Why the fuss about the City Charter, and why should we care?

In Minnesota, cities take one of two basic forms: statutory cities, which operate as enabled in a section of Minnesota state law, and charter cities, which operate under a local charter. Northfield is one of the latter, primarily because Northfield was established as a city before Minnesota was established as a state. The City Charter is the “constitution” of Northfield’s city government.

Charter cities, sometimes referred to as “home-rule” cities, are allowed to establish any form of governance they choose. Typically this is either a council-manager or mayor-council system. Under the mayor-council system, government may be further defined as a “weak mayor” ceremonial form, or a “strong mayor” executive form. Our current charter states that Northfield has a mayor-council form of government; Northfield is one of only four Minnesota cities (the others are Duluth, St. Cloud, and St. Paul) which is technically considered to have a “strong mayor” system. See the League of Minnesota Cities for more definition of forms of city government organization in Minnesota.

The Charter Commission

Northfield’s Charter Commission is, as stated on its page of the City website, “responsible for reviewing and revising the City Charter to ensure that it meets all applicable State and Federal laws and meets the needs of the citizens of Northfield.” The Charter Commission is fundamentally different from other City boards and commissions. It is not an advisory board; it’s an independent political subdivision. Members are appointed by a district court judge, not by anyone elected, appointed, or employed by the City. Serving on the current Charter Commission are Bill Beck, Betsey Buckheit, Peter Dahlen, David Emery, Jayne Hager Dee, Victor Summa, and Elaine Thurston.

Recent History

In November 2001, Northfield’s ballot contained a referendum to change from a mayor-council system to a council-manager system, largely because the function and job description of the “city administrator” was moving closer and closer to what is usually considered to be that of a “city manager”. Voters rejected that referendum, choosing to maintain the current form of government. Okay. Except that the issue that prompted the referendum—that City Hall was functioning in a structurally different manner than what is described in the City Charter—still existed.

Over the next couple of years, the Charter Commission worked to research and recommend changes to the charter that would better reflect both the will of the citizens and the realities of how City Hall was run. In 2004, the city council unanimously approved a charter change which officially moved many administrative responsibilities from the mayor to the city administrator, since these were functions the city administrator had been doing for years, and the mayor typically had not. As a result, we now have a sort of a hybrid, which looks (and functions) more like the council-manager form than it does the strong mayor form.

David Koenig, a former City Councillor and professional advising on governance and risk management, is in the midst of a series of guest columns for the Northfield News relating to City government and the charter. His first article, Someone Should Be the Leader, sheds some light on the governance issue, and why it is currently a problem; the second article, Who Will Be the Leader?, illustrates the pros and cons of the different forms of government. There will be another guest article published on July 26; I’ll put an addendum linking to that and any others later.

Last fall, in an effort to try to educated the citizens about the City Charter, the Charter Commission drafted a letter which they asked to have enclosed with the monthly water bill. For various reasons, permission to do so was not given. But the letter is helpful, so I posted a PDF of the draft here.

In our LoGroNo history, we’ve had several posts and comments on the City Charter:

Anyone who wants to know about the recent and remote history of the City Charter MUST read the entire 2001 forum. There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9, but I can’t link to it).

Issues, Challenges, and Possible Solutions

As an example of why our current hybrid may not be adequately serving the citizens of Northfield, consider the following. The charter states that “the mayor shall be the executive officer of the city government, accountable to the council for oversight of the administration of the city.” The charter also states that the city administrator “… shall be the chief administrative officer of the city. The administrator shall be appointed by the council. . . and shall be responsible to and serve under the control and direction of the council.” Furthermore, the job description and contractual employment terms of our city administrator position are in line with those of a city manager in the council-manager system. So already we have a built-in tension between the mayor and the city administrator. Who’s in charge? Is it the mayor, being accountable to the council for oversight of the administration? Or is it the city administrator, under the control and direction of the council?

This isn’t just semantics. The citizens of Northfield will be choosing a new mayor this fall. How many of us think that we’re just electing a figurehead who will give speeches on Memorial Day and run meetings? How many of the candidates think that’s what they’re running for? The charter says that “The mayor. . . shall exercise leadership of the council in the formulation of policy.” However, apparently that leadership does not include setting the agenda for meetings; under the current charter, council meeting agenda is prepared by the city administrator “in consultation with the mayor”.

The City Council needs to either bring City policies into conformance with the Charter, or revise the Charter to reflect the actual practice of the City. (I’m trying to ignore the philosophical implication which feels to me like saying that either we crack down on underage drinking, or we simply lower the drinking age to 13 to better reflect what’s going on in the real world.)

It seems to me that Northfield has two options, both of which involve revising the charter in some way.

1. Retain the mayor-council system of governance, clarify the responsibilities, and vote for a salary for a full-time mayor in order to do the job properly.

2. Change to a council-manager form of government, clarify the responsibilities, and make it clear to citizens, mayors, and staff where the accountability lies.

Note the common theme: Clarify the responsibilities. Some of the current problems at City Hall may be largely due to personalities, but I’ve lived here long enough to see that at least part of the problem is structural – and frankly, fixing that is fairly straightforward.

In Griff’s post last November, Charter Commission member David Emery said,

…a few years ago, Northfielders rejected a referendum brought by the Charter Commission that would have moved Northfield to a “city manager” form of government. As a result of the failure of the referendum, the Charter Commission and the City Council patched together language in the charter and city ordinances that transferred most responsibilities to a city administrator, but left some powers to the mayor. We thought we were fulfilling the wishes of the voters. If the present distribution of power between the administrator and the mayor is not workable, I (as a member of the Charter Commission) need some guidance from the voters. Which way do you want us to move–to a city manager, or back to a stronger role for the mayor?

I couldn’t ask the question better. What do you say?


  1. Felicity Enders said:

    Some pros and cons:

    Option 1 (mayor-council): 1) how many people who we’d want to have as mayor can leave/reduce their day job to take a full time mayoral position, even with more than titular salary? 2) will we still pay a city administrator what seems to be a city manager salary, at the same time as paying the mayor a more than titular salary?

    Option 2 (manager-council): What single person do we hold accountable for driving the direction of the vision for changes in the city? We can hire a manager to manage, but the vision should come from an elected official.

    OK, that was mostly the con version for each, but the flip side of each issue is a pro for the other style of government.

    July 22, 2008
  2. Re-read Davis Emery’s post, Tracy…”…Northfielders rejected…city manager…as a result of the failure…patched together language…transfered most responsibilities to a city administrator..(and then, GET THIS)…we thought we were fulfilling the wishes of the voters”??!!..how on earth could he think he were doing that? Kinda; its snowing outside therefore I think I’ll eat a banana.

    July 22, 2008
  3. Tracy Davis said:

    Norman, I see your point, but I would REALLY like this discussion to focus on what we should do now, rather than playing the blame game for how things got—or stayed—messed up. Please?

    July 22, 2008
  4. Ok, Tracy, wilco…how about..I understand you don’t like pork, therefore how about a BLT?

    July 22, 2008
  5. David Henson said:

    Or property taxes are too high so I am offering free beer at the Cow (it’s only a rumor)

    July 22, 2008
  6. David Henson said:

    I think active use of referendum by citizens could be one key to transforming the political landscape in Northfield. If a group could come together that could readily harnass signatures equal to 10% of the prior year vote then voters could directly decide changes to the charter.

    An interesting note is the words “Charter Commission” do not appear in the Charter anywhere – so I am not sure from where the commission’s political status is derived ? The document would seem to indicate that after inception the council or the citizens themselves would facilitate changes.

    If a citizen group were formed then I would think striking or modifying this section would be first on the list :

    “Section 6.8. Reenactment; Amendment.

    An ordinance adopted following an initiative petition may not be repealed or amended in substance or intent by the council for a period of one year following its effective date.”

    July 22, 2008
  7. Patrick Enders said:

    If my wife is going to play “bad cop,” then I guess I should play “good cop.” So here’s the pro’s I see:

    Mayor-Council PRO: The administrative leadership and responsibility is clear. Also, if the city is to be guided by a vision of where it wants to go, and has big decisions to make about its future, the people get to choose a leader who articulates and can pursue such a vision.

    Mayor-Administrator-Council PRO: Under a system where an administrator is clearly subservient to an elected Mayor, you can get the visionary part, and you can get an executive who knows how to legally and effectively implement that vision.

    Administrator-Council PRO: We can recruit persons with a track record of experience, and specialized knowledge of planning, city administration, and development regulations to serve as our leader. Also, the Administrator should be a relatively impartial figure, and he can be quickly replaced at the whim of our elected representatives on the Council, if needed.

    My take:
    If I could be convinced that this city could produce a selection of competent, visionary leaders who can set aside their private careers for several years in order to serve as leaders of this city, I would be in favor of a true Mayor-Council system.

    If we can find good Mayors who cannot serve full-time, and we can still find good candidates to fill a diminished Administrator role, the Mayor-subservient Administrator-Council system could be a good compromise. But I have fears: Where would we be now if the present Mayor had been unchecked by the power of the Council and the Administrator? Would we now be cutting the ribbon on a new city liquor store, paying rent at unfavorable terms to the the Mayor’s family?

    If concerns like these cannot be alleviated, then the administrator-council system presents the safest, but least visionary, option.

    I think the only way to sort this out is by public discussion to be followed by a very clearly-delineated referendum (with apologies to everyone who went through this once before). Personally, I haven’t decided yet.

    July 22, 2008
  8. Does it matter which form is used if the city cannot find men or women who can lead without being so competitive that they crush the team of govt. staff and volunteers, making good government as attainable as 25 cent per gallon gasoline. Maybe we just ask for too much.

    July 22, 2008
  9. john george said:

    Bright- I think you hit the nail on the head. If all you all have been paying any attention to the various nagative things going on in some of the other municipalities around the state, it seems most of them have to do more with specific actions by specific people in government positions rather than the particular form of government involved. (Phew! Tried to break that up, but I never seem to have one of my English major daughters around when I need them!) Since we have to deal with falible men, then we need to be sure we have the system in place with the authority to deal with them. Isn’t that what laws are for? Perhaps that is where the present charter has lost ground.

    July 22, 2008
  10. kiffi summa said:

    There is no form that will “work”, if you are beset with personalities that are determined to shape the rules to their own ends, because the charter lacks an enforcement mechanism, except by the city council … who have sworn to uphold the laws of country, state and Northfield.

    So the enforcement of the Charter depends on the “agenda” of the Council.

    July 22, 2008
  11. Tracy Davis said:

    Kiffi, that’s the nature of a charter, unless you get the state to pony up for charter cops. What’s your solution?

    July 23, 2008
  12. David Henson said:

    Northfield wishes we were cutting the ribbon on a new city liquor store in a historic development across from EconoFood anchoring Division Street. This is clearly a better solution than the silly list of four sites just put forward. If I am to fault the mayor then it would be for not getting this project done.

    Any site on Hwy 3 is going to have too much visibility and risk Northfield being known as Liquerfield – Hangovers, Heroin & Heartaches

    I would like a charter system that leads to less civility (there rarely is any rancorous debate) and more solid productivity. I think mayoral candidates with a Rodney King vision of “Why can’t we just all get along” will not be effective leaders. The city and Crossing developers would have benefited from someone shouting that “your development is out of context for the town!” As the restaurateurs at Final Course would have benefited from someone saying, “the last thing this town needs is another Panini.”

    Northfield should not become a suburb but to stay a true city the industrial base and the downtown need to be strengthened and developed. ‘Minnesota Nice’ will not make this happen.

    July 23, 2008
  13. kiffi summa said:

    Tracy : My solution is to stop blaming the woes of this last year on the Charter, or the Mayor, or the Council, or the Staff, or the Chamber, or Gary Smith, and talking about it endlessly … but to start participating in local gov’t in an honest direct way, understanding the problems and evaluating solutions, rather than always saying it is just one person’s, or one entity’s fault.

    And I know I do a lot of complaining about existing situations; that is to try to get facts into the public dialogue, for people to consider where the Process has gone wrong.

    It is just way too easy to blame a “single source” , rather than try to correct a system or a process or a group dynamic.

    I don’t buy “Minnesota Nice” as exemplified by my experience here. I don’t see how it is “nice” to “crucify” a person or a system in general conversation, but never take the responsibility to try to deal with the correction of a system by entering into the public process, therefore taking some responsibility to be a civic participant.

    The disgusting name calling, which only assails, and doesn’t bear any responsibility to delve into resolving issues, is both evasive of civic responsibility, and childish playground behavior. ( I was going to say “CRAP”, Tracy, but that’s your favorite word !)

    Just my 99cents on the matter… (JOKE)

    July 23, 2008
  14. Tracy Davis said:

    Thanks, Kiffi. I certainly don’t think a charter change will “fix” what’s gone wrong at city hall over the past couple of years. But is it something that should be done? What’s your view?

    July 23, 2008
  15. kiffi summa said:

    Tracy : I think a careful read of the Charter will still show that although it was a bit weakened (by changes which presumed the last referendum on the issue of local govt structure would be changed by the vote, and then was NOT) it still supports a strong mayoral system.Usually when people make general statements about it, they show that they have not done a careful, analytical read, and I would agree that tweaking some language could make it even clearer/stronger.

    For instance, a oft quoted “problem” is the agenda setting between the Mayor , and the Administrator. Look at 7.3, Subd. 10. It says: ” The administrator, in consultation with the Mayor,shall prepare the preliminary agenda for each council meeting”.

    What are the operative words/ phrases? “PRELIMINARY”, because it means that the administrator, having the overall view of the depts of the city, and their needs re: timing of projects, will move the city’s actions forward in a timely way. However, “preliminary” in no-way connotes “final”… Is that too subtle?

    Next: “IN CONSULTATION WITH THE MAYOR” … to me that means that the administrator MUST work with the Mayor on the Agenda, and since the admin’s work is said to be ‘”preliminary” who has the final word? Is that too subtle? Should it say “subject to the approval of the Mayor”? Would that remove all question?

    It’s easy to see why the deliberations of the Charter Commission are long and thoughtful.

    My bottom line is that the final “power” must remain in the hands of the elected officials, rather than in an employee , for many, many reasons.

    July 23, 2008
  16. Tracy Davis said:

    Kiffi, I like your example. It’s an oft-quoted problem because I think it IS a problem. Who sets the agenda for City Council meetings?

    If the administrator sets the PRELIMINARY agenda “in consultation with the mayor”, who sets and/or approves the final agenda?

    July 23, 2008
  17. Patrick Enders said:

    An excellent example of the question “Who’s in charge?”. The Charter should pick one or the other, and state it clearly.

    But before that particular can be clarified, the answer to the same question needs to be made in the broadest sense.

    July 23, 2008
  18. kiffi summa said:

    Patrick: just kidding, of course, but what’s “the Broadest sense” ? The Charter speaks in quasi-legalese, so it can’t say “The Mayor’s the BOSS. PERIOD!

    Obviously you know that, but how would you express something in “the Broadest sense” when everything is broken up into Chapters ,and Subdivisions. There is bound to be some areas of overlap. Think of how basic the constitution is … scholars say that is why it is so brilliant and has lasted so long, being a model for many successive countries governance.

    July 23, 2008
  19. David Henson said:

    If one person makes $100,000 and has a staff and the other makes $6000 and needs permission of the $100,000 person for access to the staff then wouldn’t it be safe to say, as a practical matter, the person making $100,000 is going to be in charge ?

    July 23, 2008
  20. David Henson said:

    Then if the preferred ideal is for the mayor to be in charge this presents a structural problem. The next mayor and the next administrator will be in the same boat unless the dynamic is changed.

    I would think a referendum effort to change this by getting the 10%

    July 23, 2008
  21. Patrick Enders said:

    I don’t understand – is your solution to raise the Mayor’s salary?

    July 23, 2008
  22. David Henson said:

    Patrick – a raise would be a good idea but I think the charter could be rewritten to layout an overall improved structure. My thought is more to get that magic number of citizens together in a 10% Club or such so they could bring policy questions directly to the voters – of course this is easier said than done.

    July 23, 2008
  23. Patrick Enders said:

    It is indeed – especially if those 10% all have to agree on what kind of change should be undertaken.

    So I take it you are in favor of a ‘strong mayor’ system? What do you see as its advantages, and how would you envision the Mayoral role – and relationship to the Council and Administrator if any – should be restructured?

    (As I mentioned, I’m still on the fence about whether we should strengthen the Administrator or the Mayoral position, but I do agree that one or the other has to be more clearly in charge than currently delineated.)

    July 24, 2008
  24. kiffi summa said:

    See … this is exactly what I meant about the real effect of “MN Nice”.
    It is acceptable to talk about the problems with the Charter, if indeed there are any, but no one wants to talk about a city administrator and council who have created a situation that has been serious, if not devastating for this community for the last year. Its just so much easier to talk about an inanimate object than people.

    When, at Politics and a Pint, we “did” 2 weeks discussion on the exact subject of Charter structure, and had two of the last three Mayors there, neither of them felt the Charter had caused them any problems in functioning as Mayor.

    It’s the current mix of personalities, and the agendas that have been tried to be moved forward, and the lack of oversight by our council. And I am NOT speaking about the liquor store!

    The same sort of power struggle is going on right now with the negotiating of severance agreements and legal fees for the administrator’s departure.
    These problems of leadership have nothing to do with the wording of the Charter; they have to do with personal power and group dynamics.

    You don’t change the Charter every time you might happen to get a Perfect Storm of Political Personalities.

    July 24, 2008
  25. Patrick Enders said:

    I believe many people have discussed the dysfunction at city hall, personality-wise. People do, of course, differ on which personalities are most problematic.

    The opportunity to solve those personality problems lie in the upcoming fall election.

    Still, the Charter leaves plenty of confusion. As you wrote, on just one example:

    Look at 7.3, Subd. 10. It says: ” The administrator, in consultation with the Mayor,shall prepare the preliminary agenda for each council meeting”….

    So: Who sets the actual agenda – especially when the Mayor and Administrator disagree, and Minnesota Nice rules have gone by the wayside?

    You feel that consultation means the Mayor has a say in the final decision. I think of “consultation” as asking for an opinion, but taking it or leaving it as one chooses. Legally what does it mean? Ask a lawyer.

    I think it is important to decide globally who is top dog, and give that person the authority to (for example) set the agenda, with the “advice” (but not necessarily consent) of the other person.

    So yes, I think the Charter should be revised – not because it created the problems of the last year or so, but because it provides a framework for how the government can continue to limp along when the parties involved have seemingly irreconcilable differences.

    July 24, 2008
  26. David Henson said:

    The 10% might really only have to agree to put choices to the voters directly – even possibly contradictory options.

    My thought is if the charter had a strong vision statement for Northfield and was approved by the voters then elected officials and staff would have better direction in decision making.

    The strong vs weak mayor issue seems open to me too. I would lean toward investing the higher dollars in someone local (meaning the mayor) who is more likely to stay in Northfield and put those dollars and experience to work here. That could limit that talent pool but I would think in Northfield solid administrators would be elected. A local might also work harder to “sell” the city as a place to locate businesses etc.

    July 24, 2008
  27. David Koenig said:

    Kiffi, which two mayors?

    Remember that the Charter was changed to reflect the practices that Mayor Covey, Mayor before Lee Lansing, followed, which were in effect to create a City Manager, directly against the expressed will of the voters.

    Bill Rossman, Mayor before Keith Covey, essentially allowed Scott Neal to act as a Manager as well, even before the Charter Commission weakened the Mayor’s role.

    July 24, 2008
  28. Patrick Enders said:

    David H wrote,

    My thought is if the charter had a strong vision statement for Northfield and was approved by the voters then elected officials and staff would have better direction in decision making.

    I agree completely. So how could we best educate and present the options to the voting public for their selection?

    July 24, 2008
  29. kiffi summa said:

    David K: the two Mayors that were at the Politics and a Pint discussion were Hager and Rossman. Covey had said he would come if he got back in town, but didn’t attend. (the intention was to have all three, which would have been even better, possibly)

    The two who were there were very interested in the issue, and talked all around, and “inside and out” of the issue; they both felt that the problem was one of personality clash. Basically, I think it is safe to say they felt that no system will work if the strain is too great; either one party gives in to the other, or there is a struggle.

    July 24, 2008
  30. john george said:

    Kiffi- Your statement, “…Basically, I think it is safe to say they felt that no system will work if the strain is too great; either one party gives in to the other, or there is a struggle…” is a good observation of how we seem to be aproaching the charter, or at least the city government structure. When a government becomes personality driven, it would appear to me to be more like a monarchy rather than an elected body. If the charter is in place to prevent this very type of behavior, then who is responsible to enforce it? The council? Just wondering here.

    It would apprear to me that someone must be in the position of final say in this type of situation. If we are going to be a charter based government, then the charter needs to have this spelled out clearly. From the little I have read, there seems to be some clear statements and some ambiguous. These leave the door open for abuse if there is a disagreement on the interpretation, such as Patrick cited. If the personalities involved can’t get their act together, then I think we have the power of the vote in the instance of a strong mayor. When the issue is with an employee, it would appear the council has authority to step in. When the council backs the employee against the mayor, then the problem should be able to be resolved without involving the courts. Maybe we need a Lee Iacoca- either lead, follow, or get out of the way!

    July 24, 2008
  31. David Henson said:

    Patrick – maybe a visual presentation contest of possible future Northfields might be helpful.

    As a note : Maybe there was some really compelling reason for cutting down the 20″ diameter trees along 5th between Division and the River but I would have to think 19 out of 20 Northfielders would have preferred keeping the trees. Removing tree canopy is a decision that is hard to understand.

    July 24, 2008
  32. Patrick Enders said:

    David H,
    I guess I misunderstood you. I thought you were discussing a “vision statement” for the rest of the Charter; i.e., a vision of how our government should be organized – not of what our town should look like.

    July 24, 2008
  33. David Henson said:

    I did mean a vision statement in the charter but in regards to educating people I thought how that might play out visually in the future might be effective (a picture’s worth a 1000 words)

    July 24, 2008
  34. kiffi summa said:

    John : As I mentioned earlier, there is no enforcement mechanism for the Charter. It is supposed that it would be the council, however they may not wish to if the enforcement would not line up with their “agenda”.

    Here’s a thought … since the council has no role in establishing the members of the Chart/Comm, that is the prerogative of the Chief Judge of the District Court, the Honorable Wm Johnson … does it then follow that the same entity is responsible to see that the Charter is enforced? Could the Court answer, or make a determination, re: the Charter if a citizen brings an issue of enforcement? This would have to be a responsibility of the Court, without charge, as even a Yes/No ,Writ of Mandamus -type question can cost a couple thousand dollars from start to finish.

    Would that be an enforcement solution?

    July 25, 2008
  35. David Henson said:

    I would think the enforcement would be a lawsuit if the charter were ignored and one suffered damages.

    July 25, 2008
  36. john george said:

    Kiffi- I guess I am really naive in this. As long as the city government takes care of the infrastructure and public services, it would seem that they are doing their job. My approach to life is that if something works, then leave it alone. I need to take some time and read he whole charter. For it to have been set up in such a way that leaves an enforcement vacuum seems really strange to me. And, if Northfield has been a charter city since the establishment of the statehood, then why are we having problems show up now? If there is a flaw in the charter itself, it seems we would have run into this earlier. I don’t have the whole history at my fingertips, but perhaps it has arisen before and, instead of fixing the thing correctly, there have been bandages put on that are finally coming unraveled. If there haven’t been problems in the past, then perhaps we are dealing with personality conflicts as a source of the present problems. It would appear to me that the charter should be the source of resolving the problems that arise rather than the source of the problems. And that would lead back to the definition of who has autoirity to enforce the charter. Just an opinion there.

    July 25, 2008
  37. David Koenig said:

    Tracy, thanks for linking to my first two articles in the Northfield News. The third one is in today’s paper and is online also.

    I didn’t want to post any comments in this discussion on the subject of “strong mayor” or compensation for the mayor as the latter was the subject of this month’s article.

    I’ll post some further thoughts below….

    July 26, 2008
  38. David Koenig said:

    I want everyone to know that the Charter Commission did have a preliminary discussion, last week I believe, on changing the City Charter to more clearly define the leadership role.

    However, it is my understanding that the process recommended by one of the Charter Commission members was to ask the current City Council what they would like to see in the Charter and then put such changes in place before their term expires this year.

    It is also my understanding that this action was not yet approved, but will be discussed, and perhaps even voted upon, at a meeting this week or next.

    Personally, I find the idea of asking the Council such a question at this time to be of shockingly bad judgement. 5 of its 7 members may no longer be a part of it come January. Further, it seems to greatly blur the idependence that I presume the Charter Commission to have.

    I would like to see the Charter Commission draft two new Charter forms, to be voted on by the public, at the same time:

    – The first would strengthen the mayor’s role so that we have a truly “Strong Mayor” form of government.

    – The second would create a Manager-Council form of government.

    The Charter Commission should take the time to carefully and independently draft the language for each of these based on existing success stories from cities around the country. Then, let us decide which version we the voters want….or if we want to keep the same structure that we have now.

    July 26, 2008
  39. David Koenig said:

    Yup, Special Charter Commission Meeting this Tuesday at 5:00 PM, City Hall, 2nd Floor.

    The Agenda of the meeting lists just one item:

    “Discussion of Work Session with Council on the Form of Government –
    If the City Council accepts the invitation, what steps shall the Charter Commission take next, including but not limited to, developing a framework to guide our joint discussion with the Council?”

    I would like to suggest that anyone who has participated in this online discussion should try to attend this meeting and make their feelings known.

    July 26, 2008
  40. David Henson said:

    David K – Nice article. Do you know does the city council have to approve putting Charter Commission drafts on the ballet ?

    July 26, 2008
  41. David Koenig said:

    Kiffi, I may be repeating myself from another discussion on the subject of the City Administrator, which included some “form of government” posts, when I say that a good governance structure enhances the ability to realize success and moderates bad performance, while a bad governance structure increases the chances of poor performance. So, the system does matter as a well structured one amplifies the good behaviors and attenuates the bad ones.

    Patrick, the question about what our current Mayor would have done with the powers of a Strong Mayor is a good one to ask. I would only suggest that he was elected and monitored under our current form. Would he have run under a Strong Mayor form, he may have faced additional competition (no knock intended on his opponents last time) and would certainly have faced greater scrutiny while trying to steer the Muni to his son’s property. I think he would certainly have been recalled if we knew that he had Strong Mayor powers and had shown a lack of judgement about using those powers for family benefit.

    David H, let’s lobby the Charter Commission to put forward two new Charter forms. That will be easier, I think, than getting 10% of the voters to sign petitions. Once this next election is held, the 10% is going to be an even bigger challenge. Of course, getting the signatures is an attainable goal, but I think starting with the Charter Commission is more likely to yield results more efficiently.

    July 26, 2008
  42. David Koenig said:

    David H, I believe that the Charter Commission can ask the Council to approve a change unanimously. If one Council Member votes against the change, then the Charter Commission can decide to send the changes to the voters, but it does not have to.

    It may be that if the Commission requested a vote, then the City Council would determine the date of an election. But, the windown in which then can call such is likely to be subject to state statute.

    Sorry, I’m being a bit lazy this AM and not looking the rules up online…my kids want to make donuts now! 🙂

    July 26, 2008
  43. Anne Bretts said:

    The council-manager idea seems to be a straw option designed to force people to choose the strong mayor concept. Nobody has suggested reducing or eliminating the mayor’s role.
    It is imperative for the charter commission to wait until after the new mayor and council take office and see whether there is, in fact, a real problem with the system — or whether there was just a problem with people who couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the rules. The fact that the majority of the council disagreed with the mayor doesn’t mean the council was dysfunctional or wrong. It just means the mayor was in the minority and needed to either win over a majority to his position, negotiate a compromise or change his position. That’s called democracy, and the broad representation of the council seems to be the best reflection of community feeling.
    As for why there was no recall under the current system, the only reasons were the sub-zero temperatures and the proximity to the regular election.
    It is interesting that two of the last three mayors have said they have no problem with the current system. The council is fine with it. The staff is fine with it. The only problem seems to be coming from the mayor, whose supporters now are seeking a way to give the mayor a way to circumvent the council and staff. Given the problems with the liquor store, the last thing we need is to give one individual more power.
    There is nothing wrong with getting feedback from the current mayor and council and staff and giving that to the new council and mayor to review. If the newcomers agree that the system will create problems for them as well, then the charter commission will have a mandate for change.
    And it is wonderful to have the current mayor running again. This will be a great way to measure his support in the community. If he fails to get a ringing endorsement from the voters, it will be another sign that the system isn’t the problem. If he wins handily, the charter commission will have public support for the change mandate.

    July 27, 2008
  44. kiffi summa said:

    David K: I was at the Chart/Comm meeting where this idea was brought forward by one member who seems to have this subject as his prime agenda.
    Considering all the talk in the community about the “confusion” (which I personally don’t think there is) in the Charter, I think several of the members just thought, well, let’s just see what happens. They are a respectful working group and not likely to completely shoot down one member’s suggestion.

    However, I agree that it is a shockingly bad idea, especially at this time, and can do nothing but cause more trouble.I don’t believe the person who proposed this has enough understanding of the current situation. IMHO, this council has been so full of disregard for a productive public process, that I personally would not want their input on “rules” …kind of like asking the fox to guard the hen house.

    But also, remember, the proposal to the council only suggested a work session to discuss the matter; not to settle anything. I would be surprised if the council even took them up on the idea; way too busy with other stuff at the moment.

    It should also be noted that there was a strong, even persistent, argument by one of the members, against moving forward with this , and two members voted against this proposal.

    So I guess my bottom line is this (and this will give everyone who knows me a laugh): There’s no point in getting all riled up about this, at this point, because it is not presenting a change, it is simply asking the council to meet in a work session for a discussion.
    Now what might be worth getting riled up about, is my presumption that this council would be willing to take the leadership role OUT of the hands of an elected official, and give the power to an employee. Has the community’s POV changed that much since the last referendum?

    July 27, 2008
  45. victor summa said:

    David …. I’M ON THE CHARTER COMMISSION. May I come for donuts?

    PS: David Koenig (I hate the ubiquitous initial!) I agree whole heartedly with your recent 3/4 comments on the special meeting and the process that necessitated it.

    Frankly, your comments .. although I welcome them, are some of my rationale for not jumping to support the suggested dialogue the way it came to the Commission at our last meeting … and now is shaped by the letter to the council re: a Joint Meeting.

    To study this issue is a vital task for the CC … and your idea re: Two versions is VERY interesting. I’ve been saying, Northfield may need a hybird … to preserve our preferred government form and at the same time allow the community to move wisely into the future.

    Incidentally, while the letter to the Council bore the signature of the Chair (he may speak on this) in the final version delivered by hand to the Councilors, it was not signed by him … in fact it literally bore no signature, only a mere typed name … put there by the letter’s principal author.

    To avoid open meeting conflicts on this letter preparation, the Charter Commission struggled with the protocol to create a letter requesting the joint meeting and finding appropriate text to bring some “reason” … if there’s any … to bare on the entire concept of calling for a meeting!

    “Ill advised” is only the tip of this.

    Having no plan, but trying to foment interests at this time, with this council is at best poor public relations for the Charter Comm .. and at worst, lifting the lid on a box owned by one, Pandora!

    HERE’S A HEADS UP! The meeting room for Tuesday’s special Meeting is small. A large crowd would be a problem … but, impressive.


    July 27, 2008
  46. Griff Wigley said:

    Thanks for the heads-up on today’s 5 pm Special Mtg, Victor.

    Here’s the Agenda:

    Special Charter Commission Meeting
    Tuesday, July 29, 2008
    5:00 p.m. – City Hall – 2nd Floor Conference Room
    1. Call to Order
    2. Discussion of Work Session with Council on the Form of Government
    If the City Council accepts the invitation, what steps shall the Charter Commission take next, including but not limited to, developing a framework to guide our joint discussion with the Council?

    July 29, 2008
  47. David Koenig said:

    The second to last article on governance and city hall which I am writing for the Northfield News appeared today.

    You can view by clicking here.

    September 10, 2008
  48. Griff Wigley said:

    Thx, David. Can you ask them to fix the formatting? One huge paragraph is tough to read.

    September 10, 2008
  49. David Koenig said:

    Yes, I sent Jaci a note this AM and she has fixed it already.

    September 10, 2008
  50. kiffi summa said:

    David: Thanks again for your continuing provocative series of articles; I wish they had allowed you more words, as some of your points would be enhanced by a longer text.

    Here’s a question that I wonder if anyone thinks worth a discussion: What would be the benefit, or detriment, of NF going to an all at-large system of elected representatives, rather than continuing the ward system?

    Would long term and newer residents view this differently?

    Are there specific issues still in wards, or are all decisions best made for the common good?

    Anybody got any ideas ???

    September 10, 2008
  51. David Koenig said:

    …and the last article in the series on governance and city hall was published today. You can read it by clicking here.

    October 4, 2008
  52. David Koenig said:

    As a summary, here are the links to the five articles in the series:

    Someone Should be the Leader

    Who Will be the Leader?

    Investing in Leaders

    How do we know if we have good governance?

    Improving Governance through Competition and Distribution

    I hope that these were at least helpful in stirring some discussion and consideration. I am also hopeful that “discussion and consideration” will not be where we stop. There is a need for change and I hope that our charter commission and future mayor, adminstrator and council will change how we are governed.

    October 4, 2008
  53. kiffi summa said:

    At the Sept. 15th City Council meeting, the Charter Commisssion brought back a revision of their wording re: the disposal of the hospital operations, I believe a new section of the charter (14.7?) but it was not voted on, as the motion to consider failed for a lack of a second.

    At the next Chart/Com. meeting, the commission voted (5-2) to shut down until next February. I would presume this was because of the council’s action, and the commission’s presumption that it was best to wait for a new council (one not so adversarial with the Charter Commission?) to try to accomplish any further amendments, or new proposals.

    I have never understood the negative reaction of some of the council to the Charter Commission, and I think it is just another “black mark” on this council’s record. If there are sincere differences of opinion, they should be discussed. This hospital amendment had a letter of approval from the hospital board.

    Letting a proposal from a board/commission die for want of a second is an inappropriate power play. How was this consensus achieved?

    The resulting action of the CharterCommission (shutting down til a new council comes on) was a pragmatic choice, but in my mind, an unfortunate one.

    At any rate, the proposal is back on the council’s regular agenda this week, presumably at the Mayor’s behest … what will happen?

    October 4, 2008
  54. David Ludescher said:

    David K: In your opinion, to what extent does citizen involvement make city governance more difficult, and less effective than it could or should be? It seems to me that our city government is far too responsive to complaints to be effective.

    I would cite the City’s new rental code as an example. Isn’t that a case where the City government should have “distributed” the job of managing unruly tenants to the citizens?

    October 4, 2008
  55. Martha Cashman said:


    Just a little reminder:

    The terminology “black mark” is negative racial term. Using the phrase “another negative mark” avoids equating black with bad or as a negative.

    I want other readers to understand where I am coming from on the use of color descriptors when communicating. I am the mother of a black child and a biracial child. I know first hand how these color descriptors can hurt a child’s self-image.

    Thanks for understanding.

    October 5, 2008
  56. kiffi summa said:

    martha: obviously there was no denigrating racial slur intended, and I apologize for your discomfort in taking it that way.

    However, I am interested in your source of that etymological basis for the phrase “black mark”, as I can only find it being first used in the time of Charles II in England, as a way of defining lists of royalist supporters, or adversaries.

    ( Sorry to be so pedantic, but coming from a household with a grandfather who was a linguist speaking 17 languages, and where word origins were a dinner table game, I am always curious.)

    October 6, 2008
  57. Martha, I certainly understand the plight of minorities in this country and around the world. But must we change the description of every black or white or red or pink or brown or yellow or gold thing so that people don’t feel bad about themselves, when I am sure Kiffi and I and a lot of other people would be referring to the color of ink used to make an accounting mark, or the color of the column lines where accountants put losses and gains on an accounting sheet, which btw are red or black, usually. It’s an accounting term, nothing more, nothing less.

    October 6, 2008
  58. David Koenig said:

    David L,

    The effect of network and distributive governance is to bring more people into the process, who are closer to the place where initiatives are applied. It helps effectiveness by granting them the ability to make real decisions, not just offer advice, while providing governance through stakeholder oversight.

    A Strong Mayor system at the council level, in combination with networked and distributive governance, would allow the directly elected officials to more efficiently define, articulate and fund a vision.

    Decisions in this model are improved via direct feedback from the stakeholders who evaluate the performance of the groups who have been empowered to take actions and swift corrective or supportive action at the mayor/council level.

    There are many more people involved in this kind of a system and it can be both more efficient and more effective.

    October 6, 2008
  59. Martha Cashman said:


    I respectfully disagree with you. Words do matter and can be judgemental. Once your awareness is raised you would be amazed at how easy it is make the adjustment.

    October 6, 2008
  60. Hi, Martha. Well, I can agree that words matter. The idea that I am trying to promote is just that. Words have historical meanings. When they were never used to hurt people of color or otherwise, they should not now be given new meanings. You are trying to make people with no harmful intent look bad now.

    Instead of trying to get everyone to change innocent language, I would spend the time teaching children that there are no words on the planet that should make them feel less than any other being. I would spend the time telling children that this is not a world full of people who with every utterance are putting them down, just because they are describing a situation that has nothing to do with who they are. It’s very divisive. IT makes your best allies afraid to speak. No one is calling your children or any children bad names. Really.

    If someone here spews racist crap, I will be in the forefront of people who support you and your family. I Promise. Double Promise.

    October 6, 2008
  61. Barry Cipra said:

    Kiffi, I believe the word associated with Charles II is “blacklist,” not “black mark.” My dictionary dates the latter to 1835-45 (with no other details). But, Bright, I don’t think “black mark” is an accounting term — that’s “in the black” (which carries a positive connotation, of course).

    Etymology aside, though, words do acquire new connotations, new meanings, and new referents. It’s impossible anymore, for example, to hear the word “lipstick” and not immediately think of pigs, pitbulls, and Sarah Palin. To the extent we wish to make our ideas clear to others, it’s important to understand how others understand our words.

    October 6, 2008
  62. Barry, you are right, I read the post wrong. I apologize for that.

    However, now, what do I call the stuff I use to color my face part?

    October 6, 2008
  63. Barry Cipra said:

    Bright asks:

    “what do I call the stuff I use to color my face part?”

    Assuming it’s a shade of red, how about “republicanizer”? And maybe a little blue democratizer around the eyes….

    October 6, 2008
  64. Martha Cashman said:

    My posts have not been intended as divisive or punitive. I too looked at color descriptors as being pretty innocent. However, I can assure you that not everyone shares this view.

    October 6, 2008
  65. Hi,Martha! Not a problem, I hear you. And I did say ‘it is’, not’ your posts are’…see I do think about my words.

    Anybody, I would like to see a list or book or some offical list of things people cannot legally say and where some official book like the dictionary, which I know lags behind usage, but really the only standardized way of going about educating the adult population. I go by the dictionary for most of my understanding of words I am only partly familiar with. Even there, ‘black list’ is not a problematic or racist phrase.

    I have just spent ten minutes looking for a PC list and find only bits and pieces and mostly anti PC comments.

    October 6, 2008
  66. Martha Cashman said:

    Kiffi & Bright,

    I am not referring to the etymology of the phrase and, I know that you certainly did not intend it as a slur.

    I am merely communicating the education and awareness that has been shared with me by those who do take offense by the use of these phrases.

    I think Barry has hit the nail on the head by stating, “… words do acquire new connotations, new meanings, and new referent.” I know this to be the case.

    I point it out as an opportunity to learn.

    October 6, 2008
  67. Barry Cipra said:

    In posting #66, Bright writes:

    ” I did say ‘it is’, not’ your posts are’”

    Bright, I assume you are referring to your sentence “It’s very divisive” in posting #61. What is the antecedent of “it” there?

    October 6, 2008
  68. ‘It’ refers to the act of giving new meanings to words not your own. I never mentioned ‘post’ or ‘Martha’ or ‘your post’ in that post. And here, I mean your in the general sense of you, not the personal, pointing a finger sense.

    Can I go home now? 🙂

    Next time, I’ll pull the ambush the handicapable card.

    October 6, 2008
  69. Barry Cipra said:

    Bright, thanks for the clarification. The most logically grammatical reading I could give your original post had the “it” referring to “trying to get everyone to change innocent language,” which could easily be interpreted as referring to “my [i.e., Martha’s] posts.”

    October 6, 2008
  70. kiffi summa said:

    If anyone would care to get back to the Charter issues …

    Last night the Council tried to “clean up its act”. Unfortunately, they seemed to only further “muddy the waters”. (see my comment of Oct 4, 11:19 am for some history, so I don’t have to re-explain)

    It appears, according to MN state statute 410,12, subd.7, that the council was in violation of this statute by not voting on the charter amendment proposal within a month after the public hearing. A bizarrely comic/tragic discussion occurred, in which the City Attorney advised the councilors that it really didn’t matter, they were just a little bit late, (Sept 15 – Oct 6) and they should just go ahead and vote (sort of in the spirit of “better late than never”)!

    !!!! ??? **** (These in place of an oft used three letter phrase, ending with a possibly unacceptable word)

    So, after “sort of fighting” with the Charter Commission over this hospital amendment issue for some months (although the hospital board had sent a letter approving the wording), and then refusing to even discuss it at the Sept. 15 meeting (letting it die for lack of a second), resulting in violating a state statute, they now are told they can fix it all by just voting, so they do, and vote it down.

    You cannot blame this one on Mr. Roder, although an ( possibly arrogant ?) attitude lingers. I am reminded of the the meeting last summer when Councilor Davis said: “We’re not breaking any rules; we’re just making up our own!”

    Yup … I think that was a correct analysis.

    October 7, 2008
  71. Barry, yes and your words could be easily interpreted as someone who is trying to discredit me cuz I don’t think like you do.

    Martha, I am in no way trying to start any problems with or for you. I am happy to see people stand up for their children. There was a time when I stood up for someone else’s child who was being publicly abused by the parent, who btw, was at least 6’4″ to my 5’6″. There were dozens of people laying around enjoying the spectacle. Not bragging, but giving an example of how much I do not like to see children being abused.

    But, if I were, I could be very upset by your remarks. See post #60.

    Once your awareness is raised you would be amazed at how easy it is make the adjustment.

    If nothing else, it sounds very condescending, and presumptuous. But, I can let it go in view of the fact that you don’t know me, and either are ignoring my other posts or simply haven’t had occasion to read them.

    However, a lot of this is beyond me. As an artist, I am aware of color as a way of looking at everything. People aren’t black or white in color. They aren’t red or yellow. I think it’s insulting to paint every race with a color name and then put that on every individual of that race. We all know that people of all races come in various shades of brown to beige with some having a bit more pink or gold and even greens and blue tinges to their skin. It has nothing to do with black, white, red, yellow, brown. What, are we children who are first learning our primary and secondary colors and cannot be trusted with the tertiaries? Please. The system is even more prejudice making, imho.

    I still don’t see any official document by a recognized authority. We as a country have long ago released the intentionally insulting words that I won’t even print out here. We all know what they were. Other than that,
    I am not going to automatically obey some people who either disagree with my views politically or otherwise on this forum, or any other.

    October 7, 2008

Leave a Reply