We’re having Northfield Mayor Mary Rossing on our show today, live at 6 pm on KYMN 1080 AM. (The photo is from our January, 2009 podcast.)
Do you have questions for her that you’d like us to consider asking? (Note the word consider, please.) If so, attach a comment here or use our Contact Us form.
Update: 2/2, 7:25 am: Ross wasn’t able to attend. And the live show went for a full hour. Yikes!
Click play to listen. 60 minutes:
You can also download the MP3 or subscribe to the podcast feed, or subscribe directly with iTunes. Our radio show/podcast, Locally Grown, usually airs Mondays at 6:00 PM and Sundays at 10 AM on KYMN 1080 AM.
Thanks for holding your own. I agree that hiring someone to upkeep the city website is not a wise investment in this time of dramatic cuts in city finances.
Come on Griff! Its been 27 minutes… where is the podcast! 😎
Patrick, wouldn’t it be nice if the existing employees had the minimal technical skills required to keep their respective departments updated (or the library staff, who definitely have the requisite skills, could allocate their time in that direction)?
It might be nice, and maybe that should be considered going forward. The past is kinda hard to fix at this point.
On the other hand, I’ve already listened to at least 30 minutes of discussion of the city’s website deficiencies tonight – including a fair amount of discussion between you and Mary regarding your point in #3. That’s about all I can handle for today.
Our show with Mayor Mary Rossing lasted 60 minutes. The audio/episode is now available. See the blog post above.
Patrick, yes, I realize that I’m a broken record on some of these points, and some may feel I’m majoring on minors. However, problems can’t be addressed until they are pointed out; ignoring their existence doesn’t do anything to lead to a solution. I can appear fixated on a couple of “small” issues because they are such that can be greatly improved on fairly quickly, with minimal to no expense and in some cases cost savings, and help both city officials and citizens.
The past is past, but it also sheds light on where we are today and how we got here. Those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it, right? Especially in city government.
The web and A/V issue is obviously one of my hot buttons. I don’t like to be seen as an agitator and rabble-rouser when I’m just trying to make efficient and cost-effective use of significant monies that have already been spent, and on something that would be a great help to the City Council in their stated goal of improved communication and a more transparent way of working.
This may be a lame analogy, but I feel the way I would if my husband bought a top-of-the-line big-screen high-def television with theater surround-sound, Apple TV, a digital recorder… and used it solely to listen to CNN in real time.
In the podcast, Tracy, you say there are certain things you can’t get from the website. Could you be more specific about what is missing? Is it content? Ease of use? Aesthetics? Other?
Jane, I’d love to elaborate. I suppose people have heard me whining long enough without specifics. I’ll post something on my blog and then link to it here for comments.
So, everyone – were we too hard on Mary?
At the 47 minute mark, I cited problems with the communications/decision-making process around the the hotel market study and asked her about it.
So it seems like she was expecting that our radio show is somehow different than our blog. I’m not sure how she got the idea that we just ask public officials questions and then let them respond.
Maybe our show has too often just tossed gentle softballs at public officials instead of regularly mixing in some fast hardballs.
Yes, definitely… because instead of addressing the ROOT cause of the communications problems, you addressed only your ongoing concerns in your areas of expertise, i.e. the city’s website… although you certainly did say, Tracy, that more attention should be paid to the electronic skills of the employees when hiring, as is done in corporate situations.
But the basic cause of the lack in improvement in ‘communications’, if one would agree that the deficit is there, is, IMO, a philosophical one, i.e., we (neither council nor staff, for the most part) do not see ourselves PRIMARILY as public servants.
Example: If a councilor, as one does, uses the words “power’ and “control” when speaking of annexations of rural property, it makes a productive dialog much more difficult.
Another Example: If a citizen has to fill out a Data Practice Request to get what is non-protected PUBLIC information, that states an attitudinal positioning that is not citizen friendly , to say nothing of not being legal…
These are two simple examples that speak to the ideological positioning of a council which may, or may not in some councilor’s minds, wish to have a public service attitude and the responsibility that implies , as opposed to the ‘power’ that may be usurped.
I think Mary was right when she drew that distinction. Stating an opinion at a public official is very different from asking tough questions, or – if you prefer – pitching “fast hardballs.”
There were a couple of the latter in there, but there was also a fair bit of the former.
Maybe we expect too much “journalism” from your interviews, Tracy and Griff. Here’s what you say in “About Us” about the podcasts:
“focus our blogging and podcasting on
convening civil but opinionated conversations with citizens and community leaders
showing the community to itself via photos and video; and
delivering it all in a way that’s fun and at times irreverent. That keeps it interesting for us and hopefully for our site visitors, as we believe civic engagement should have hefty and regular doses of fun.”
We shouldn’t expect a PBS News Hour-like interview during the podcasts.
I thought Mayor Mary kept her cool and did an amazing job of reading between the lines of the “civilized but opinionated conversation” to glean some constructive criticism which she no doubt will take to heart.
At the Chamber forums, the Council and/or staff didn’t answer many questions, let alone tough questions. It seems as if almost every answer was, “We had a process; we made a decision; and we are moving ahead.”. I would be interested to hear the more experienced councilors on Locally Grown.
I’d take the opposite view… that we expect too little “journalism,” at least in the sense of factual accuracy and adequate effort to gather information before launching tabloid-worthy headlines. To be sure, the Locally Grown media empire is a proprietary enterprise, and its owners are free to do as they wish. But the city is under no obligation to generate content for them, nor to format public information in such a way to make it easier for bloggers to cut, paste and opine.
I thought the most telling part of the conversation was toward the end, when the Mayor called Griff on his habit of claiming that “everyone thinks…” and “the community wants…” when the issues are distinctly Griff’s. Does anyone not know how Griff feels about the city’s web site? To a carpenter, every problem looks like a nail.
Griff, how about taking a public pledge to speak only for yourself? That seems in keeping with the Locally Grown rules (“Be who you are IRL” and “Post only what you own” and “Don’t impersonate others”). I’d be happy to be part of a support group that helps you stick to “I” statements.
David, just because you don’t get the answer you want doesn’t mean the question wasn’t answered. When I watched the video of the first Camber forum, I thought the city council members present showed the patience of Job in listening to the rants. There were very few actual questions.
Randy, you’re right that I need to avoid making broad statements about what people/the community are saying/thinking and instead make sure that I’m making “I” statements. I think I’m better at that when I write but I need to get better at it when I’m on the air.
So I hereby take your challenge — a public pledge to speak only for myself — and hopefully Ross and Tracy will whack me upside the head if I blow it again.
I’ve got lots more to say about our show with Mayor Rossing. More to come, hopefully later today.
The first Chamber session was billed as a “listening session”. It was intended for the Council to hear our opinions. In the end, the Council acted contrary to opinions of the Chamber members on almost every issue without ever addressing what we thought were major concerns.
At the second session, the Chamber gave Council much more leeway, and an opportunity to answer questions presented in advance. The Council not only didn’t answer the specific questions, they took it as an opportunity to pitch their products. For example, Joel explained how the new Safety Center was going to be built. It didn’t feel like participatory government.
The general consensus from the forums is that the Chamber needs to have a different or better forum to be heard. The Chamber has a huge wealth of knowledge and experience. We sincerely believe that if we were consulted, rather than told what was being done that we could help make much better decisions. To be told that “we” had a process and the “we” are done really begs the larger questions about whether they were good decisions.
I realize that the last Council had a hard time getting anything done. But, this Council is acting way too fast especially considering the lack of experience in the job.
The Chamber is just another interest group – one among many, and with interests that do not always coincide with those of others in the community. Heck, they don’t even necessarily align with the interests of many business owners in this town.*
The Council listened, but was under no obligation to weigh Chamber interests over those of others.
Why didn’t anybody ask about important stuff. Like when the city will fix the potholes at 7th and Division? or 6th and Division. If they can’t fix the potholes I don’t know how you can expect them to fix anything. Including the website.
Patrick: They are under no obligation to weigh anyone’s best interest. However, the Chamber is a pretty sizable group, paying a very sizable portion of the property taxes. For our opinions to be brushed aside, or not seriously considered is not good goverance.
I apparently have a very different perspective than you on the Chamber’s first forum. I would hardly characterized the audience’s comments as “rants”.
What I heard was about a dozen folks who bravely stood up in a room of almost 100 people and described what had occurred in their business over the past 18 to 24 months. Most of the speakers cited dramatic declines in sales and incomes and the resulting need to cut jobs and reduce shifts.
To me, it sounded like folks sharing their personal and professional stories in order to help their elected officials understand the realities that many business owners are currently facing. I believe that these business people did so in the hope that their officials’ greater understanding of the current situation might shape their decision-making.
There was one individual, who I believe spoke at the very end, whose comments might have been accurately described as a rant. However, I think most of the people present were uncomfortable with the tone, even if they understood the source of the emotions. It would be unfortunate if anyone characterized the entire event by the comments of this one speaker.
I sincerely hope that the majority of the officials present at the forum valued the comments as sincere statements instead of dismissing them as angry rants. Such an approach might lead to better communication and, ideally, a more effective process.
Thank you all for bringing this discussion to actual issues. I was disappointed that my hour long discussion with Tracy and Griff barely touched on the issues in front of us today. We talked about tools for communicating, but being given an hour on the air is one of the best tools to communicate with YOU and we weren’t able to do that.
David, Ross and all that attended the chamber forums, all have spoken at council meetings, all who have emailed, called or who have spoken to me in person; I have heard you. I have listened and I continue to. I have taken your insights, opinions, ideas and put those together with the engineering studies, the recommendations of the citizen task force, the concerns raised in the minority report, the space needs studies, the opinions on the blogs and the public concerns that I have heard, and the ideas and opinions of my fellow council members.
They have all gone into a series of small decisions that the council has made over the last 10 months that have gotten us to where we are today. I believe that this has been a very deliberate process. All of the information is on the city website–just search safety center and you will have reading material a plenty. (I know Griff is rolling his eyes)
The first thing we did was establish the need. This was done initially through discussions with the departments and consultant. This was then reaffirmed by the citizen task force. The need is there. I invite you to tour the Safety Center if you need this part affirmed for yourself.
The next question was how to address that need. After working diligently for 90 days the citizen task force made recommendations as to how to accomplish this. They recommended a new combined facility at a different site. They were not given the task of looking at reuse of the current site. Other folks weighed in, and it was decided by the council and the task force that the next step was to conduct an engineering study to see how the current facility and or site could most economically be re-used. When these numbers were presented it was obvious that the best use of public funds would be to rebuild something on the current site if that was the direction taken rather than mitigating for flood issues and still not being able to use all of the current building.
The council then moved ahead with discussions at multiple work sessions and formulated some possible direction. We asked more questions, asked for more information in preparation for a November decision on the CIP. The significant decisions made then were to move ahead with splitting the safely pieces due to the best use of the current site–limitations due to access and future. Because of future expansion needs (20-40 years plus) of a police facility it became clearer that the best use of the current site would be to try and put the fire station there and find another site for police.
We also put together the timing senario and the not exceed $ amounts–significantly less than had been proposed because we listened to the concerns of the the business owners and citizens who are feeling the effects of a down economy!!
Remember that the Capital Improvement Plan is a PLAN. It is a tool to help us get our arms around the needs of the city and the projects that we plan to work toward accomplishing. Establishing a working CIP was one of the factors, by that way that helped us improve our bond rating to AA which will save us a lot of $$ on these projects!
Our challenge in the next two weeks will be to establish a funding strategy, and this where we NEED TOO HEAR FROM YOU!! Do you think that the request to sell bonds should go to the voters, and in what form? Safety Center and Library or just Safety Center? Or, are you of the opinion that your elected representatives should, having established the critical need for these projects, make the decision to use CIP bonds which does not require a public vote.
In the last 20 hours I have directly sent 100 emails to a variety of community members from various walks of life asking them to weigh in on this very question for me so that I can make the best decision on behalf of the entire community on how to move forward.
If you need more information I can answer questions or point you to where you might find answers. I believe that decisions should be made with good solid facts in hand, not hearsay and speculation, and certainly not colored by baggage that we carry from past disappointments. But I also believe that everyone has to take some responsibility to stay informed.
I have said repeatedly to the rest of the council, tell me what information you need in order to make the next decision and I (with staff help) will try to provide it. We ARE going to make decisions in a timely manner. This is one of the frustrations that I have heard for many years–Northfield is known for talking issues to death and then nothing gets implemented. Now we are faced with critical facility needs and I think the most responsible thing that I can do in a leadership position is to keep moving the ball slowly along. Baby steps at each meeting that after 6 months, 12 months, 4 years will add up to some real accomplishments. What those are depends on your input and how you communicate with your elected officials. I take this responsibility very seriously.
I completely understand that some folks don’t want to give their personal opinions via a public blog or at the open mike. I invite your emails to: firstname.lastname@example.org
I made no comment on the police/fire station(s). I was only disagreeing with Randy’s characterization of the comments at the Chamber forum as “rants”.
Perhaps I was being overly simplistic, but I was just trying to remember how much time was spent on each topic. From this analysis I attempted to offer a summary of the forum’s content.
The “summarize your current business situation” segment opened the meeting and seemed to me to be the longest. Yes, there were comments on the police/fire station(s) but according to my memory, about as much time was spent on the commercial property tax and water & sewer and stormwater management fee increases. In fact, the proposed streetlight fees might have been the biggest topic under the broader “municipal finances” discussion.
Quite honestly, if I were going to name the “second biggest topic” after “current business conditions” using my methodology, it wouldn’t be the police/fire station(s). Number two on my list would be the decision to replace Lampe with Hood; as you may recall, that was a pretty hot topic at the forum.
Thank you for asking 100 people for their thoughts on financing methods for the police/fire station(s) and library expansion. I hope commercial property owners are well-represented in your group.
Mary, I’d like to ask a very sincere question which (I hope) will point out some of the gaps in the communication between City and citizens/taxpayers which could so easily be filled.
*I* didn’t get a personal email, so obviously you don’t care what I think. (NOTE: I’m not at all offended – I could have weighed in on the CIP at many points in the past. I’m just illustrating a potential pitfall: You made a personal effort which should be commended rather than criticized, but the medium used to solicit input carries its own hazards. Wouldn’t it have been more convenient, as well as more effective, if you’d had another readily accessible way to broadcast your question and get responses in a timely manner from a number of residents?)
I DO appreciate your going the extra mile to solicit input on this as well as many other issues. So my question is…
Where can the citizens see/hear/read exactly what input you requested, and what the responses have been?
That’s the benefit of an open, public forum that operates in real time. The City has the technology already; it just needs to use it better.
Boomer reference* (slightly before my time): “We have the technology. We can rebuild him.”
Mary: I would echo what Ross said. I have never seen Chamber forums with so many business people speaking so passionately about so many issues.
For example, on the Safety Center and library, there was a clear message that times are tough, property taxes are already high and they are only going to go higher with this massive spending. The alternatives proposed – including the Minority Report never saw the light of day. The consensus that I have heard around town is that the Council picked the worst possible alternative.
When Joel responded to the question about what the Chamber could do to work with the City to evaluate whether this was a good choice, he brushed off the question and started talking about hiring architects for the new buildings.
Somehow, some way, the Chamber would like, and I think the people deserve, to get a “real” study of the Safety Center. We would like to examine issues like the flood plain, a second entrance off of Highway 3, adding onto the building, the air exchange concern, and reuse of the building. It just feels like the answers that we got were all the worst case scenarios more designed to justify the actions than an honest appraisal of the merits. Cheaper and sufficient alternatives exist.
“We had a process. We decided. We need to move forward.” is what I am hearing. Northfield certainly has a history of lots of consultants and studies and little action. So more action and less studying is justified. But, I think “we” have gone overboard the other direction. (By “we” I mean Joel and the four new Council people.)
David, you are a consistent and articulate spokesperson for your special interest group, but please stop claiming there’s a “consensus…around town” about the Safety Center or any other issue. There isn’t. You don’t speak for all business owners, let alone all taxpayers or all citizens.
I wish the council would refuse to participate in special meetings with interest groups like yours. If they feel the need for your perspective, they can invite you to participate in a work session or city council meeting. If you feel you need to express an opinion, you and your fellow Chamber members can speak at the open mic during a council meeting.
Randy: The Council didn’t invite the Chamber. We invited them. We tried to get invited on a regular basis and were told no. I would think that the Council would be interested in getting our members’ expertise and the general feeling of the business community. I would hope that they appreciated getting invited so that there can hear from people.
That said, your post is a fairly accurate reflection of what I heard at the Chamber forums – if we want your opinion we will ask for it. In all seriousness, I don’t know if the Council really cares to make public input an active component of decision-making.
Heck, the Council seems to be wrestling over whether there should be a public vote on funding the Safety Center and the library. I would think that is a no-brainer. If you want to spend the public’s money, why wouldn’t you let the public vote?
The public does vote — every four years when we elect the mayor and city council members to represent us and conduct the public’s business. That’s the most transparent process we have.
Every citizen has unlimited opportunity to communicate with his or her elected representatives. You seem to feel entitled to privileged access to elected officials in between elections. That seems to me to be poor public policy, whether the special interest is the Chamber of Commerce or the Left-Handed Conservationists Association of Rice County. If the council was having private forums with some special interest group holding views antithetical to yours, you’d probably be up in arms about it.
I don’t fault your group for seeking more private influence — that’s what lobbying is all about. I fault the council for giving into the request. It is a very bad precedent.
Randy: It was our meeting. Council members weren’t forced to come. And, they, not the Chamber, decided who would be front and center. When they did show they weren’t required to isten, or participate. Nevertheless, I think there is great value in Council members showing up and listening to the concerns of the taxpayers. I don’t understand how that is bad precedent.
Further, I can’t believe that the Council is seriously considering not putting the Safety Center and the library up for a vote. Council member Pokorney asked Chamber members at the meeting; about 90% favored a vote.
I’m not trying to turn this into a “them” and “us”, especially at the Chamber level. But, the simple fact is that I have not heard much support for most of the Council’s recent “hot button” decisions.
Randy… Obviously, you are angry with me, so let me first say my response here has nothing to do with your expressed anger to me…
But I simply don’t understand your seeming anger with David( and i don’t always agree with David, but be fair) on the subject of the Chamber/Council forum… Is it somehow inappropriate for a council to listen to a collection of the town’s business people?
Are you saying that in between elections no one should have an opinion on their representatives? Or whether the citizens think they’re being represented…
Your comment would indicate that once a group has been elected, they should function in a vacuum until the next time a voter has the right to express a preference, i.e. election time.
You recommend speaking at Open Mic… Isn’t that essentially “lobbying”, which you have expressed some disdain for in your comment. And I might add, speaking at Open Mic is rather like throwing notes in a bottle into the Cannon River.
Isn’t doing PR for the EDA, or the City, essentially lobbying?
Kiffi (and David),
I’m not angry with David. I know him well enough in real life to argue with him forcefully here and in person, but I don’t question that he argues from genuinely held views. We just disagree about this particular set of concerns. I do wish David would stop making claims for “taxpayers” and “the people” and “the community” when he advocates his own point of view and/or that of the special interest group to which he belongs. Maybe I can get him to take the pledge Griff agreed to, to speak only for himself…
I’m also not angry about the Chamber lobbying. That’s part of the process. But I don’t recall the Chamber being elected to represent what’s in the best interests of the community as a whole. I fundamentally disagree that business owners “deserve” any more access to public officials than is available to any citizen. That doesn’t seem like such a radical idea. The Chamber is certainly free to invite the city council to a private meeting or a semi-private meeting. But I find it a troubling interference with open, transparent government, and I wish the council had said no to it. I’m frankly a little surprised that the League of Women Voters and other good-government watchdogs haven’t been more exercised about it.
I could swear that Randy’s position was yours not too long ago, regarding people (bobo’s, nimpu’s, and I forget what else) who speak at open mic and expect their concerns to be heard above others. (I’ll need to do some googling later to confirm my recollection.) I think I agree with you then, and Randy now.
Thank you for your reasoned responses. I don’t detect any anger in your writings here – either toward David, or toward Kiffi.
I’m sorry about this digression from your challenge. I’d love to take a stab at your requests, but – being relatively ‘big questions’ – yours deserve more than an off-the-cuff answer.
The decision about which mechanism to fund the facilities projects is on the council’s agenda for the February 9 meeting. There is very good backup information included in the packet, spelling out the 3 possible bonding options, tax implications, etc. Good reading – and in plenty of time for people to ask for more information if necessary before letting council members know which option they prefer. Even a luddite like me found this stuff easily on the city’s website! Check it out.
Sorry to be a dud… I unexpectedly got swamped with client work. Good problem to have, tho.
I hope to comment later today and again on Sunday.
Jane: This Luddite couldn’t find it.
David – it is #15 on the special meeting agenda. Here’s the link to the packet – you’ll have to scroll down almost to the end.
It looks like the City is also putting bids out for architects in addition to deciding the financing. It looks like the Council’s Safety Center plan remains – Full Speed Ahead, Damn the Torpedoes.
I’d like to respond to a point you made last week:
True, the city isn’t obligated. But why wouldn’t the City want to encourage online public discussion of city-related info and issues?
Harvard’s Nieman Journaslim Lab has this blog post today titled: The Internet golden age of local policy debate
I didn’t agree with the Safety Center Task Force recommendation (I’ve been more of a Minority Report supporter) and I didn’t agree with the Council’s ultimate decision but I actually think the decision-making and public engagement process was pretty darn good for most of last year up until November. You wrote above:
Yes, mine eyes be rolling a bit! I think the Safety Center communications process broke down in November as the Council prepared for and then made its decision.
As I commented last November, the City’s web site has two separate project web pages for the Safety Center:
1. Which is the most authoritative and the one we should link to?
2. More importantly, looking at either one of those pages, how would a citizen who’s now curious about the Safety Center plans for 2010 know that the Council did not accept the Task Force’s recommendation to build a new combined facility?
3. Most importantly, where would a citizen find the Council’s rationale for its decision to reject the Task Force’s recommendation and opt for reuse of the existing Safety Center location for new fire station and a new location for police station?
It’s not just me who wants more clarity on the rationale. And it’s not just David Ludescher who listened to you on KYMN. The editorial writers at the Northfield News complained, too: Case for splitting facilities isn’t clear.
So that’s a grand total of 4 or maybe 5 people (I took Randy’s pledge!) who’d like that rationale in more detail.
And I’d like it in form that can be linkable with text that can be copied so that we bloggers (Councilor Buckheit included) can easily dissect it for public policy discussions online. Note that the Safety Center Task force recommendation PDF is not text. It’s a scan of a printout. Very frustrating.
One problem I see, Griff, is that work sessions have no minutes or notes, and often discussion there is important to understanding the council’s decisions. I think may be the case with the “rejection of the Task Force recommendations.”
A lot of important information and deliberation is had these meetings. (OF course, the LWV observer tries to record these, but who ever looks at those notes?)
Jane, I agree, that’s a problem.
But it’s the same problem with all the informal but important discussions that happen at the various boards and commissions meetings. And it sometimes causes big problems.
Remember the flap last summer between the Council and Parks and Rec Advisory Board re: the skate park? The short version:
PRAB: “We’ve already considered all the pros and cons of each park!”
Council: “Well, there’s no record that you have. Therefore, we’ll take over from here.”
Okay, not quite accurate but close enough.
You indicated on our show that there was room for improvement in the area of engagement/communications between the City and the public over the course of the year. I think you said something like, “Are we perfect? No. Can we improve? Certainly.”
But you didn’t offer specifics.
Part of my frustration with the recent goal setting session was that there didn’t appear to be any time spent on “Where did we makes mistakes last year and what can we learn from them?”
So how about some specifics? Were there any problems with the City’s public engagement, transparency, and communications regarding these or other issues? And if so, do you have thoughts about what might be done differently?
I should emphasize that I’m not interested in discussing the outcomes or the content of these issues but just the ‘how’ – transparency, engagement, communications, etc.
Mary, you and Joel Walinski graciously invited me to a Council meeting last March to present my ideas for improving citizen communications. That generated some follow-up questions from you and some Councilors which I answered. But nothing ever came of it and I’m not sure why.
I recently learned that Arcata, California (same size as Northfield) has implemented an Online Public e-Comments system that’s nearly exactly what I proposed in the Part A: Online Open Mic portion of my proposal.
See the Aracata how-it-works page, and their sample agenda which links to their sample e-Comments form.
I’m not arguing that adopting something like this will solve all communications problems, just like I’m not arguing that fixing the problems with the City’s web site will either. (I disagree with Tracy that hiring a web person would help.)
And lest I be accused of being a carpenter whose only tool is a hammer and therefore every problem looks like a nail, I’ve been arguing for years (since my Utne Reader Neighborhood Salon days in the 90s) that all Councilors should be holding regular face-to-face (F2F) Ward meetings. I think there was one such meeting in 2009 by Erica Zweifel. I don’t think there was any discussion of having more F2F Ward meetings at the Council Goal Setting session but correct me if I’m wrong.
So why not have more F2F Ward meetings? And why not test the Arcata public e-comments model?
While just 10 people have chimed in with comments to this blog post discussion, over 600 people have clicked on the post at least once. About 80 have clicked on or downloaded the audio.
My point is that more people than one might think are using newer online tools to pay attention to City Hall.
Why not start learning to use these tools to take advantage of this interest?
There were three F2F Ward meetings held by councilors last year. I held two meetings, one at the Northfield Retirement Center and another one at Emmaus Baptist church. Betsey and Jim held a joint Ward meeting at the Safety Center. I am in the process of planning a Ward meeting for March and am just working out a few scheduling details, so watch for that announcement soon.
I stand corrected, Erica. Thank you for that. I do see Betsey’s blog post on the combo Ward meeting in June with Jim Pokorney at:
She reported that 15 people attended on a Saturday morning. What was the turnout for your two Ward meetings?
Jane, your LWV report on Tuesday’s Council meeting re: financing on the Safety Center differs from David Henke’s article in yesterday’s Nfld News.
Your report indicates that the COUNCIL needs more information before deciding. David’s report and quote from Mayor Rossing indicates that she thinks the PUBLIC needs more information.
David Henke’s article in yesterday’s Nfld News:
Your private email to 100 hand-picked citizens asking for their input on a funding strategy for the Safety Center evidently had a major impact on the Council on Monday.
I’d like to echo Tracy’s objections above in comment #13.
The public doesn’t get to see your email invite and the public doesn’t get to see the responses that affected yours and the Council’s decision.
Can you understand why an opponent to proceeding with the Safety Center construction right now might wonder what you REALLY got in your private email responses?
I get criticized for hosting straw polls here on LG but I’m careful to pitch them as straw polls, that they should not be considered representative of the public at-large. And the straw poll questions, results and comments are all publicly viewable. Your email poll had none of that.
Can you see how this is a transparency problem?
Sorry for the confusion. You’re correct, Griff. Mary did say that in her attempts at outreach, she found that the public needed more information. During the discussion at the council meeting, it was evident to me that the council also needed information about land cost for the police facility, whether replacing the fire facility is feasible and whether their original $8.5 would be sufficient, and perhaps other things, before deciding on the method for funding the projects, and, perhaps, the amount.
If you look at the RFP (http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/p/Packet159.pdf, #14) you’ll see that the council will get much of that information from the work the engineers and architects will do. After the meeting, I asked Joel Walinski about the timing of the financing discussion, saying it seemed premature. He said that earlier the council had scheduled the discussion/decision for this time, and he felt it necessary to abide by that timeline. That accounts for Mary’s recent efforts to gather people’s views on the financing options. I suspect other councilors were doing the same, though maybe not as visibly.
Does that make sense?
My first Ward meeting at the Northfield Retirement Center had about 35 people in attendance and my next Ward meeting at Emmaus church was attended by 10 people. There was some overlap in the folks attending but not too much. I am trying to move my Ward meetings around the Ward to accommodate the diversity of the Third Ward. My next Ward meeting will be held on the St Olaf campus with dates and topics to follow soon.
Griff and Tracy,
With all due respect,
I made a plea via locally grown for input on the funding decision because I wanted the public to weigh in–anyone and everyone. But no one did. 600 readers and 80 audio listeners. Not either of you or any of them gave me input on a strategy. Not a single peep.
However, when I have asked people personally in casual conversation–on the street, in a coffee house at various functions–or more formally–direct phone calls and emails–the response has been overwhelming with opinions.
What does this tell us? I’m not sure. Perhaps people don’t necessarily want their comments read or listened to by others. I respect their privacy. I don’t think this is a lack of transparency on the part of this elected representative. Anyone can contact me at anytime with an opinion or with advice. And I, as well as the other councilors take all this information and put it together to figure out how we might best proceed. Then we come to the council meetings and worksessions prepared to discuss very publicly with each other. The public can also weigh in at this time at the open mike and we appreciate the additional input. The discussion happens between the council in public and the decision happens in public.
I appreciate the place of the blog and the internet for public discourse, but it is clearly not the tool that everyone feels comfortable using because of the public nature of the conversation. We need a variety of tools to gather information. This is one.
Mayor Mary is correct in her assessment of how the NF public feels about speaking in public.
Remember this is the town with an unending number of jokes about the unoccupied front pew…
I feel sorry for the elected ones who try to figure these things out and have so little success at obtaining a PUBLIC opinion of the public’s opinion.
But then you must reckon this into the mix… what happens when a person goes to open mic? Supposedly a written request will occasion a written answer… not so, in my experience.
And that open mic comment may occasion an untruthful criticism by an elected official at the end of the meeting, and when the citizen asks the mayor if they may respond, and is told: no, the public may not speak now… well, that is daunting.
Or, more of the ‘mix’: the swamp of anonymous bloggers begins to “gyre and gimbel in the wabe” and even the “mome raths outgrabe”! (Forgive me, Lewis Carroll, if I have misspelled your words! )
This is a difficult town in which to tell the truth; it is as if there are penalties for doing so, penalties from those ‘on high’. and also the lowest of the anonymous low.
So, what is a poor Mayor to do, but take her public input where she finds it…, and it is very difficult to sort out when the comfort level of expressing opinion is so fragile.
There is not a wide breadth of opinion here on LG; god knows there is less in the anonymous arena, and when dissenting opinions , and minority reports, are not valued as a genuine part of the public discussion, the honest discussion will, by that nature, remain elusive.
Mayor Rossing tried to get opinions with her 100 e-mails; that is a valid try. It would be proven valid if some of the 100 were known ideological opponents.
But, Tracy and Griff, Mayor Rossing did try… whether or not you think the ‘try’ was a fair one.
Try being in the public eye when you are not the ruler, or two-thirds of the ruler, of the ‘sandbox’.
P.S. Griff, and Tracy… I would have said more, but I am “holding back”; sincerely, I am!
Many of us are still trying to figure out how we ended up with a new fire station at the present site.
Whatever you do, let the voters decide if they really want to spend this kind of money (and probably a lot more). I would also like the Council to explore ways to even out the costs so that businesses aren’t spending 2 or 3 times as much for the same fire protection as residences for the same value businesses.
Can something like an enterprise fund work?
Thank you David. A gold star for being the first to weigh in on my question on LoGro. Thank you very much. I don’t know the answer to your question about enterprise funds. The three options presented to us were Referendum bonds, CIP bonds and Public Project Revenue Bonds. The first two have the best rates. A 20 year amortization is recommended but payments can be graduated to ease the burden while the economy recovers. The NCRC will also be paid off in 2017, I believe, which is important to remember. I am certainly sensitive to the disparity for business in the tax structure set up by the state!
One of the things that came out of the council discussion Tuesday night was that is apparent that we are at a point where we need the more specific information on site selection and feasibility that an architect/engineering firm can bring to the table. The feasibility of putting a fire station on the current site needs to be further explored. Does it work there and does it work there within the budget? As a council we feel this is worth pursuing to get an answer. If the answer is no then we look at other options.
Meanwhile we will be looking for help on finding the best site for a police station and a professional firm can help us with this as well. How might a building work on the top 2-3 sites–for instance if we want to try and use some alternative energy strategies what site might be best for this. The next step is to gather more detailed information so that we can present some options and more concrete ideas to the public for input. (Presenting a strategy for public input is part of the RFP)
One tidbit of note from my 100 emails experiment is that I heard back from three people who took my question with them to private dinners and coffee events and had deliberate conversations with groups of friends of 3-8 which they then relayed back to me. I commend the conversations. No doubt there will be many more, and I look forward to hearing ideas as we go along.
I do not check LoGroNo as often as others but a few things from this thread and your comments raise concerns in me.
What is the pressing need for a new fire and police station? Is the current location not meeting the current needs of the city?
I am aware as the city grows there may be a need in the future. However I am only willing to deal in the here and now. Feel free to call this a short sighted approach. I do not necessarily disagree. However when the city feels they need to add an additional tax to fund street lights perhaps building a new “safety” center is not in our best interests.
It seems to me that the city needs to get its fiscal house in order before going forward with any new projects. Right now I do not get the feeling that fiscal responsibility is a priority of the council or staff.
I agree with David, the city residents should have a say on this via a vote.
Also if I may ask a question, how much to this point has the city spent in studying this issue?
From large items like the “safety” center to paying nearly 10k to see if we can lure in a new hotel it seems that we could do better as a city with our tax dollars.
Here is a place for you to start reading about the immediate needs. http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/projects/pd/2009/02/09/safety_center_task_force
You might start with the “facility analysis” document. I also encourage you to take a tour of the facility to see concerns for yourself.
I wrote an opinion piece for the Northfield News the first week of January regarding our successes in getting the City’s fiscal house in order over the past year that might be helpful to review.
Mary, I take your point. However, a large part of the frustration I hear from people is that it’s not easy to become informed about a significant and complicated issue such as the CIP and/or funding strategy if one hasn’t followed it for months.
What would you recommend for a concerned citizen/taxpayer who wants to give you an informed opinion but hasn’t been following the issue? Where does such a person start?
You are correct in the statement that it is not easy to become informed on an issue if one has not been following it for months. It’s not even easy to have an informed opinion on an issue if one HAS been faithfully reading the council packets, staff reports, watching the council meetings–in person, via cable or streaming on KYMN, reading Jane’s comprehensive reports on the League of Women Voters site, reading the Northfield News, listening to the recaps of the council meetings that I do every morning after the meetings and worksessions on KYMN, reading the weekly Friday memos or the monthly board and commmission reports and searching for information on the City website. It is not easy. But I do think that there is quite a bit out there. As a last resort, call me or email your question. If I don’t know the answer I will try to find it out.
I do appreciate Janes comments above in post #15:
“The decision about which mechanism to fund the facilities projects is on the council’s agenda for the February 9 meeting. There is very good backup information included in the packet, spelling out the 3 possible bonding options, tax implications, etc. Good reading – and in plenty of time for people to ask for more information if necessary before letting council members know which option they prefer. Even a luddite like me found this stuff easily on the city’s website! Check it out.
Mayor Rossing: I took a tour of the facility with a group of 8 or so people. The consensus, and perhaps the unanimous opinion, was that the building was crowded, but definitely serviceable. But, no one asked for our opinion. Given that our tour was the same day as the Council vote, it certainly appeared that the City was giving tours to the malcontents, rather than seeking citizen input.
I would hope that the City would still be open to sincere oppositional opinions from guys like Ray Cox and Jerry Anderson, or interested Chamber members. There is simply no way that the City is going to be able to tear down one building and build two new buildings $8.5 million. The estimate for one big building was over $10.0 million. Ray’s proposal gets us one building quickly, at a substantially reduced cost, without interruption of service, and tons of rooms and money for police expansion.
I have heard the new Council asking for input, and even doing a great job of being available and listening. But, in the end, what matters is whether a good decision was made, not whether a good process was followed. The reaction that I have received is that times are tough so the Council should be looking at inexpensive solutions for needed capital improvements and should hold off on expanding services for non-core government activities (i.e. the library).
If that message is being heard, there hasn’t been much acknowledgement of hearing, and certainly not a reasoned response as to why the chosen method is perferable. As I said earlier, what I am hearing is, “We had a process; we decided; we are moving on.”. I applaud this Council for being able to act. However, I do question whether the Council is moving faster than its knowledge or experience.
Mary, on our radio show/podcast this week (I just blogged it), we addressed many of the issues we’ve been discussing here with you. Later today or tomorrow, I’ll reiterate my views with some individual comments here, as that’ll make it easier for everyone to track the discussion on specific issues.
In the meantime, thanks much for engaging with us here. If you’d be willing to continue for one more week, I’d appreciate it. (I usually advise public officials to put time limits on their online discussions.)
I can give you three more days but then I will be out of technology range for a few days.
A couple of points to your radio discussion. I still see value in the input on issues that I have gotten privately whether emails, phone calls or conversations and have a problem with your suggestion that because I don’t make them public that there is a lack of transparency in my decision making. Perhaps we will just differ on this issue. No, you don’t know what questions I ask of someone in a personal conversation and how they are answered, but that doesn’t mean I am being secretive. Just respecting peoples’ privacy. I can, however, summarize some of the thoughts that I have heard, as I did at the last council meeting, and I have in the past.
As to a straw pole, more helpful is when opinions can be relayed to me in more conversational manner so I can gage what information they might or might not have used to formulate their opinion. I know that the councilors have read the packet and have had the opportunity to ask questions for clarification of staff, but sometimes I have to clarify issues for citizens. This leads into the next discussion:
I remember that you specifically asked each councilor for the reasoning behind their decision on the Ames Park issue last year and most/all posted a couple of paragraphs. Ross made the point that if he knew the “why” behind a vote this would help tremendously. As the mayor, my job is to facilitate the discussions at the work sessions and meetings, and to make sure that councilors questions and concerns are addressed so that they can formulate their decision. They can give their reasons for voting as part of that discussion, or not, but you can often tell what they are thinking and why they are voting a certain way by listening to the discussion. (I don’t ever ask them ahead of time how they might be voting! and I would be very cautious about them doing this on a blog where other councilors could read it before a vote) This does not get captured in minutes, of course, so you have to watch the discussion via video or in person. I will take it as a personal challenge to try and give reasons for my votes as part of the discussion summary when appropriate.
Regarding improvements on the website, we had a short update from administrator Walinski on Tuesday about the lazer fische project that is starting in March. All of the city’s documents will be scanned in so that they be digitized and thereby searched more easily. Our goal is to start now and go back 4 years in every department. Administration (council documents) will go back much further. After that I believe we can proceed with some enhancements/changes to the website. Again, a you know, I am technologically challenged, so the specifics of this efforts might be better addressed by our IT director Melissa Reeder.
Finally, to your desire to have the council have a discussion about “what we could do better” by critiquing process on some of the issues from the past year, this will be woven into our ongoing discussions of improving communication. We spent a good deal of time on this Tuesday and this week we are all working on assigning responsibilities to strategies outlined at our goal setting session in January. Self criticism can be very useful and I’m sure will be a part of this ongoing discussion.
Thanks much, Mary. More to come today.
Mary, of course I see value in citizens having private communications with their elected officials. But this wasn’t an informal process in which citizens took it upon themselves to contact you on their own initiative via phone or email or at your store to weigh in on the financing of the Safety Center. This was your private straw poll via email, sent to your selected group of citizens, the results of which ultimately influenced you and the Council.
It would have been much better if you had publicly announced your request for feedback so that all the media and bloggers could help get the word out. Better yet would have been to steer people to a public web page where they could weigh in. You can always include the invitation for people to contact to via private email, phone, or face-to-face if they didn’t want to weigh in publicly.
Your invitation here on Locally Grown (comment #11) was one paragraph buried in the midst of a much longer comment in a blog post discussion whose purpose was not at all focused on the financing of the Safety Center. That’s not a way to get feedback online.
For you to then write us off with “I made a plea via locally grown for input on the funding decision because I wanted the public to weigh in–anyone and everyone” and that you “appreciate the place of the blog and the internet for public discourse, but it is clearly not the tool that everyone feels comfortable using because of the public nature of the conversation.”
We hosted a straw poll last Feb. The Ames Park Master Plan: getting closer to finalization (straw poll on skate plaza) that garnered 60 responses with 60+ comments. We hosted another in April, Locate skate plaza in Ames Park or not? that had 128 responses, with 20 comments. We hosted a discussion on the June 1st decision, Council rejects Ames as skate plaza site and then rejects Park Board from further planning that generated another 83 comments. And we followed that up a week later with Give feedback to the City Council on their skatepark deliberations: Online open mic, straw poll, or both.
For you to reject the notion of a straw poll because “more helpful is when opinions can be relayed to me in more conversational manner so I can gage what information they might or might not have used to formulate their opinion” ignores the fact that those blog posts and straw polls generated over 160 comments “in a conversational manner.”
I’m not arguing that online straw polls and online discussions should have more influence than other means for citizens to weigh in on issues and engage with public officials. And of course not everyone feels comfortable weighing in publicly. (The problem is the same, if not more so, with open mic.)
I’m just objecting to your characterization of online as ineffective, and that your preference for selective solicitation via private email is problematic.
If you’d like us to do a straw poll (with comments and conversation) on the financing of the Safety Center, let us know. I’d even ask for your help (and everyone else’s) on designing it.
Mary, I think it’s unconscionable for the City to pursue an expensive Laserfiche/document management system right now. Taxpayers shelled out $80,000 for a new website just 5 years ago that was supposed to address that and other issues.
Something has failed. Is it a problem with the platform? Training? Skills? I think Council and staff owe taxpayers an explanation of the pros and cons of that $80K expenditure before more money is spent.
But a bigger issue is that Laserfiche is not going to do much at all for public communications/engagement. It’s just a fancy database for document retrieval. It does nothing to help the City swim with its citizens in the ocean of social media that surrounds us.
Joel Walinski’s Friday Memo is a case in point. It’s a PDF lump. No one can link to items within it. No one can comment on it. There are no links within it to other parts of the City’s website or to other documents that make it easy for citizens to go deeper. And publishing a PDF like that makes it more likely that staff won’t bother with images, photos, audio, and video to help get their message across to citizens.
All of that social publishing can be quickly and easily done nowadays by millions of US citizens with free web-based tools. But our City staff can’t do it with an $80,000 website. And now the staff wants to create thousands of more PDF lumps with a Laserfiche system.
Over 70 citizens have become fans of the City of Northfield’s Facebook Fan Page, even though its completely dormant. People are eager for engagement but the City’s going to give us Laserfiche. That makes no sense to me.
Mary, yes, I made a concerted effort last year to pursue “each councilor for the reasoning behind their decision on the Ames Park issue last year.” I really think it’s helpful for the public to have this, even if they disagree with those decisions.
So here we are, 3 months after a far bigger decision (Safety Center) with another big decision looming (financing of it) and there’s no rationale available, either collectively or from individual councilors, to help the citizenry understand how the Council got to its Safety Center decision after rejecting the Task Force recommendation.
And how can you argue that all the information a citizen could need is on the web site? Where? As I wrote above in comment 17, the communications about the Safety Center pretty much stopped with the publication of the Task Force’s recommendation in August.
True, your job is to “to facilitate the discussions at the work sessions and meetings.” But why isn’t public communications part of it? Why not publish your rationale for your vote? Why not push the Councilors to do likewise? One of the council’s goals for 2009 was public communications. Why isn’t this an example of a failure to meet that goal?
You and the Council are going to most likely be asking the citizens to support the financing of the Safety Center with a referendum in the fall. But you don’t want to give us your rationale for it? That’s feels insulting to me, though I know it’s not intended to be.
And I think it’ll be MORE insulting for the Council to spend a few thousand more dollars on a PR campaign to convince us to support the referendum. “No, we can’t be bothered to explain our rationale publicly. Here’s a brochure.”
Mary, there’s no beef in your comment that you support council self-criticism and plan to weave it into “ongoing discussions of improving communication.”
It didn’t happen with any specificity related to 2009 issues and unless you take time for it now, how can you argue that you’ll do better for 2010?
I was hoping to see concrete self-criticism come out of the Council’s goal setting session a month ago. For example, regarding the proposed streetlight utility fee, Betsey Buckheit wrote in a blog post last October:
Why not do a little case study to see what can be learned from that streetlight utility fee process? Or pick any one of the other 2009 issues I listed above in comment #19. The goal setting retreat would have been a perfect time to do this since public communications was a goal for the year. It was disappointing to see the opportunity go down the drain.
Okay, ‘nuff for now. Thanks for engaging!
Tech tip to everyone:
I’ve turned on an additional level of threaded commenting, so there’s now a ‘reply’ link attached to each comment to a comment (3 levels of threading). Consider using the feature, but if you don’t, no biggie.
I haven’t had time to digest the many lengthy comments on this topic. But I have gleaned some valuable tidbits, such as Jane McWilliams’ comment that there are no notes or minutes taken in Council work sessions. Were it not for her observer reports for Feb. 9 and Feb. 16, I’d have no idea what transpired.
Also, the controversy over choice of law firm, as Ross mentions, certainly has not died down. I will be studying Atty Hood’s 4-pg handout from the Feb. 16 work session (Mayor Rossing called it “Annexation 101” on KYMN the following day) to see if it qualifies as information or propaganda. I suspect there is some of each. Someone want to post it here?
Stephanie – you’ll find the outline the city attorney provided here:
If you have time, you might want to look at a video of the work session – either on KYMN (http://www.ustream.tv/channel/kymn-live) or NTV – to get the flavor of the discussion of annexation. Now that the council meets on Tuesday, I don’t know when NTV runs the video. It used to be on the Tuesday after the council meeting. It appears they haven’t changed the schedule on the website.
Stephanie: It is somewhat informational. However, none of it applies to Northfield’s current situation. It sure looks pretty though.
The worksession discussion on annexation confirmed for me that we made the right choice for city attorney. Mr Hood’s handout is clear basic information not propaganda or advocacy for a position. His ability to respond in detail to questions with specific examples of what has worked well (and not so well) in other places was invaluable. Whatever the Council (remember, the Council directs the attorney, not the other way around) decides to do regarding annexation, I am confident of his advice.
Further, the worksession was intended to be general information about annexation, not a discussion of any particular annexation agreement, relationship with any township, or any proposed annexation. As such, it answered some questions, but did not even touch on others. There is certainly much more to be said on the subject.
Betsey: The propaganda portion is illustrated by one of Hood’s questions, “What are the effects of years of bad annexation laws in Minnesota?”.
I don’t see the need for an “annexation” attorney. Northfield already has 530 acres, and another 400+ acres wanting in. It seems to me that the real work of the City is Ross’s concern from the beginning – how to expand City services to these areas in a cost effective manner.
Regarding Waterford, what is needed more than legal advice is counseling in the law. Northfield could stop payments to Waterford, but is it prudent to be breaking a contract with Waterford at the same time that we are trying to broker deals with Greenvale and Bridgewater?
For folks interested in”counselor reasoning,” the March 9 meeting would be a good place to find it. Mayor Rossing, at Tuesday’s meeting, said that after the discussion that night about annexation in general, in March they would be looking at “guiding principles.” I’m not sure just what that means, but one topic I hope they will discuss is how much land should the city annex and for what purposes?
The EDA consultant, with the Comp Plan as a guide, is working on a plan for the NW territory, and is waiting in the wings to do the same for the Rice Creek area. The Comp Plan guides both areas for business development. How much business development do we need? How much development can we reasonably anticipate in the next 25 years? At what cost? What is the best use for the Rice Creek area? What other reasons could a city use to justify annexation? Should the Comp Plan be revisited? Who is in charge setting the policy for annexation – the council or the EDA?
As Betsey says, “There is certainly much more to be said on the subject.”
Here are the policy questions/comments I sent Mary Rossing and Joel Walinski prior to the worksession:
What Northfield does want to accomplish through annexation?
Do we want to annex land for future use and why?
If we annex land for which we have no immediate (or even foreseeable) need, how do we best protect and manage land annexed for the future to ensure our goals are met?
In particular, how do we protect ag land, open space and significant natural resources?
Reading the Comp Plan, I believe Northfield’s goals are compact development, preserving a rural edge of the city, and preserving natural resources. Developing at the edges should happen only when other options are not available.
After the work session, I would say that Mary Rossing is more interested in economic development, although she did not provide many details Joel Walinski appears to believe that because the Prawer-Gill area has been guided for industrial development since 1977 (with a small hiatus when a golf course was considered), this points us toward annexation. I wish they would weigh in and explain their positions.
At the worksession, we also had a relatively educational (for me, anyway) discussion of joint planning and how that might work with townships, as well as annexation triggered by specific development steps.
However, because the session was carefully contained to general disucssion of annexation, the big questions I posed at the top were considered only to the extent that the Council seemed to think they should be answered sometime…but they haven’t been yet.
I’ve also been advocating to Joel Walinski that we should do much more robust impact analysis of annexation because I believe the costs to the city have not been fully accounted for.
You are all asking good questions and I urge you to ask them of the mayor, other council members and city staff directly.
.-= (Betsey Buckheit is a blogger. See a recent post titled January recap) =-.
I’ve been getting criticized lately for urging more of Northfield’s civic leaders (city, county, school district, hospital, colleges, non-profits, etc.) to consider using social media tools like blogs and Twitter as ways to help foster more public engagement, transparency, trust, communications, etc.
It’s okay. I can take it. 😉
I visited the White House blog tonight and noticed that the Obama administration now has ten blogs. See the right sidebar:
* The White House
* Middle Class Task Force
* Council of Economic Advisers
* Council on Environmental Quality
* Office of Management and Budget
* Office of Public Engagement
* Office of Science & Tech Policy
* Open Government
* US Trade Representative
And earlier this evening, this post to the White House blog:
The White House Asks
Posted by Kori Schulman on March 02, 2010 at 06:09 PM EST
Today’s Nfld News: City chief gets mixed marks in review
I’m pleased that councilors Erica Zweifel and Rhonda Pownell are acknowledging the public communication problems, both on the part of City Hall staff and the council (assuming Nfld News reporter David Henke’s summation of their comments is accurate).
I’m not convinced that the Council will actually do anything different, however. Only Betsey has pointed to anything specific that was handled poorly last year (Waterford annexation; the streetlight fees).
On our radio show/podcast this week, I told Councilor Jim Pokorney that I thought it was a major problem that he and the other councilors have failed to document their rationale for their rejection of the Safety Center Task Force’s recommendation and the Minority Report’s recommendation.
His response was A) that it was unfair for me to use the word ‘reject’; and B) that it was the media’s job to report their rationale.
Start listening at the 18 minute mark.
Jim: “Where was the press then? They seem to report most things that we do in Council… what should we have done, written a memo?”
The Nfld News ran this editorial following the Council’s vote: Case for splitting facilities isn’t clear
(For reference, see the Nov. 16, 2009 Council meeting packet, pages 44-49 where the four Safety Center options were laid out by staff.)
And even the Fire Chief, Gerry Franek (who served on the Task Force) seemed more than a little surprised in this Nfld News article, Chiefs react to council’s split, cut:
My purpose here isn’t to debate the Council’s decision. I would just like the Councilors to walk their talk when it comes to communications with the public. They say they’ll do better. How about now? Why wait for the architects or a PR firm to do it for you?
Why not each of you publish something somewhere in some type of media that explains your rationale for a decision that caught me and maybe a couple of other people by surprise.
Griff- I think you are touching on one of the greatest challenges in communicating anything to anyone- getting the acknowledgement that the other party actually understands the terms each one is using. When a person understands perfectly what they are thinking, the normal assumption is that everyone else understands the situation the same. I think this is evident in councilor Pokorney’s comments above. It takes a little bit of humility to acknowledge everyone else doesn’t interpret the situations the same as you do. It is worth the time it takes to come to that understanding.
Griff: I don’t think that there is a communication problem. All of the councilors have been extremely generous with their time. I think 5 or 6 attended both Chamber forums. You have had at least 4 or 5 councilors on your show. They have been to Chamber board meetings, Lions, Betsey has a blog, etc. etc.
My concern is that they are making poor judgments. The discussions on the Safety Center, the library, Waterford, city attorneys, and the streelights all seem to have lacked a depth of institutional debate. And to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, no amount of communication, transparency, or process can fix poor judgment. I think a simple change of attitude is all that is needed.
I’m not sure why genuine, impartial, and rational options are dismissed with the comment that, “We had a process.” as was done with the City attorneys, or dismissed offhand, like what happened with the Safety Center, or dismissed on the claim that there is a body of unseen support.
Personally, I would prefer less communication, transparency, and process if my voice, the people’s voice, the Chamber’s voice, the task force voices, etc. are going to a factor in the decision-making process. The councilors have a tough enough job as it is without wasting time trying to appease guys like us.
I’m not sure what you mean when you say “The discussions… all seem to have lacked a depth of institutional debate…”? Can you say more?
And I don’t necessarily agree with you that they’ve exercised poor judgment on all those issues. On the Safety Center, for example, if I knew what their rationale was, I might agree.
If you take the Safety Center as an example, the Task Force that was convened was only supposed to look at the best site for a new Safety center. Their task wasn’t to examine: A) whether it was needed, B) what was a reasonable price, C) why it was needed, or D) if now was a good time to build.
When the report came out with two different thoughts on meeting public needs, there wasn’t any reflection upon these reports. Both Jerry Anderson and Ray Cox brought up some legitimate questioning of the assumptions being used.
When we were given tours, a number of the people I was with raised questions about some of the assumptions. However, there was no means for these valid questions to get addressed.
Finally, at the Chamber forum, when we had pre-printed questions, some which included questions on the assumptions raised, we were told that the decision had been made. Joel then proceeded to give us a 15 minute presentation on the process to hire the architect.
I don’t recall one council person questioning whether Ray’s assumptions were accurate. I don’t recall one person questioning whether the flood plain mitigation numbers were accurate. And, I don’t recall one person suggesting that maybe they should go back to the Task Force or at least the drawing board because they wanted to do something different than the Task Force.
I just don’t think there was any institutional depth to the decision at the Council level. I don’t think I need to know the Council’s reasons for the decision to say that it was a poor judgment. It’s a poor judgment on its face. Perhaps if I knew what the rationale was, I would change my mind. But, I don’t think reserving judgment advances the cause. It is a poor decision until the Council comes forth with rationale that might suggest otherwise. The only wisdom was to keep the fire station in a central location. I just can’t see how that overrides all the other concerns.
David, you bring up some important points. My concerns are similar, in that I think the council appeared to be making decisions without appearing to have sufficient discussion, and just as importantly, information. If I am not mistaken, the work that the architectural/engineering consultants will do should provide more solid information than seems available today. Take a look at the RFP notice: http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/2/2010-Safety-Center—RFP1.pdf and see if you agree.
From my limited understanding, I don’t think the RFP process is going to help much. Staff and the council appear to be dedicated to a fire station at this site regardless of the outcome. I would be real surprised to find a firm that tells them something other than what they want to hear.
One thing I really like about this Council is that it is not afraid to act. But, the desire to act has to be tempered with a willingness to analyze the options. In the case of the Safety Center, we were told that the Task Force was only looking at potential sites, and we ended up with a decision to spend $8.5 million dollars on two new buildings with very little analysis.
I am hoping that they don’t forget that Ray’s proposal would give the City two new buildings for less. And, Ray’s plan has a realistic chance of actually making budget. This new plan has no hope. And, I hope they factor in how important it really is to have the fire department right downtown. My fear is that the Council will protect their decision, rather than explain it.
Good points. david… and I’ll reply to just one… which is : if the council’s primary concern was to keep the fire station located at its current site, then why was that not a prerequisite for all the initial site selection and design work, i.e. the Wold architects’ work for the Woodley/Hwy 3 site , which was then declared unusable, etc…
It really bothers me to hear repeated statements about having to cut 60-74K $$ a MONTH, because of Pawlenty’s unallotments, but we keep spending money before we have made initial governing decisions. Example: design study for extending utilities into the NWTerritories annexation area, with the idea that if it is not dome now , the design’s can be used in the future.
A person does not buy a car, stash it in the garage, on the premise that their aging current car MAY die ; the city must use some common sense on spending now.
[…] – major facilities, major annexations, major budget cutting. Over on Locally Grown, Mayor Mary Rossing describes the decision making process and asks what other information we need to make a decision. I need […]
I should have intervened here sooner. Kiffi, Tracy, and Stephanie, now I have to whack all of you!
As I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t want any comments/discussion about the anonymous commenters on the Northfield News site to occur within the discussion threads here on Locally Grown.
If and when there’s a Locally Grown blog post devoted to the issue, THEN that’ll be the place for it.
So I’m removing your comments.
Now back to the discussion about the City Council and public engagement/decision making, etc.
I’m fine with that, Griff. Just lost my head for a minute. 🙂
More censorship, Griff? It’s one thing to enforce rules of civility, but Stephanie, Tracy, and Kiffi were having a reasonably civil and constructive discussion on a topic of local interest. Heck, you even censored your own website partner.
It’s hard to foster a spirit of open discussion if only you get to decide what issues may be discussed.
Patrick, I consider it policy, not censorship. Griff, Ross, and I have agreed that we don’t want to use LoGro to discuss the anonymous comments on the Nfld News site. If we start discussing comments made on some other site by people we can’t identify, that’s counter to what we’re trying to do here. We want people to be accountable for what they say online as well as In Real Life.
Perhaps you should update your “Guidelines” with a list of topics that are forbidden? I don’t see anything there that covers your deleted discussion, and it seems best if we all know what exactly the rules of this sandbox are up front.
Good point, Patrick.
Patrick, this isn’t a forbidden topic. It’s just my judgment as a moderator that it’s not helpful to keep referring to the anonymous comments of others on other sites when our policy here is to have discussions with real people using their real names.
If you or Kiffi or any other Locally Grown member want to author a sideblog post about the comment policies at the Northfield News, KYMN, Northfield.org or any other site in town, it’s fine with me. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait till Ross or Tracy or I blog about it.
A variation of this theme for a different reason: my objection a while back to people who were injecting the abortion debate into multiple topics. Abortion isn’t off-limits here on LG either. Just wait for a blog post on it, or author a sideblog post on it.
I’m a bit confused by your last post. Are you saying is that these topics are not forbidden – if someone has paid in order to be able to bring them up?
Patrick- Money doesn’t talk, but it makes a way for soemone to talk.
Hey Patrick, I’ve replied to you over on the October blog post titled Locally Grown’s membership option: what might the benefits be? in comment #39.
There’s a public meeting on the 4th St. reconstruction project today. Surprised? I was.
It’s not on the City Calendar nor on the list of public notices; nor is it mentioned in the Friday Memo for the week of March 8-12, 2010.
There’s a teeny mention of it on the project web page. The email list signup there? There’s a link but it has never worked. The alternative is onerous.
Mayor Mary Rossing alerted people to it via private email. Private email?
[…] trees between Division and Washington? By Griff Wigley, on March 15, 2010, 6:51 am There’s a semi-secret open house today, 6 pm at City Hall (see mtg PDF) on the big 4th Street East reconstruction project […]
That’s strange, Griff, I send Jennifer Nash an email asking about this, and when I get a reply, I’ll let you know. Have you talked with any landowners in the project area to find out how they were notified?
Jane, I’ve not talked to anyone else. But this is more than just a local landowner/local downtown neighborhood concern. All Northfield citizens should know about the meeting.
And by the way, there’s no mention of the open house on:
Northfield News calendar
KYMN’s news of the day blog post:
Thanks for calling attention to this, Griff. I didn’t know about the open house either.
I subscribe to the City Project Feeds RSS, but the way it’s currently being used is pretty much worthless, because updates do not post to the feed. (The Fourth St. Improvements page was posted in October of last year.)
At the very least, the City should add every public official and the regular media outlets to every email distribution list they create.
….. AND, ensure that these things are posted to the main City calendar.
All: The meeting was noticed in the very obvious box in the NFNews article on page 3, in Saturday’s edition.
I do agree it should definitely have been on the City’s website Calendar, but somehow… even the staff doesn’t seem to think of using that!
Usually notices are sent out to property owners 350 feet or less away; we did not receive a notice for 306 Division.
And since Mary was the dissenting vote to Nix the big corner bump out planters, she may have sent a “private e-mail” to those she thought might be interested.
Kiffi, I’m glad to hear the notice was published in the newspaper. I don’t have a subscription so I guess I’m SOL on that sort of thing.
Here’s the response I got from Brian Welch from the city staff. (Jennifer Nash forwarded my question to him.)
The link is right here…
The info is toward the bottom of the article, and it was also in Saturdays paper.
I’m not making the argument that the City is obligated to notify the Locally Grown, Northfield.org, and KYMN, all so-called private media that are not the “paper of record” like the Northfield News.
But if one wants citizens to be aware of an important open house with many thousands of dollars of taxpayer dollars being spent, why not make the effort, especially since public communications is the #1 city/council goal for two years running?
Why not put it on the City’s own online calendar and mention it in the Friday Memo which are the two most widely followed online communication vehicles?
Brian Welch’s response is woefully inadequate. “All property owners within 350 ft. of the project corridor were notified of the meeting by mail as required by state law.”
True enough, but this was more than a neighborhood meeting. The Streetscape Task Force and Heritage Preservation Commission have both weighed in on this issue because of the streetscape design issues re: trees, buildings, pedestrians, etc for the one-block segment between Division and Washington.
They’re cutting down 11 downtown trees and are not going to replace them. Isn’t that an issue of public concern beyond those who own buildings on 4th St?
Didn’t anyone learn anything from 5th St? See the blog post: A dozen big trees on 5th Street are gone. Are you surprised?
Jane, thanks so much for getting the response from Brian via Jennifer. Note that he didn’t answer the questions as to why the meeting wasn’t publicized via the City calendar, project list, Friday Memo, etc.
Moderator’s note: the discussion here is focused on the communications issue/meeting notification.
If you want to discuss the trees or other issues related to the streetscape design for 4th St between Division and Washington, chime in at:
I think the root of all this is “online”. We all know that the city continues to falter in this arena.
As you may recall, the same thing happened with the Woodley street project. They only notified to 350 feet, although many of us, just over that distance utilize that crosswalk at Woodley and Prairie.
It takes a very aggressive, attentive citizen to keep up, and they must be constantly vigilant.
Given the lack of broad communication on this issue, I think you have to chalk it up, at least initially, to avoidance over another controversy.
It just makes no sense that the staff doesn’t improve their use of their own website.
Since the Council has talked repeatedly about better communication, who is dropping the ball?
Is Staff not following Council direction?
Is Council not directing Staff?
Kiffi and others, I suspect it is some of both. The notice requirements only define our legal duty to notify the property owners within 350 feet. This should be the floor, not the ceiling. Staff should not be faulted for doing what they were legally required to do. Beyond that, staff did not take the initiative (and when they do, they are often slapped down for it, so bear that in mind) to broaden the notice and publicity (which is really what we’re taking about). The Council shouldn’t be trying to set communications parameters for each project, but we should set policy for how staff should manage various types of projects and events.
What criteria would you LoGro readers propose should guide that policy?
.-= (Betsey Buckheit is a blogger. See a recent post titled Council goals) =-.
Hey Betsey –
Thanks for asking for our ideas. I’ll bounce back to that question in a minute but first…
…I want to point out that Mayor Rossing made an effort to broaden stakeholder involvement by sending an e-mail to some of the NDDC’s leadership. True, such an approach might not be specified by state statute; true, such an approach might be characterized as random and unscientific; true, such an approach might be considered by some to be a short-term fix rather than a long-term solution…
…however, perhaps LoGroNo commentators might take a break from their efforts to determine which incompetent staff person should be hung from the utility pole for not fully leveraging the City’s website and recognize that one of our community’s elected leaders made an effort to use perhaps the most primitive form of electronic social communication media in an effort to further spread the word among presumably interested parties.
Now back to Betsey’s question.
When I was earning my MBA at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul (now St. Thomas University in Minneapolis), I took a class on business ethics. The class conducted an exercise focused on getting feedback on a theoretical project that was going to have a significant impact on the community.
The professors (the class was “team taught”) strongly recommended that you work long and hard (take the time and make the effort) to essentially define stakeholders as broadly as possible, including any group that might be in any way affected by the project. This was back in mid-eighties, so I think expanding stakeholders beyond the top executives, major investors, and even the employees to include customers, suppliers, and even the people living in the surrounding community was probably pretty progressive at the time.
However, it’s now 2010, a quarter of a century later, and I think it’s long overdue for our leaders to go beyond the approach of the bare minimum as required by law to one of trying to reach as many people as possible. I have trouble seeing a downside; using some more contemporary communication channels shouldn’t cost more money or involve more work, as long as you’re just posting an informative public notice and not launching an extensive p.r. campaign.
The only risk that I can see is if there are so many public announcements about important decisions to be be made that people begin to tune them out. Then you’d be back to complaints of “nobody told me” as specific topics of interest were lost in a sunami of meeting notifications.
So Betsey, I guess I’m suggesting that stakeholders in a particular decision be defined as broadly as possible and opportunities for participation in the decision-making process be publicized as widely as possible. Unless I’m missing some potential downsides, I see mostly potential upsides from such an approach.
Betsey, it seems that there might be three things for the Council to consider for setting policy guidelines on project communications:
* Use the City’s existing online tools (calendar, RSS feeds, Friday Memo, project page updates, etc)
* Use the best of the new online tools (eg, departmental blogs, departmental Twitter accounts, City Facebook page, project email lists, etc)
* Collaborate with area media (radio, TV, print, online)
Does that help?
AND, request staff to automatically include all Board & Commission members on any project mailing list.
In today’s Strib: For cities, friending Facebook is trickier than a click or two.
Minnpost: Pawlenty to hold a Facebook town hall meeting Wednesday, make ‘major announcement’
[…] not informed enough about the pros and cons of laserfiche but I commented to Mayor Mary Rossing back in mid-February in a discussion here on Locally Grown that I thought it was unconscionable for the City to pursue […]
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