, for years.
    The council listened, asked questions of staff, and found that the city’s ordinance was outdated as to vehicle lengths; the situation was ameliorated, and I assume is being corrected since the 8 citizens have not returned.

    The 200+ people who showed up at the Armory Comp Plan meeting cared enough to suspend all other plans for the evening, and the rest of the community either didn’t care to come and express their feelings, or had family birthday parties(!) or some other reason for not publicly giving their input… and may, or may not, have called, e-mailed, written letters.

    IMHO, there is no way to accurately gauge the unspoken vote. It can only be a matter of speculation.

  9. Jerold,

    I have a short history here in Northfield. My perception of the state of affairs in Northfield is that of disconnect to the general public, a static city council and major and a lot of infighting nobody understands.
    Giving people the opportunity to participate will bring more transparency and understanding to the process.

  10. Kiffi: In my view, there is a vast difference between speaking to the gov’t and voting.

    Voting is, by its nature, limited to a specific time. If someone misses the election, their silence is interpreted as consent to whatever the majority of voters decide. Keep in mind that for voting, the issue being decided is specifically articulated to the voters ahead of time. The exact wording of the law, the exact candidates, etc., are available to the voters for months before the vote. Also consider that employers cannot prevent employees from voting with any form of retaliation.

    Speaking to the gov’t is much more fluid, so I don’t think the government should listen solely to those who show up at a meeting. The gov’t normally plans a series of meetings on controversial subjects, and with each meeting, the issue may change. If at the first meeting, plans are made to build a municipal park and 2% of the population shows, all of them avid golfers, and all of them say that they would rather a municipal golf course be built, it would be irresponsible for the gov’t to consider the 2% as the only concerned voters. This might be a dramatic example, but it is valid. As the gov’t’s plans change over time, the gov’t must be receptive to new citizen input at each juncture. At no time can a small percentage of citizens be assumed to represent everyone who is interested in the issue.

    The gov’t also has to assume that the people who show up to a meeting aren’t the only people who would like to show. With elections, the Secretary of State will send an election guide, a packet of proposed laws and candidates to the voters. That’s not required with gov’t meetings. It is easy to predict that some citizens might miss a meeting because they didn’t know about its subject. And again, compared to elections, employers can retaliate against employees for going to gov’t meetings. If someone works far away or in the evenings, you suggest that they will never get to speak at gov’t meetings.

    However, I agree with you that the opinions of the people who show at meetings do weigh more than those who remain silent. It’s my intention as a potential city council person to elicit my constituents’ opinions on issues of consequence, to give another opportunity for citizens to speak. I will have to work with the IT Dept. on developing an effective means to do this, but my desire is in alignment with what some senators do. I get an e-mail about every 3 months on controversies facing the state, and the e-mail encourages me to respond. If a system like this can be developed for Ward 2 or all of Northfield, it would include more citizen input and, consequently, wiser decisions by city council.

  11. Peter: I wholeheartedly agree that every gov’t should make several opportunities for the people to speak up. Two minutes at a microphone is sometimes not enough for discussion. For some issues, a town hall style meeting might be the best method to provide discussion time without other city business running the clock out.

    I don’t think that routine town hall meetings will result in more citizen input compared to routine city council meetings. I predict that routine town hall meetings will simply duplicate city council meetings, with the same issue being discussed by the same people.

    I must add that citizens are free to hold their own meetings to organize themselves. If there is an issue of consequence, citizens should organize themselves to speak in a united voice to government. This is the role of special interest groups. If your neighborhood has a problem with parking on your street, I think it’s more effective for the neighbors to meet, resolve a position, and inform the city council of the problem and proposed resolution. Citizen meetings like this are empowering to the people and, at least in my view, influential to government. As an experienced political organizer, I have found this to be effective when the gov’t appears not to listen to individuals.

  12. Peter: I disagree. The town meetings won’t result in more people participating. It will result in the same people participating more.

    It is already too easy for citizens, and thus too burensome for the Councilors as it is. Hence, 8 people show up at a Council meeting expecting to change regulations. Why couldn’t and shouldn’t those people just talk to staff, and let staff make the recommendation to change?

    These kinds of decisions need to be done at a lower level – “distributed” in David Koenig’s terms.

    Town meetings are going to solve a problem; they are just going to create fertile ground for more discontent. It is really an exercise in circumventing representative democracy.

  13. David,

    Switzerland would disagree with you.
    The government belongs to the people by the people. If the elected people are not doing their jobs, we have the right to be heard.

  14. David L is correct that you can effectively have an ongoing engagement of more people using distributive and network governance.

    I regularly held Ward meetings when I was on the council and found them to be very helpful. Mostly, the same people attended them, but not always. I like David’s phrasing “the same people participating more”. It is true and would likely happen at Town Hall meetings as well.

    Having said that, we shouldn’t discount those people as they also tend to be very well informed and are invested in the well-being of their community. I would guess they also tend to vote with a higher frequency than those who don’t participate in public meetings.

    The key is to create the same effect as a Town Hall meeting by finding as many ways for feedback to be gathered, for decisions to be made by those most informed about the subjects, or closest to the impact of decisions, and for actions to be taken….first evaluated for effectiveness by the town representatives (stakeholder groups, city council and Mayor), then eventually evaluated by “the Town” (elections).

  15. David : Please quit talking about the “good old days” when we had things like your ward meetings … and councilors that considered themselves public servants, but not “servile”.

    If you remember, people from other wards came to your meetings also, because they always got some good information, and promise of answers to their questions, if the answers weren’t immediately in your back pocket.

    I DO remember you always asking for cost benefit analyses; I don’t remember you ever saying the council could make their own rules!

    “Come back, little Sheba!”

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