Impressions of a Council Work Session

KayakOverDam.jpgTracy asked me to report on the Work Session and I’ve told Griff more than once that I’m not a reporter, so I’m calling this my “impressions” of the three hours that I spent at City Hall earlier tonight. Oh, no I didn’t stay until the end, they’d only worked through 4 of their 7 items when I went home.

The first topic of discussion was the Malt-O-Meal dam project. MOM and her consultants presented their concept and plans for renovating their dam. The visuals were quite dramatic.

The proposal is to reduce the height of the dam, cover it with stones, and create ten one-foot, stone-lined, double-arched “steps”. The gradual steps are believed to be better for the health of the river. The double-arch design is intended to direct water around the center pier of the downstream bridge, which is believed to be better for the longevity of the bridge. The consulting firm has done similar conversions in Crookston, Owatonna, and someplace in North Dakota.

There were a number of concerns about potential changes in water levels expressed, by both Council members and private citizens. The consultants said that the upstream pool would drop a foot only under extreme low-water conditions and that downstream flood conditions would not change. There were still some concerns about potential impacts to historic buildings. A Malt-O-Meal representative said that they would do some additional investigation to address these concerns.

The consultants said that they believe that the new design will be better for fishing. They also thought that it would be possible to take a canoe or kayak over the dam. However, they were not sure that Malt-O-Meal intended it for these uses.

The next topic was the Hays-Dobbs Facility Feasibility Study. The study basically takes the projected space needs for municipal facilities, creates a very conceptual plan to meet those needs, and puts a very preliminary price tag on it. The space needs for the Public Library and City Hall were based largely on projected population growth and the Police and Fire facilities were based on the square miles of area serviced.

From these space need projections, eight scenarios were developed. Two were for the library, five were for the police and fire departments, and one was for the College City Beverage property.

The good news, according to the consultant, is that none of our buildings are falling down, none have recently burned down, and that all of the buildings are operating at about 80% efficiency. The bad news is that they are all aging, none are at 100% operational efficiency, and all are on about the same timeline for renovation or replacement.

The discussion proceeded to a prioritization process. The Council Members are going to rank the projects based on their own knowledge and analysis. Then they talked about financing sources: bonding, taxes and other.

Mayor Lansing noted that the ice rink was not studied in any of the scenarios. Council Member Denison stated that his top priority was the Safety Center and that with the Chief’s recent resignation, maybe there was an opportunity for better coordination between the services. Council Member Pokorney said that in addition to the prioritization, the leadership needed to look at both the financial capacity and the political support for these potential projects.

The proposed transit hub was the next item on the agenda. The city secured a grant of funds that requires a city match. The current plans are to combine the bike trailhead, van and car pool parking, and an interstate bus line in one location. The parking lot and building are to be constructed at the end of Laurel Court (back behind Walgreen’s).

I couldn’t hear the dollar figures cited for the grant and required match. When I moved forward to ask others, I was told $360,000, $60,000, and $160,000. I guess I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t hear the dollar figures.

Then they moved to the topic of my interest, the Building Board of Appeals. The Council asked the Building Official, John Brookins, to answer a number of questions. I had trouble reconciling his answers with things that I’d heard from attorneys, architects, engineers, contractors, building owners, building officials in other communities, and my own on-line study of this topic. Keith Covey and I are going to do some additional research.

Council Member Cashman, my hero of the week, bit his teeth into one item like a terrier on a bone. B. O. Brookins said that he would have the authority to determine whether an item or an issue was appealable to the Board of Appeals. Council Member Cashman pointed out that Brookins’ interpretation was not reflected in the draft ordinance that City Attorney Swanson had written. Although he was focusing on the wording of the document, I got the impression that Cashman may believe that Brookins’ interpretation potentially undermined the basic intent of the Board of Appeals.

Even if I’m wrong in my impression, Council Member Cashman is still my hero of the week. Focusing so much attention on this specific detail was, at least in my opinion, a truly valuable service to the community.

As I said before, we’re going to do some additional research.


  1. Tracy Davis said:

    Ross, excellent summary. Thank you so much! I’m sure you had other things to do with those three hours last night, so I appreciate your taking the time to both observe the meeting and to prepare your writeup.

    December 11, 2007
  2. victor summa said:

    Tracy … you comment: Ross’ post is an “excellent summary”.

    Seems to me you would have had to be there to comment on the quality of the text –

    As he first points out, “I’m no reporter” thus saying he’s recounting his “impressions” of the dialogue … I feel he (You Ross … must speak to you as though you’re in the room) pulled your punches as to “impressions”

    Personally, I thought your piece was a good report – might even say “excellent” but, while there was a wee bit there … I’d love to hear more of your impressions.

    I’ll add to your “whatever”

    The council also rejected Vern Rippley’s request to remove the “snow parking ban.

    And discussed sidewalk ordinance/policy adjustments –

    This, basically set aside for the time being – citing the need to discuss at length at a later time. The issue was prompted by past struggles with sidewalk placement in recent street reclamation projects: LIncoln Parkway, Woodley etc, an issue that many citizens are very interested in.

    My “impressions” of both those discussions is, they were handled well by the oft disconnected Council.


    December 11, 2007
  3. kiffi summa said:

    My general impression of last night’s work session was this: How come these guys can talk to each other, have a pretty good discussion “on point”, show each other respect for both opinions and talking order …in a Work Session… but when you get to a legislative session, it all falls apart. Now, maybe last night is an indication that they’ve “turned a corner”. I hope so.

    But what I did not find positive was the information, rather the lack of, that the staff provided for council on the B.O.A. issue.

    1. Should they even be discussing whether or not to create this BOA, since it is mandated by the state’s rulings?

    2. Why was council not provided with the text of the state rule, so that there was no question of some points that were raised?

    3. Why was only a dissenting letter, from a former city employee, and the supporting documents previously given to council, from NDDC and others, were not included in the packet?

    4. Councilperson Cashman did a great job of pursuing the issue of “appealable or not”, and whose decision that was, through pointing out necessary needed amendments to the ordinance language… But why is no one willing to challenge the BO on his statements of “fact”?

    The council is very willing to “fight” and challenge even the truthfulness of the Mayor in the council meeting, but there is no such challenge to a staff member. It is then difficult to say that they are fulfilling their responsibility to the electorate. This personality struggle will just drag on and on, if not dealt with by the council.

    So, on one hand, some good discussion … on the other ,some disappointing performance.

    To be continued… at the 12.17 CC meeting.

    December 11, 2007
  4. Julie Bixby said:

    If the BO has the authority to decide whether an issue is appeal able we wouldn’t need a BOA, because, IMHO, the BO would view his decisions as true and justifiable, thus not requiring another opinion. This would bring us right back to where we started.
    I truly hope the council will see this as a crucial point and make sure the wording in the ordinance that is adopted reflects the wording in the 2007 Building Code, which Norman has blogged.
    I am happy to hear that councilperson Cashman took it it task.
    I would also be interested in anything else you and Keith discover.

    December 11, 2007
  5. kiffi summa said:

    On the building code thread, Norm has posted the numbered section of the Code that applies to the BOA, and the relationship of the local official to that local board: 2007 MN. State Building Code , 1300.0230, Subpart 1. … “the building official shall be an ex officio member but shall HAVE NO VOTE ON ANY MATTER before the Board.”

    Mr. Brookins repeatedly reiterated that he was the sole judge of whether or not a matter was appealable, and then could come before the local board.

    The public was not well served by the council’s lack of solid information.

    Do you see why it is so important that the Staff provide ALL the relevant info to the council, in a fair and balanced manner, so the council can consider the matter in a fair and balanced way?

    This kind of thing just burns me up; and this is why staff sometimes needs to be challenged , in public, to have a public solution. There should be NO NEED for behind the scenes maneuvering, on either side.

    December 11, 2007
  6. Call me wacky… please do… but is anyone else besides Julie, Kiffi and me troubled by the building official’s assertion that he gets to decide which of his decisions can be appealed? Is this not antithetical to the entire concept of an appeal?

    That’s just adult male bovine feces.

    The state code very clearly states that a board of appeals “shall be” created. It seems to me that any attempt by the City staff or officials to deny the creation of this board of appeals is, by itself, in violation of the building code, and, therefore, if the building official is involved in denying its creation, his ability to interpret the code should be seriously questioned. The Board of Appeals would make a determination if an appeal had merit enough to be heard; the grounds for such merit are spelled out in the state code as well.

    This feels like some sort of lame power grab. We all know that power corrupts, and absolute architectural interpretive power corrupts…. ummm… hmmm… I’ll have to get back to everyone on this.

    There’s definitely a satirical play here…. I’m envisioning a kangaroo court that lets you appeal / lights go down, come up / appellant enters the appeals court to find the same kangaroo behind the gavel / repeat ad nauseum.

    December 11, 2007
  7. Julie Bixby said:

    First, I would like to thank the city council for addressing this extremely important issue, and thanks to councilperson Cashman for addressing the role of the BO in this issue of the BOA.

    I absolutely agree! You make a valid and fundamental point: If the city staff has information from the public, whether individual or committee or organization (i.e. NDDC) it should – MUST- in its entirety, be given to the council for review.
    This to me is a ‘no brainer’! If this is not the case, we should all wonder what the motives of the city staff are.

    You, also, make an excellent point: If the BO/city staff is opposed to a portion of the MN State Building Code which clearly states …”there shall be a board of appeals…” then we all must question (once again) the motives!

    Our judicial system allows for appeals, many, as a matter of fact. When one person is allowed to make decisions/interpretations that affect many and there is no one to appeal to…well, we all know where it would lead.

    I say this with all due respect to Mr. Brookins. I do believe a BOA would benefit all including our BO.


    December 11, 2007
  8. Patrick Enders said:

    The idea that a government official can determine the validity of an appeal of their own decisions is the silliest thing I’ve heard in weeks.

    December 11, 2007
  9. kiffi summa said:

    So “wacky” ….. call your councilperson, and the mayor , and the at-large councilpeople, and then any other councilperson you can get ahold of, because they’ll all be voting Monday night… and they are probably going to be really crabby, or really happy,(depending who gets “leaned”on), because that’s the night the Special Investigator comes back with his report (Which of course is likely NOT to be given to the public because it will have privacy issues!).

    But I’m serious about calling; they need input from the hoi polloi, even the wacky ones. They’ve had it up to their nose-holes with the usual suspects.

    December 11, 2007
  10. Ross Currier said:

    I recently sent a note to Justin Watkins about the latest dam news. Justin is a former Northfielder, former fellow Planning Commissioner, eternal St. Olaf alum and now resident of Rochester from where he works for the DNR. Ironically, I had first considered the benefits of removing the dam after seeing Justin talk about them in the film “The Cannon River” produced by local creative professionals Dennis Wilcox and Paul Krause.

    Needless to say, Justin was excited by the possibility. He shared some valuable tips with me based on what he had witnessed in the Owatonna project, including details of the political challenges and permitting process. But then he ended his e-mail with:

    “I miss you guys, and I really miss Northfield. It’s a good town – one of the best, no doubt. Leaving makes one appreciate it all the more.”

    Thanks Justin!

    December 14, 2007
  11. kiffi summa said:

    More on the dam: I would like to know if the discussion of what kind of “dam” to create included one like the steeper three level, boulder terraces like the one which replaced the old dam in Cannon Falls ? It is very picturesque, natural looking, and I would think must have been DNR approved.
    Justin, can you comment?

    Knowing ZERO about hydaulics, would that solve the issues with the length of this proposed structure, which may impact buildings that already have flooding problems on the west side … or does the steeper shorter form cause too much turbulence? Looking at the Cannon Falls version, it seems pretty placid on the downstream side.

    A couple of years ago, I gave a series of photos of the Cannon Falls dam replacement to Dan Olson, our city planner.

    December 14, 2007
  12. Anne Bretts said:

    It seems we now know why there was so much tension with the mayor. After giving up a resolution asking the mayor to step down based on his promise to remove himself from the infamous lawsuit, the mayor has continued negotiating for the plaintiffs against the city he has sworn to represent.
    How can the council work with someone when isn’t being honest with them, city employees or the public?
    This might be a separate post now that the News has a new story on the mayor’s continued role in the lawsuit.

    December 15, 2007
  13. Ross Currier said:

    Hey Griff –

    I heard a rumor that Cynthia Osmundsen, perhaps a Northfielder by night and a St. Paul based DNR employee by day, might be able to shed light on the Owatonna dam to whitewater project.

    – Ross

    January 21, 2008

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