EDA talks about trust between elected officials and paid staff

A discussion about the role of Northfield’s City Council versus the city’s paid staff in decision-making emerged during the Economic Development Authority meeting on Thursday morning.

The topic came up when the board members addressed the process of building a new municipal liquor store to replace the old one on Fifth Street.

“This is a political hot potato,” Steve Engler, who joined the development authority in September, said after the meeting. “I was trying to clarify who was making decisions.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has told the city the liquor store cannot continue to operate without significant renovation. Facing an ultimatum, the council decided in August that constructing a new store would probably be more cost-effective than making repairs. So, it asked city staff to issue a request for proposals for a new store.

In the past, controversy surrounded the decision to build anew when Mayor Lee Lansing allegedly attempted to convince the council to approve construction at a location that could have resulted in his financial benefit.

“You said this is politically charged; it shouldn’t be, it’s a liquor store,” James Pokorney, city councilor, told Engler at the meeting.

Pokorney added later that the decision might have been political at one time if the mayor had indeed done something inappropriate, but it should not be any longer.

Joel Walinski, interim city administrator, told the members of the development authority about the status of the decision to build a new liquor store. The city’s request for proposals brought in seven responses that could fit the requirements City Council set for the new store. They are still not available for public viewing.

Walinski said the Economic Development Authority’s Infill Committee, a group of city staff, the Northfield Enterprise Center and Donnelly Development will help assign points to each of the proposals that fall within the council’s requirements. The proposals with the most points would be more highly recommended. (Walinski, Brian O’Connell, community development director, and Steve DeLong, liquor store manager, would form the group of city staff).

Engler said he was unsure if it is best to keep the proposals secret from the public while the different groups review them. He also was uncertain if the City Council should take recommendations from staff when perhaps all council needs is a little more basic information about the proposals.

“Aren’t you elected to decide certain things?” Engler asked Pokorney.

Pokorney said City Council has reviewed liquor store proposals in the past but made no decision because the elected officials needed further professional assistance to feel comfortable making the right choice. He said he believed the liquor store presents an opportunity for City Council to benefit from trusting the recommendations of city staff.

“There are people who say ‘We can’t let the staff decide, they’ve got some kind of devious reasoning,'” Pokorney said after the meeting. “I’m tired of it. What we’re asking staff to do is a supportive effort, not a legislative effort. It’s what we hire them to do.”

Following the meeting, Walinski said the proposals would present City Council with a wide range of options. Some of them would allow Northfield to buy undeveloped or developed land and/or buildings and some offered to lease land or buildings. The scoring groups will rate the proposals based on cash flow opportunities and pedestrian access, among other criteria.

Update 11/14 3 p.m.: This afternoon, I made some grammatical changes to the story above.

Update 11/17 12 p.m.: This is a document showing the score sheet for the proposals (PDF).

This is the email from Mr. Walinski, which contained the score sheet attachment:

“Hello Bonnie –

I’ve attached the Liq. Store RFP Document as requested. I’ve also provided you with the Scoring Sheet we will be using to rate the proposals that were submitted. This document was previously provided to the EDA and all interested parties attending the Pre-Submission conference on October 22, 2008.

In answer to your question on the discussion at the EDA Meeting on Thursday, this was the second time this item had been discussed at a EDA Board meeting, the initial discussion was to see if there was interest from the EDA to participate ( October 23, 2008 Item 8.b). The discussion on Thursday was to provide an update on the process, reconfirm the role of the EDA Infill Committee, and make members aware of the timeline.

Regarding your other questions concerning the liquor store, the liquor store questions and planning has been ongoing for at least four years. The Council, residents through public comments, and consultants have had multiple discussions on should the City run a municipal liquor store and at this time the consensus of the council is yes – primarily for the added revenue to the general fund and funding support to support the taskforce working on the prevention of Youth Drug and Alcohol. Another reason given is the City is more in control of the sale of alcohol to minors and advertising of alcohol to minors by having a “muni”. If you need more information on this I would suggest reviewing the tapes of multiple council meetings and work sessions where this item was discussed.

In regards to using the existing store location, making the required improvements and completing the deferred maintenance, this is the base position from which the proposals submitted will be will be judged. We do have good information of the cash flow and business model at the existing site and fairly good estimates of improvements needed and costs. One of the items we will be reviewing is comparing cash flow models and costs of a new location with the existing site. The benefit of moving through an RFP process is that we now have better numbers for what a new store development, purchase of property, or leasing a location would cost given the proposal submissions This should help staff make a recommendation as per the council request. Ultimately more specific information should help the Council and general public to make an informed decision.

Hope this helps –

Joel”

78 thoughts on “EDA talks about trust between elected officials and paid staff”

  1. I wonder if anyone in City Hall, either Staff or Council is paying attention to the opinion poll here, on the subject of the liquor store.

    There have been comments on the NFNews website that this is the ‘Liberal’ website; I’ll reserve my characterization of the News’s site lest the Trolls come out from under the Bridge even more often than they do.

    But seriously, do the elected officials and the staff care about public opinion on this liquor store issue?
    How responsive are elected officials supposed to be to the desires of the community?
    Why is every request for some cost benefit analyses (from several viewpoints: financial/ROI, location, etc.) ignored completely?

    And, now, since the whole evaluation process was disrupted yesterday by the city attorney’s concerns, how will this process move forward with EDA input?

  2. While the straw polls on this website are fun, there is no reason to believe that they represent the consensus opinion(s) of Northfielders in general.

    There is in fact recent evidence that the results of LGN straw polls do not accurately reflect the opinions of actual Northfield voters:

    * Lynn Vincent (38%, 29 Votes)
    * Victor Summa (26%, 20 Votes)
    * Joe Gasior (23%, 18 Votes)
    * Rhonda Pownell (13%, 10 Votes)

    http://locallygrownnorthfield.org/post/6328/

  3. kiffi wrote,

    4. Daryl Knutson’s property is the yellow/brown buildings on Water street which were the original Nf Hospital. I think the cross street is Eighth. This property was offered for consideration to the city before this formal RFP process, as were some of the others.

    They can’t tear down those buildings, as I have an unrealistic pipe dream that we will someday live in the original Northfield Hospital. (Of course, it’d have to be cheap, and also not in serious disrepair. I did say in was a pipe dream.)

  4. Tracy: If the City is not going to maximize profits, then it should get out of the business. This isn’t a public amenity; it is a business.

  5. City officials canceled a 3 p.m. meeting of Northfield’s infill committee on Tuesday. Committee members would have discussed the liquor store proposals. Joel Walinski, interim city administrator, said the city’s attorney, Maren Swanson, determined two of the committee members might present a conflict of interest because of their involvement in some of the proposed sites. Those members are Rick Estenson, vice president of business development at First National Bank of Northfield, and Marty Benson. Estenson, spokesman for the Economic Development Authority, did not return a phone call or email message about the matter on Tuesday. Walinski said elected officials and staff would figure out how to move forward during Thursday’s meeting of the Economic Development Authority at 7 a.m.

  6. Come on City….get it together. After years of allegations and counter allegations of ethic misconduct leading to possible criminal charges, you still carry on with unethical decisions by having, at least to this point, people connected to existing proposals involved in selecting the final proposal. Enough is enough. The whole RFP process should cease immediately as conflict of interests has stamped this process from head to toe.

  7. Peter,

    This is my own personal thought on the matter, which I came up with after discussing the issue with a few people in the city: In a small town, sometimes it can be hard to avoid some conflict of interest. As long as all of the information is out in the open, and the conflict does not appear to be that great, could it be OK to proceed?

  8. Bonnie,
    The information is not out in the open. The proposals are not available to the public. There is a perception of a conflict of interest.

    Under the current allegations against the mayor and possible others by implication on this very issue, conflict of interest and ethical issues are at the heart of this very matter. If Northfield was such a small town, why was the Lansing issue even raised?

  9. The original heading of this thread directed our attention to the role of Northfield’s City Council versus the city staff in decision-making.

    It would seem that for efficiency sake, some City Council members directed staff to finish this thing before the new City Council members took office. Apparently these same City Council members lacked the wisdom to do so months or even years ago when the warning signs were given. Perhaps, a bright light shined upon them and they were inspired to build a new liquor store, a corner stone for economic development…..What crap, this whole thing stinks of personal vendettas and dirty politics.

    Some City Council members and City Staff should have known better given their involvement over the Lansing issues. However, they continue to progress this thing as if people have forgotten. I am afraid that people I have spoken to have not forgotten and are now more suspect of conflict of interest issues and City staff manipulation of the facts for their own political ends.

    As mentioned earlier, this issue has such bad publicity and terrible twist and turns, that City residents need to be involved in decisions to bring closure once and for good. If the City does not correct its course of action now, they will repeat the same mistakes again and again.

  10. I see your point Peter.

    Here is Minnesota State Law that I think might apply to this matter:

    https://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/statutes/?id=13.599

    “13.599 GRANTS.

    Subd. 3.Responses to request for proposals.

    (a) Responses submitted by a grantee are private or nonpublic until the responses are opened. Once the responses are opened, the name and address of the grantee and the amount requested is public. All other data in a response is private or nonpublic data until completion of the evaluation process. After a granting agency has completed the evaluation process, all remaining data in the responses is public with the exception of trade secret data as defined and classified in section 13.37. A statement by a grantee that the response is copyrighted or otherwise protected does not prevent public access to the response.

    (b) If all responses are rejected prior to completion of the evaluation process, all data, other than that made public at the opening, remain private or nonpublic until a resolicitation of proposals results in completion of the evaluation process or a determination is made to abandon the grant. If the rejection occurs after the completion of the evaluation process, the data remain public. If a resolicitation of proposals does not occur within one year of the grant opening date, the remaining data become public.
    Subd. 4.Evaluation data.

    (a) Data created or maintained by a granting agency as part of the evaluation process referred to in this section are protected nonpublic data until completion of the evaluation process at which time the data are public with the exception of trade secret data as defined and classified in section 13.37.

    (b) If a granting agency asks individuals outside the granting agency to assist with the evaluation of the responses, the granting agency may share not public data in the responses with those individuals. The individuals participating in the evaluation may not further disseminate the not public data they review.”

  11. I had a beverage the other night with a retired farmer and an active businesswoman. We discussed the liquor store RFP process and the City’s apparent unwillingness to share information with the taxpayers.

    Admittedly, what do any of the three of us know about economic development? However, we sketched out a process for the liquor store (although this is not an indication of support for building a new liquor store) site selection process that seemed to produce very limited concerns about the public release of private information.

    First, the City would send out their specifications for a site for a new liquor store to property owners. We thought it would, in its most simple form, consist of something like XX,XXX square feet for the building and YY spaces for parking.

    Next, interested property owners would respond with some documentation that they had the necessary square feet and spaces. They would also indicate a willingness to enter into a process with the City.

    Third, Staff could rank the responding sites according to the four (at least according to our information) criteria for site evaluation. This ranking would be presented to the decision-making elected officials.

    Finally, initial “negotiations” with the owners of the, let’s say, three most favored sites. Although we may not know anything about economic development, all three of us thought that negotiating with just one option was a bad idea.

    We couldn’t see any reason to withhold information from the taxpaying public for the first three steps of this process. It was only in the fourth step, where the information would likely include cost or rent per square foot or build-out allowances, that there was information that might need to be private…at least until it was actually time to consider signing a binding contract.

    But, one more time, what do the three of us know? I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts about the proposed process and when it was appropriate not to release information to the public.

  12. This just in from Walinski’s Friday memo:

    With interest in the 7 submitted Requests for Proposals, I’ve asked the City Attorney to provide some information on the release of data pertaining to these RFP’s. There is clear law in the data practices act, which the City must follow and makes most of the RFP proposal data nonpublic until the evaluation process is complete because of the City potentially negotiating for the purchase of property. This classification is mandatory; the city cannot waive this classification. Our City Attorney provided a summary of the relevant provisions of Minn. Stat. Sec. 13.591, Business Data:

    1. All data in the responses is nonpublic until the responses are opened.
    2. Once the responses are opened, the names of the responders are read and become public.
    3. All other data in the responses is nonpublic until completion of the evaluation process.
    4. “Completion of the evaluation process” means that the city has completed negotiating a contract with the selected vendor.
    5. After that point, all remaining data submitted by all responders are public with the exception of “trade secret data” as defined and classified in section 13.37. However, all responders to this RFP were asked to sign a consent for release of response data, so there should not be any concern about releasing the data after a contract is finalized, except for any financial statements submitted to the city under separate confidential cover (this exception appears in the consent for release of response data).
    6. If all responses are rejected prior to completion of the evaluation process, all data other than the names of the responders remains nonpublic until a resolicitation of the RFP results in completion of the evaluation process, or a determination is made to abandon the purchase.
    7. If the rejection occurs after the completion of the evaluation process, the data remain public.
    8. If a resolicitation of proposals does not occur within 1 year of the proposal opening date, the remaining data become public.
    9. Data created or maintained by the city as part of the selection or evaluation process are protected nonpublic data until completion of the selection or completion of the evaluation process, at which time the data are public except for any “trade secret data” (there should be none in this case because of the consent for release signed by the responders, except that financial statements may remain confidential).

    We will also require that those that participate in the review and evaluation of the process not share the information with others not involved in the process until that information becomes public.”

  13. Again, the City is trying the red herring. It’s not the first time the City has read the law incorrectly or with a certain bias.

    The only information that Statute states as nonpublic relates to “financial information about the business”.

    It is clearly understandable that a proposals “financial information” stay confidential until a decision is made, as counter claims or additional offers could subvert the negotiations.

    However, all other information in the proposals should be made available to the public which is not financially sensitive information. As with previous data practices requests the City has seen, sensitive information was redacted or removed.

    In fact, how much of the scoring sheet process uses the financial information versus all the other information in making a decision.

  14. Peter, it seems to me that the Minn. Statute. Sec. 13.591 is clear: Other than knowing the names, “All other data in the responses is nonpublic until completion of the evaluation process.”

    However, I’m trying to imagine how the negotiations are compromised if the public knows the basic info in each proposal, ie, location, dollar amount, selling points from the developer’s point of view, etc.

  15. Griff,

    You raise an interesting question and it speaks to the intent behind the RFP process. Not knowing all the reasons, as information from the City is very limited; it would seem the RFP process, combined with the real conflict of interests, makes this process very confusing and questionable.

    The intent in 13.591 relates to privacy requirements for business data submitted through the RFP process under Subd.3 (b). Seeing the City is using MS 13.591 as a defense, I am now wondering the real intent behind the RFP process.

    The written intent in the RFP states: “The City of Northfield is seeking proposals for the purchase or lease of property for a new municipal liquor store location”.

    However, MN 13.591 is in the context of “business requesting financial assistance or a benefit financed by public funds”. In using MS 13.591, is the City saying they are partnering with a property owner to build the Muni? Is the City seeking to outsource the Muni or part of the operations? This would seem the case; however this intent is not clear in the RFP.

    But let finish with public or nonpublic information. In asking for proposals, the City has included a “Consent for Release of Response of Data” and cited MS 13.08. The City includes this statement:

    ___________________________________, on behalf of ______________________,
    hereby consents to the release of its development proposal in response to the
    ___________________________________ Request for Proposals and waives any claims it may have under Minnesota Statutes Section 13.08 against the City of Northfield for making such information public. The foregoing consent and waiver does not extend to financial statements submitted under separate confidential cover. Such information provided under separate cover may be public data, but will be treated by the City consistent with Minnesota Statutes Chapter 13.

    This statement says it all.

  16. Wow. You’re apparently right, Peter. Let me highlight the paragraph with some snips to make it clearer:

    [respondent] hereby consents to the release of its development proposal… and waives any claims it may have under Minnesota Statutes Section 13.08 against the City of Northfield for making such information public.

    That paragraph is in Appendix A, page 8 of the RFP.

     So the City seemingly CAN release all the proposals, minus any private business financial data.

  17. Griff,

    It could be argued that as “the foregoing consent and waiver does not extend to financial statements submitted under a separate confidential cover”, than any part of a proposal WITHOUT a “separate confidential cover”, whether it is finance related or not, is public data. By implication, if FINANCIAL STATEMENTS are not under a “separate confidential cover”, than it is NOT sensitive data.

    If the City wants to impose the letter of the law towards the general public during all other general business, than they bloody well need to be consistent.

    I would argue the process is so compromised it should cease immediately. Perhaps an independent committee made up of residents with no connection to the City Government or future submitters should make a recommendation to the City Council before anymore City money is spent without accountability.

    I volunteer my services to the City for free, and agree to be held accountable for any conflict of interest….if any.

  18. Peter and Griff:
    I think that the “release” the RFP respondents signed was put in place as a result of the last liquor store proposal process when the council voted to release the tapes of the closed door session and the Mayor objected, he felt it contained confidential information not meant to be released to the public. It’s (signed release document) intent is to allow the release of the content of the RFP’s at the conclusion of the process, not during.

    Hope that helps clarify the issue.

  19. Scott…thanks for your perspective.

    “At the conclusion of the process” leaves what window for public input to your decision? I assume that you have a place to accept such before you vote on anything or before the selection is all but done?

  20. I think it is strange that with all that has been going on, that the city would want to put its citizens at ease and follow the statute just as it is stated. I don’t think we should have to feel like we have to doubt check the statutes ourselves because information was left out again. Where is the list of bidders with the bid amounts that are supposed to be public information? Could someone point me in the direction for the link? I for one have little to no trust in this process or city staff or council for that matter. I am left feeling like something is being hidden again. I think what Northfield needs right now is a big taste of transparency. I sure don’t feel comfortable with the city deciding to spend anymore of taxpayer money until they will do things more clear.

    I don’t think the city should be making any decisions about a new liquor store right now! We don’t even have a permanent city administrator and our new council members aren’t sworn in. Why is there such a rush? It just seems to make an uneasy situation even worse.

  21. Scott, thanks much for chiming in.

    It makes sense that the City is protecting itself for the release of any information that might be considered private at the end of the process.

    But that doesn’t mean the City can’t release basic proposal information now, does it?

    I don’t understand how this would harm either those submitting proposals or the City to release the basic info of the proposals now. I do understand that once negotiations begin with one or more parties, that that process needs to be private until the end.

  22. Scott,
    If all the information will be available anyway at the end of the decision, no release is required as MN 13.591 applies. Did proposal submitters know that MN 13.591 was being used despite the release? If so, how did they know?

    Yer sure, MN 13 is cited in the RFP, but big ditty, there are so many provisions in MN 13 that any could apply. No where in the RFP is MN 13.591 mentioned. So from a transparency and accountability perspective, the general public did not know the process would be closed and are effectively locked out from seeing the information.

    Did the City Council know this process would be closed to the public? If I was a City Council member and I did not know, I would seriously question how much control I really had over the process. If a City Council did know, I would seriously question their integrity and commitment to the residents of Northfield.

    The real problem Scott is the manner in which this has been run through the City without any thought for public input. For some to say we have had public input for the last several years is telling a joke. We have had cat fights between factions and just because some had their feelings hurt, the residents of Northfield are now being punished.

    You can stop others from pushing this through so quickly. Just because some have spent the last two years frustrated over this process, does not mean that Northfield residents need to suffer from a lack of transparency and accountability for apparent gain of efficiency.

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