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.
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:
- 5/30/08: Chartering Northfield, in which commentor David Koenig suggested the idea of a “charter wiki” we could all work on.
- 3/26/08: Podcast with guest Peter Dahlen, 2008 Charter Commission chair.
- 11/28/07: Podcast guest Alex Beeby, 2007 Charter Commission chair
- 11/4/07: Is the City’s Charter Partly to Blame for the City’s Woes?, a post by Griff which generated several significant comments, some from Charter Commission members.
- In 2001, Griff moderated a community forum on this issue, with participation by Charter Commission members, the City Administrator, current and former mayors, and a few others.
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?