Chartering Northfield

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Northfield’s City Charter, and whether it needs changing.

A couple of months ago, we had Charter Commission Chair Peter Dahlen on our podcast. More recently, “thread drift” on Griff’s CVB feedback post has generated some interesting discussion, which warranted its own topic. In a recent comment there, David Koenig said,

How about posting the Northfield City Charter online in a special place and let us “Linux” it or “Wiki” it, or both?

There is no need for this to be anything official, but just an experiment to see what some creative minds might dream up in terms of a concept. May I suggest that we start from an assumption that the “new” Charter would have the objective of setting the framework for a Strong Mayor and requisite governance structure under such? (Someone else is free to start a similar intiative for a Manager version if they wish.)

LVW, Council Members, anyone who blogs on this site could suggest language, but let’s keep it in the public domain and not saddle it with any kind of officialdom and the inevitable baggage that would come with such.

Well, we’re not prepared to deal with the technical parts of setting up a wiki, but I’d be happy to provide a place to continue the discussion in the meantime. Griff proposed doing a community forum on this topic, which I think would be a great idea.

As a followup to David’s comment above, Kiffi Summa said, in part,

The first things that would have to be corrected in the Charter would be the parts that the Chart/Comm changed back at the time of the referendum (should NF change to a City Manager system of governance). In anticipation of that passing (the then Chart/Comm was so certain it would pass, and it did not) that there were a few things changed that somewhat weakened our previously strong Mayor into a “mini-Strong Mayor”.

For instance: I think it used to say “the Mayor will set the Agenda with the assistance of the City Administrator” ; and now I think it says “The Administrator will set the agenda with the Assistance of the Mayor”. It’s late, I’m tired, and I didn’t look it up … just going by memory … so I could be wrong. But that’s the sort of minor change that was made at the time, and now needs to be put back to the original language to enable a truly strong Mayoral system.

A few other commentors chimed in on the topic, among them Jane McWilliams, who indicated that the League of Women Voters might also be interested in a community forum.

One of the questions or half-baked thoughts I’ve had on my list of ideas to discuss is: What about the idea of going to four at-large councillors, rather than two at-large and four wards? Would a smaller council facilitate the need to develop better working relationships? I’ve never gotten the impression that the ward rep idea is all that beneficial in a community the size of Northfield.

So, let’s have at it! More thoughts, anyone?


  1. David Henson said:

    Tracy – way to get this party started ! The Charter empowers Northfield citizens to force election referendums if they sign a petition in numbers equal to 10% of the number that voted in the prior election. The difficulty of this is the impracticality of collecting signatures on paper. Given the state of modern technology that is the equivalent of asking people to assemble signatures on clay tablets. I wonder if Northfield couldn’t step out into a new age of direct democracy ?

    Northfield could probably place itself square in the center of the world map if the Charter were adjusted to allow for the use of modern technology to put contested political questions directly to the citizens and allow them to instantly either a) decide an issue or b) inform elected officials of their will. And I think the homegrown talent could cost effectively assemble such a system.

    May 30, 2008
  2. kiffi summa said:

    I’ll take Tracy’s reorganization of the numbers of ward reps and at-large a step further and say: Why should we have ward reps at all? Why shouldn’t ALL be at-large? Sure would fix the residency question fast!

    But, I am serious about the all at-large councilors. 1st ward, C, Pokorney, always says he has to make decisions that benefit the entire community, not “special interest groups”. That may frustrate some of his 1st ward constituents, or some downtown constituents. If you represent a ward or the downtown , I think you DO have to give a heavier weight to those needs, while taking care to balance what’s good for the whole town.

    What would be a reason to NOT have all at-large councilors?

    May 30, 2008
  3. Scott Davis said:

    Great ideas David H. except for those pesky State Laws that we are required to follow.

    May 31, 2008
  4. David Henson said:

    Scott – you mean state election laws ? Or laws governing local Charters ? Either way laws can be changed and/or the system could be used to advise representatives of how citizens want specific issues handled.

    May 31, 2008
  5. victor summa said:

    Kiffi I stopped by at your home on St Olaf to talk with you about your idea (# 2 above … all at-larger councilors).

    Really not a good idea IMHO.

    Consider any recent election — or past election where a majority, across the city …. county, state or nation, elected by a landslide a candidate you found too far from your ideals philosophically. George W. Bush comes to mind … and I’m quite confident there have been candidates for mayor that you didn’t not vote for … who might have won because the majority of the Northfield voters cast their ballots for that person … and then tell me you’d be happy with that same group of voters voting-in, their choice for your ward representative.

    Scott Davis on #3 “pesky state laws” … and following them.

    Much to my dismay, I’ve discovered “taking shelter” with a shrug citing (as you suggest) state statutes or our local Charter — is a maneuver, elected officials choose when to follow … and when to risk legal challenge by going their own way.

    I’ve even observed legal advisors skirting the text of a statute and instead, hiding behind some obscure “case law” that MAY bare directly on the issue … or in many cases, is just sort of a “hit”, more a miss. And when it comes to the “professional” staff … WOW! Now there’s a group that can dance all over the head of a pin!

    A recent case in point locally that won’t point fingers at current ‘leadership” would be the lengthy and expensive fiasco of re-use of the old hospital site, [sic] Way Park. Clearly, Staff, their consultants and to a great extent, many elected officials simply hid behind bad interpretation of law, and for a long time, denial of the public’s opinion.

    Careful! Changing the Charter to bring it into a more contemporary level of governance can be a slippery slope.

    When the public’s not too interested .. or when some Charter or Elected Officials are too interested, it ‘s time to look closely at what’s cooking.

    Dodging the “bullet” of the City Manager vote a few years back, lulled the public into a casual mood… allowing the intent of that referendum NO vote to be largely overturned with a few lessor pieces of Charter change, that slipped past the cautious public, and resulted in the uncertainties that we face today in our city governance system. Those “lessor” changes were the aftermath of the rejected Charter Commission’s relentless desire to have it their way … in spite of the public vote.

    David Henson’s “direct Democracy” ploy is interesting. What bothers me about making it technologically so simple that anyone can do it (VOTE) … is just that, anyone can do it. Those who aren’t inclined to go to the polls to vote … troubled by the effort, are probably votes which it is good they were not cast. Freedom and good government are elusive, but worth the effort to try to hold on to.

    May 31, 2008
  6. David Henson said:

    Victor I agree that expanding citizen participation has many dangers particularly so at the present time when the system is functioning at such a high level. But it might just work ….

    May 31, 2008
  7. Griff Wigley said:

    David Koenig has a guest column in today’s Nfld News titled Someone should be the leader.

    A move towards more effective leadership and accountability in our city’s governance calls for a change to our city charter giving one of two people in our government enough effective power to achieve a vision for our city. The first option is to give that power to an official whom we directly elect, a so-called “Strong Mayor.” The second option is to vest that power in an employee, a “City Manager.” Either model clearly signals to taxpayers the person who is responsible for leading our city toward notable and achievable objectives and will thus address one of the primary governance issues that are holding back our city government.

    June 7, 2008
  8. David Koenig said:

    Thanks, Griff.

    As you might suspect, the title was not of my choosing. It was submitted as “Problems in City Hall: the First Issue to Fix is the Lack of Clear Accountability”, which was probably too long. However a better title is “We Should Allow Someone to Lead”.

    This is the first of five articles that will be appearing between now and October. I’d love to try to find a way to get your site and the Northfield News to co-host a governance discussion. I know that you are not optimistic about this, but maybe we can try?

    I hope that we, as a community, can spend the new few months considering not only who will be elected as our leaders, but how we can give them the structure, funding and support to be successful.

    June 7, 2008
  9. David Koenig said:

    Sorry…”next” few months….

    The upcoming articles are on the following subjects (headlines to be re-written by the News):

    – Strong Mayor vs. City Manager: Is Accountability Best Placed with an Elected Official?
    – Removing Economic Hardship: The Next Step in Attracting True Leaders
    – Transparency, Sufficiency of Resources and Other Critical Elements of Good Governance
    – Empowering Citizens and Interest Groups: Competitive Network Governance

    June 7, 2008

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