Public engagement for the City of Northfield: Councilors want to know what should be changed

Eric ZweifelA week ago, the Northfield City Council met for a retreat (not AIG style, I’m told) and, among other things, decided to look closely at all areas of public engagement. (See last week’s Nfld News article, New council meets to begin teamwork, setting goals.)

Councilors Erica Zweifel, Jim Pokorney, and Kris Vohs are on the subcommittee to look at public engagement. They are expected report back to the Council in early Feb. with some recommendations.

I met with Erica earlier this week at the Goodbye Blue Monday to better understand the scope of their inquiry and talk a little bit about how online tools might be part of the solution.

Evidently, everything is on the table, including:

  • Providing information to the public. This would include the City’s web site, monthly print newsletter, and the broadcast/streaming of video of official public meetings. (See Bonnie Obremski’s RepJ story, City could stream video by 2010, as well as her series of RepJ stories on NTV.)
  • Ward meetings
  • Town meetings
  • Boards and commissions (structure, effectiveness, meetings)
  • Public input before, during, and after Council and other public meetings. This would include open mic.
  • Blogs
  • Online input and discussions

For the past two weeks, we’ve been discussing (117 comments thus far) the pros and cons of Northfield’s online eco-system for civic engagement. The discussion has mostly focused on Locally Grown, RepJ, and Northfield’s civic blogosphere within the context of professional journalism and citizen journalism – and with some forays into civic capacity-building.

Discussion on this blog post, however, needs to be both broader (not just online engagement) and more practical (what specifically needs to be changed or tried). If the discussion is substantive IMHO, I’ll produce a PDF transcript and ask that it be given to each councilor before their Feb. meeting.

Councilor Zweifel has agreed to follow this discussion and chime in as she sees fit.


  1. Griff Wigley said:

    I’ve been complaining about the City’s web site for years, as I don’t think we’re getting good value from the $85,000 that was spent on it in 2005-06.

    Here’s a Jan. 2006 document (PDF) titled CITY OF NORTHFIELD WEB SITE POLICY.

    So part of this discussion can include what needs to be changed with the city’s web site, especially as it relates to public input/engagement.

    January 10, 2009
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    Here’s an excerpt from John Thomas’ recent comment in the message thread on the RepJ Mayor Rossing video

    Technology infrastructure is equally important as other infrastructure items when it comes to the smooth interaction between city departments.

    Also, I would like her thoughts on leveraging city wide wireless as a public utility run by the city, or if she feels that a private vendor could implement and run it better.

    Also, if you could ask about:

    1. What improvements are coming to the city website?

    2. Have they considered a transactional interface on the website. I.E. the ability to use a credit card to pay a water bill, or pay city fees, etc.

    2a. Can we at least get credit card processing to be able to pay a water bill over the phone or in person? Mailing in a paper check is SO last century.

    3. Leveraging technology on the web to allow citizens to interact with the city, doing simple transaction, freeing up clerical labor for other tasks.

    4. Online reporting of water meter readings.

    5. Continued utilization and implementation of GIS systems for property management. For instance, a database that can be leveraged by the fire department in a laptop, that has building structure information, age, sprinkler systems, business type, hazardous chemical storage, and other firefighting information in it.

    6. Enhanced Mapping of city assets.

    7. Computerized database of all crime activity within our city, for utilization by the police department for crime trending, etc.

    8. A searchable content management system, and more information readily available at a department level on the website.

    9. An area for press releases.

    10. Getting the police blotter out in a timely manner. It used to be a few days old when published in the paper. It is now over a month old. Is this an IT issue, or is there some other reason it is so far behind.

    11. Self service technology kiosk at City Hall, where basic transactions can be handled with minimal city staff interaction.

    12. How does Melissa see the utilization of technology to leverage process improvements, time and cost savings within various departments within the City of Northfield.

    For Melissa and Joel:

    Is there someone working as, or should there be established, a communications coordinator, that is responsible for defining standards for web content and other materials published on the city website, to include visual presentation, location on the website, searchability, currency, and accuracy.

    This should be someone like a spokesman, or a public affairs officer, that also fields media requests, and helps to ensure that the city is speaking with “one voice”.

    Also, is there a Northfield Information Technology Strategic Planning and Vision document in the works? 😎

    January 10, 2009
  3. kiffi summa said:

    I look forward to a work session discussion,when the assigned council committee members come back with their report on improved communication with the citizens.
    There is a fine line between managing, enabling, and regulating citizen input in all its various permutations.So far, the comments are sounding a bit toward the regulating side, although that’s certainly not what we heard during campaign time.

    The most important component of citizen input is the work of the citizen boards and commissions; I get concerned when I hear councilors question the validity of the input of those groups because of not being synchronous with the council’s opinion … but then citizen-bashing has not been above the MO of the past council and some of its members; Let’s hope there is no tolerance for that on the new assemblage.

    But this evaluation of citizen input process definitely needs to be a very public discussion.

    January 10, 2009
  4. Bill Ostrem said:

    City leaders should keep in mind that it is difficult for some people to attend meetings in person. Evening meetings, for example, can be difficult for parents to attend due to child care duties.

    Online comments and other forms of input other than meetings are therefore important.

    I often worry that the needs of parents with small children, or the needs of other groups, receive less attention than the needs of those who have the wherewithal to attend meetings.

    January 10, 2009
  5. norman butler said:

    What should be changed?
    The people who care should also be the people that matter. For a long time, this has not been the case and this is what should be changed.

    January 10, 2009
  6. David Ludescher said:

    We need to have our civic engagement do a better job of following the rules of a representative democracy.

    January 11, 2009
  7. Erica Zweifel said:

    Thank you Griff for setting up this discussion. I am eager to hear comments on this issue. What would people like to see changed? How do you want to contact the council? How do you want them to contact you?

    I am open to any and all suggestions, so now is the time to share your ideas. I cannot change anything on my own, I will need your help, support and suggestions to improve civic engagement in Northfield.

    January 11, 2009
  8. Tracy Davis said:

    Erica, I appreciate your spearheading this. Thanks for being a problem-solver! I’m looking forward to seeing something actually happen as a result of this effort.

    My biggest concern is the maintenance of the City website. As both a vehicle for communication and PR, it’s woefully underutilized. I have more thoughts, but I’d like to see what others bring up before going on with more.

    January 12, 2009
  9. Peter Millin said:

    All the technology can’t substitute transparency and the feeling of being heard.
    It is vital that policy and budgetary decisions reflect and include those that are not being heard all the time.
    Too often (to a lesser degree in local politics) there is a feeling of helplessness and insecurity when dealing with political issues. Way too often the average person feels talked down to rather then engaged.
    It is important that the language and the issues that are being discussed are discussed in a straightforward and open manner.
    Many times peoples specialized on certain issues, assume that the general public understands their language and have all the background information needed to wholly understand the issues at hand.
    If the mayor and city council is serious about engaging people they have to be more transparent then in the past. Make common sense decision that are good for all (not just certain interest groups), stay within our means and communicate decision to the general public that are easily understood.

    January 12, 2009
  10. kiffi summa said:

    OK…. here’s a non-techy (which i believe many of your readers are) POV.
    IMHO, this is definitely not an improvement, as a matter of fact it seems to be looking backwards in design principles, and design is , in general, something I know something about.
    This is so much less “clean” than the old design, and the right sidebar is not as quick and easy to scan, much less read clearly. Colors, lack of contrast and size of type are all problematic, as far as I’m concerned.
    Sorry for the critique, but here’s the good part…. I’m so glad you care so much that you are constantly evolving………
    OH, Ads above the comment line? Maybe you need to explain the economics of this site in order for that to be understood more fully.

    January 12, 2009
  11. Tracy Davis said:

    Thanks for the comments, Kiffi… we’re still working on it and I’ll experiment with text size over the next day or two. And I don’t like the right sidebar either.

    Regarding the ads, this is also experimental, but we’re assuming that anyone who wants to advertise will want their ad to appear “above the fold”.

    Maybe we can do some fundraising with our regulars, saying that if we raise $xx then we can eliminate the ads above the Discussion. 🙂

    January 12, 2009
  12. Holly Cairns said:

    I like it. This design is cool. Perhaps only the young will like it, though.

    January 12, 2009
  13. Tracy Davis said:

    THREAD DRIFT! I didn’t catch this before.

    The current thread is about feedback to the City Council task force regarding public engagement.

    If you want to comment about the new look of Locally Grown, please use this link.

    January 12, 2009
  14. Holly Cairns said:

    And I was so happy to drift… I even broke my “if Kiffi is commenting here I shouldn’t comment here” rule to show my support!

    January 12, 2009
  15. David Ludescher said:

    I think that we need to find a way to engage community partners, such as the Chamber, Lions, the churches, etc. For example, no one requested the input of the Chamber on the building of a liquor store. I can’t think of any organization or group of people with a stronger interest or knowledge.

    January 12, 2009
  16. Erica Zweifel said:

    Great comments so far; I am hearing that you would like more opportunities to comment online, involving more of the community partners in the process and increased transparency. Keep the comments coming!

    January 12, 2009
  17. kiffi summa said:

    Tracy: Is it possible that the “thread drift” comments (you, me, and Holly) all got mechanically placed wrong; I can’t imagine that we all did that wrong in perfect sequence, can you?

    But Holly, I don’t get your comment: “if Kiffi is commenting here”, etc. what is the meaning of that? We’ve never met; Que pasa?

    Erica: I do have a long comment, but have to think it through a bit more…..

    January 12, 2009
  18. David Ludescher said:


    I think that civic engagement has 2 sides. One is being involved in the community by working without the expectation of political return, like many of the service organizations, and city committees.

    The “civic engagement” most talked about here is the opportunity to affect public policy by lobbying the government for your own personal agenda.

    To quote my grandfather, “If you want to complain, you better be working.” That’s the kind of civic engagement that most benefits the City, not the talking.

    January 12, 2009
  19. Holly Cairns said:

    Drifting again (here comes the axe) never mind, Kiffi. Maybe over coffee some day.

    January 12, 2009
  20. Charlene Coulombe-Fiore said:

    Wow….what a revamp!
    I love the colors and the lovely snowy picture of downtown Northield. It is gonna take some getting use to , and I truly think you have added alot of interesting points and features here.
    All that work, surely (takes time and money) so a banner ad is understandable.
    Here’s a few question I have…Will the participants change?
    I can vision an increase in traffic if you continue to focus on issues and concerns with facts.
    All & All I think it’s great. Good job!

    January 13, 2009
  21. Erica Zweifel said:

    Thanks David, so how about some suggestions for getting folks off the couch or out from behind the keyboard and actively participating. Are there some community groups that are already doing this that the council should be working with?

    What about other city models? Has anyone lived somewhere other than Northfield where something happened that opened your eyes to the joys of civic engagement? Please share.

    January 13, 2009
  22. David Ludescher said:

    Erica: One way to get people to engage is to not allow so much opportunity for “civic engagement” without corresponding civic responsibility.

    For example, my wife, Nancy, was an active volunteer in our children’s school for many years. I have been a chess coach for 17 or 18 years. Rather than petitioning the school board for what “we” wanted, we just got involved and did it.

    So, the short answer is – if people are telling you that they want this or that from the government, ask them how they are going to help. The Way Park issue is a good example. Both the police and fire departments are opposed to closing the street. The Comp Plan also discourages cul-de-sacs. Are the neighbors offering to help, or are they just complaining?

    I like the way Obama has phrased his message. He isn’t talking about civic “engagement”; he is talking about civic responsibility.

    January 13, 2009
  23. kiffi summa said:

    david : It is my observation that people who are civically (sp?) engaged are almost always accepting of civic responsibility; don’t the two go hand in hand?

    If I think back over what some might term the ‘usual suspects’ at the open mic, for instance, almost all of them have either run for office, serve on Boards or Commission or have in the past, or serve on other non-profit boards or work actively in non- profit organizations.

    In other words , those who are not adverse to public participation do so, and with dedication and energy.

    In my POV, what IS lacking, is open mic comments from people who work or volunteer in other discrete but large segments of the community, like the school district, or the hospital. Or the colleges, which are so integral to NF’s character. Or the surrounding rural townships which have so affected Nf’s culture, and its historical roots.

    I would very much like to see public comments, to the council, about things other than just the narrow politics of NF; because I think the council should have a larger, more inclusive picture which guides its POLICY making.

    And that what’s the most important task for the council: POLICY based decision making; something they rarely discuss aside from ‘Plans’, be it Comp, Transportation, whatever.

    January 13, 2009
  24. Bruce Anderson said:

    David L.,

    I object strongly to your latest comment concerning civic engagement, civic responsibility, and “the Way Park issue.” Your condescending tone is not appreciated by me, nor, I’m sure, by the members of the Friends of Way Park board of directors (my wife included). The Friends of Way Park, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, formed to “honor the Way family gift of 1933 by preserving this community parkland for present and future generations.” It’s stated purpose is to 

    • Support, advise, and cooperate with the City of Northfield in the planning, development, programming, beautification, and maintenance of Way Park
    • Encourage the use of Way Park by the entire Northfield community
    • Memorialize the 1939 Northfield hospital that previously occupied the south park of the park
    • Encourage and receive gifts and bequests in support of the purposes previously noted

    You may disagree, David, with the point of view of Friends of Way Park; you may disagree with the opinions expressed here and elsewhere by members of their board (such as David Sudermann) and their supporters (such as me), but it hardly seems fair to ask whether “the neighbors,” as you disparagingly and dismissively refer to us, are offering to help or just complaining. I have never intentionally insulted you and the Chamber of Commerce in such a manner, for example, when you have advocated positions on behalf of the Chamber. All I ask is similar civility in return.

    You and Nancy are to be commended for your civic volunteerism. Everyone I know, myself included, who has commented on “the Way Park issue” has also been extensively involved as a community volunteer for many years in ways that we feel are valuable to the community. In my case, that has included volunteering in the schools, on school district task forces, and on city task forces among other activities. I’d appreciate it if you were less condescending in future. Even people with whom you may not share very many values may be people of character and responsibility.

    January 13, 2009
  25. David Ludescher said:

    Bruce: On the issue of civic “engagement”, I think that it is fair to say that Friends of Way Park are engaged for the purpose of benefitting their special interest – Way Park. To date, I haven’t heard any offers of civic engagement that involve contributions of time or money by the organization or its members.

    January 13, 2009
  26. Bruce Anderson said:

    You know nothing about the history of the organization. There have been many offers of contributions of both time and money.

    January 13, 2009
  27. Griff Wigley said:

    I think the Council is asking for some very practical suggestions for public input right now. So let’s try to move away from the theoretical discussion about civic engagement in this message thread towards some details on input.

    How about Ward meetings?

    I’ve often thought that there should be more Ward meetings but I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be better to have living-room/backyard neighborhood meetings instead. So smaller and more frequent so that people both get to know their neighbors better as well as feel more comfortable talking in a more informal setting.

    January 13, 2009
  28. Griff Wigley said:

    Erica wondered if there might be a way for the Council to get more public input via the web before a Council meeting, once the agenda and supporting documents are published on the City’s web site.

    In other words, could there be an electronic version of open mic where you can address the council on any issue before a meeting?

    What might it look like?

    January 13, 2009
  29. kiffi summa said:

    Citizens have had the capability to e-mail their councilors on any subject they wish the councilors to have their opinion on, in the same way they can call or write to them. I think the personal contact is best because it allows there to be a discussion if necessary.

    However, that is an additional load of work for already busy volunteers( councilors) ….Have you ever seen the volume of paper the councilors have to deal with?

    If there were an online version of open mic, there would be the need for a lot of site management; look at either the News, or LG’s time consumed on this . With the city’s budget woes, I can’t see how the personnel resource could be accomplished.

    I keep thinking of the night about six or eight elderly recreational van/camper travelers came to the open mic to protest being sited for storing their campers on their own property, as they have for years. With the building permits down, the building official had been told to go on an active, rather than complaint based program, and was going out as he had been instructed to do, looking for possible citations. When those people spoke, in person at the open mic, to the council, the whole situation turned around, PDQ.

    There are times when the public comment, and the numbers of it, is the effective means to have the council consider the issue. How would that have been matched by ‘silent’
    website comments?

    January 14, 2009
  30. kiffi summa said:

    Griff: couldn’t you ask Bruce and David L to move their comments to each other to the Way Park thread?

    I think their are some serious differences there that need to be resolved, or at least aired.

    January 14, 2009
  31. Erica Zweifel said:

    Thank you for the redirection Griff. I announced at my first council meeting that I will be holding quarterly ward meetings. Here are my thoughts on ward meetings; I plan to hold the meetings in various locations in the third ward, there will be a presentation about the location, awards will be given for volunteerism in the third ward, and a question and answer session will wrap it up. What else would people like to have at a ward meeting?

    To Kiffi’s comment, yes the councilors are concerned about online discussions adding to their work load. But Griff assures me that there is some crazy technology out there that will allow me to aggregate all of the blogs that I am currently following onto one page. So at the click of a button I can glace at them all. Is this really true or is Griff just pulling my leg?

    January 14, 2009
  32. David Ludescher said:

    Erica: My concern is that the current public input processes is already dominated by the over-represented. Creating additional public input opportunities is going to exacerbate the political situation.

    It is not more public engagement that should be the goal; it should be better public engagement.

    January 14, 2009
  33. Tracy Davis said:

    David, I think that’s exactly what we’re trying to figure out: How to use all the means at our disposal to improve the quality of public engagement. Making use of new technologies may be part of that.

    Erica, Griff’s not pulling your leg.

    One specific idea that could work is for the City to set up an automated online “open mic” for one-way communication with the council, for people who aren’t able to attend the evening meeting. It would mean that the councillors would have to be responsible to read through the comments, but they could be included as part of the public record. The devil’s in the details, but I can see ways in which it could be done with very little staff time to update and manage, and the system itself could prevent multiple comments from the same person, etc.

    Griff will hate the one-way communication idea, but in this specific case I’m trying to address the concerns of people who can’t attend meetings.

    January 14, 2009
  34. Anne Bretts said:

    Is there a problem with phone calls and e-mail that prevents public comment? New technology is fun, but is it really needed in a town this small?
    At some point, I’d love to see a video/webcam conference set-up at the library or city hall that lets local folks interact with county employees and speak at county board meetings. Having consultants and city officials appear by video conferencing could save money and time as well. But city residents don’t have that geographic disadvantage in reaching city officials.
    I’m a little concerned about the overarching assumption that the public needs to be more involved in city government. People are involved in the community through their churches, schools, volunteer work, neighborhood associations, the senior center. They talk about their concerns, get involved in what matters to them.
    The city government basically makes sure the streets get plowed, the grass is mowed, the police and fire departments work. Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but these are not issues in which untrained citizens need to be involved on a regular basis. I think an informative website, quarterly ward meetings, responsive councilors and alert city employees can get a pretty accurate read on public opinion. Folks in this town show no reticence in sharing their opinions over coffee or at the grocery store, so I’m sure councilors, board and commission members and employees have a lot of interaction. Perhaps it would help to use this personal network to get the word out on issues that would benefit from broader public discussion and then monitor the response they get.
    I guess I’d like to know exactly what kind of public involvement is missing right now. Is there any evidence that Northfield has less than average attendance at meetings, less than average interest in appointments, less than average phone and personal contact with officials? In short, do we have a problem, and if so, what is it?

    January 14, 2009
  35. David Koenig said:


    The Ward meetings that I ran always featured one City employee who was there to talk about their work, usually something that was timely and a general Q&A session.

    So, you might invite the Park and Rec director to talk about Way Park, the Skateboard Park, 3rd Ward Park Development Plans, etc.

    Or, the Police Chief might come by to talk about gangs, graffiti, drug prevention, staff, policing philosophy, etc.

    By doing this, you’ll not only help to educate your ward members, but also build a closer connection to the staff who work for the City.

    I’d suggest staying with one venue, though, that is convenient for all. That way, if someone is heading off to your meeting, but forgot to check where it is, they will know. We always met at the Northfield Library, for example.

    I also sent out a quarterly newsletter with Ward specific issues highlighted. Nothing elaborate, but a one or two-page summary of items about which they might like to know.

    Best wishes! I found the meetings to be very helpful.

    January 14, 2009
  36. Tracy Davis said:

    Anne, one of my concerns is that I believe there should be more ways to get comments into the public record; hence the “virtual open mic” idea. I don’t much care what technologies are used to do it, but it’s easier to skim text than fast-forward through video.

    January 14, 2009
  37. David Ludescher said:

    Erica: Anne brings up a good question. She asks if there is a problem and what the problem is. My opinion – too much input from the public, and not enough “engagement” on the output.

    January 14, 2009
  38. Anne Bretts said:

    Tracy, I think we agree in part. The city can add a comments section to the website and let people post, and can summarize or cut and paste e-mails, calls and letters.
    I guess my point is that there is no definition of what needs to be done or what it can or should produce.
    How does anyone judge whether the plans are successful or worth the effort if there’s no defined public demand or defined goal?

    January 14, 2009
  39. […] the discussion thread here on LoGro attached to the blog post Public engagement for the City of Northfield: Councilors want to know what should be changed and she’ll be a guest on our show next week to talk more about […]

    January 15, 2009
  40. David Koenig said:

    David L, I see that your position has been modified now to include “…not enough engagement on the output”. That is a helpful modification and makes your point more clear.

    You and I don’t agree on the need for less input. However, we do agree on more need for engagement on the output.

    January 15, 2009
  41. David Ludescher said:

    David K: By more engagement on the output, I mean citizens working to solve their own problems, or working with the government to come up with solutions.

    An example of this type of engagement on Way Park would be for the City Council to state that they won’t approve any design that the fire and police oppose. The citizens could then work directly with the fire and police on a mutually agreeable solution. The citizens could also meet with the Planning Commission to determine a new rule for building cul-de-sacs, rather than making their case a “special” case.

    January 15, 2009
  42. Erica Zweifel said:

    Let’s take a minute and look at the other side of the issue. We have been focusing on how citizens can contact councilors, I would like to also talk about how councilors can best inform citizens. Ward meetings, councilor blogs, articles in the Northfield News, the city webpage, league of women voters webpage, logro and council meetings; where do you go to get information?

    January 16, 2009
  43. victor summa said:

    Erica : The best model I have seen was the one David Koenig used for his ward meetings; some staff and some ‘hard ‘ info on a current project, and then a question and answer session, all topped off by his newsletter. Although David represented ward 1, people from all over the community would attend his meetings because of how well structured and informative they were.
    It would be hard to come up with a better solution.
    Thanks for working on this……..

    January 16, 2009
  44. Bruce Anderson said:

    David L.,

    Regarding your comment above that

    An example of this type of engagement on Way Park would be for the City Council to state that they won’t approve any design that the fire and police oppose. The citizens could then work directly with the fire and police on a mutually agreeable solution.

    They already have. Friends of Way Park board members met with both the fire and police chiefs, individually, prior to the January 5 public hearing, heard their concerns about emergency vehicle access, and crafted a mutually agreeable compromise that a gated, driveable pedestrian/bike pathway across the current 1st Street corridor, accessible to emergency vehicles, be incorporated into the park design. My wife, Anne Larson, spoke directly of this compromise solution during the public hearing.

    I agree with you that civic engagement on solutions is crucial. I believe that The Friends of Way Park have modeled this approach admirably. They are NOT just whining and seeking special dispensations. From the get-go, they have been “working with the government to come up with solutions,” as you suggest. As has been discussed on this and the Way Park discussion thread, they are committed to working to assist the City in funding future implementation of the park master plan.

    Along with David K., I disagree with you on the need for more engagement on public input. How else are our elected officials to make informed decisions about the views of the citizens they represent? I’m particularly puzzled as to why you seem so eager to assume the worst of The Friends of Way Park, when there is abundant objective information that they have worked very hard to play by the rules and help, rather than hinder, the City on this project. I think that this is a positive example of civic engagement, both on the input and output sides of the equation.

    January 16, 2009
  45. David Ludescher said:

    Bruce: I don’t have anything against Friends of Way Park. However, they are public engaged in a very different way than 5th Bridge, The Lions, Sertoma, Rotary, and other civic organizations. We need more “giving” public engagement, and less “asking” public engagement.

    January 16, 2009
  46. Bruce Anderson said:

    We may have to agree to disagree, David. I feel Friends of Way Park haven given, and will continue to give, much. They have given of their time toward a public good: development of a high-quality neighborhood park that benefits the neighborhood and broader community. In addition, they have committed to raising funds for this public good once there is a firm plan to move forward.

    January 16, 2009
  47. David Ludescher said:

    Bruce: I think that we can all agree that not all public engagement is equal. I hope that we can also agree that some public engagement is counter-productive to good government.

    I am also of the opinion that the quality of the public engagement would be better if it were not so easy to be engaged. My experience is that the additional engagement is usually directed toward a special interest, not the greater good of Northfield.

    Erica: To the extent that the City Council members can force input to go through the representatives rather than having every issue be a Council issue, public engagement, especially for the under-represented, will be better.

    January 19, 2009
  48. kiffi summa said:

    Who is to set themself up as the arbiter of the ‘value’ of each individual’s public engagement?
    I find that position to be somewhat offensive, David L.

    You have said you have coached chess club for several years; I think that’s a great thing to do. Besides the value to the kids’ skill development, you are building an intergenerational relationship that should be productive.
    But as to that ‘public engagement’ versus David Suderman, for instance, spending untold hours researching the history of the west side in his quest for knowledge on the Way Park issue, I would hate to say that one is more valuable than the other. Coaching chess versus contributing a huge volume of research to the Historic Society; I don’t think those are values that can be weighed against each other, except by each person’s interest.

    The idea that the Friends of Way Park had a selfish interest in regaining the parkland really shows a lack of understanding of the entire process from the beginning. Chris Ennis walked the whole town, in the winter months, obtaining signatures (6 or 700) from north, south , east, and west… all over this community… from people who wanted the hospital land to revert to the park use that the Way family had specified, if the hospital should move. That was not a selfish act.

    Both the founding group, and the now established board, have multiple people on them who have served the community in many ways,on boards and commissions, as elected officials, as teachers in our schools, etc.

    You can argue the issue of the street closing; you can argue against the principle of taking the opportunity to double a park in a 100 year old neighborhood, but in my opinion, it is wrong to demean the motives of the people who have now worked for years to return this gift to the community.

    January 19, 2009
  49. David Ludescher said:

    Kiffi: I would hope that the councilors can arbitrate what is valuable and not valuable public engagement. I don’t know how they are going to evaluate what should be changed without deciding what is valuable.

    January 19, 2009
  50. Griff Wigley said:

    Gov’t openness and transparency while getting more input and involvement from ordinary citizens were among the themes in President Obama’s remarks today. See Remarks By The President Welcoming Senior Staff And Cabinet Secretaries – 1/21/09

    Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

    Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans — scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs — because the way to solve the problem of our time is — the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.

    January 21, 2009
  51. David Koenig said:

    Griff, you’re not going to bring David L over with an Obama quote! 🙂

    However, Obama is spot-on. Government is the collective of its citizens. It is we governing ourselves.

    The subset of individuals in ‘authority’ at any one point in time will be comprised of talents and experiences that are a subset of those in the community, not a superset.

    So, the subset will benefit from input received by members of the superset, provided they have good judgment as one of their skills.

    January 21, 2009
  52. Griff Wigley said:

    We talked about the idea of an ‘online open mic’ on today’s podcast with Eric Zweifel.

    The current limitation: On Fridays before a Council meeting/work session, City staff publish the agenda and supporting documents as PDFs to the City web site. (They’re also available at City Hall and the Library.) Citizens who want to PUBLICLY comment on those agenda items must show up at the Council meeting and wait for either the open mic segment or the public comment segment on a specific agenda item. People who work during that time, have family obligations or other conflicts, or who are afraid of speaking in public are out of luck.  They only have the option to contact one or more council members individually (phone, email, F2F).

    So one possible way to address this (I’m making this up as I go):

    • An online comment tool attached to the web page of the Agenda where citizens can submit their input on an agenda item.
    • The comments would be publicly displayed in linear fashion in the order that they were submitted. 
    • Just like Open Mic, only one comment per citizen would be allowed (no back and forth discussion like here). 
    • People would be expected to submit their email address with their street address and phone number so that comments could be verified before being published if there was a concern about veracity. A slightly more elaborate procedure could be created in which citizens are issued a UserID and password in which their identity is verified ONCE and thereafter, they can post regularly without staff having to confirm identities.
    • Comments would stop being taken by a certain time on Monday.
    • Councilors could check the comments online anytime prior to the meeting.  
    • A PDF of the comments could be entered into the record or at least a list of the people who submitted comments.  Or maybe a staff person could read the names of those submitting comments on each agenda item.
    • Since the comments would be publicly viewable, they could be used to help further online discussions (SNIP! LINK!) here on LG, on, Nfld News, or any blog in Northfield’s civic blogosphere.

    So what are the pros and cons of this idea? How could it be improved on?

    January 21, 2009
  53. David Ludescher said:

    Gentlemen: Obama is quickly winning me over with his words. It remains to be seen if both political parties will follow his lead.

    On the engagement issue, Obama talked about government officials engaging ordinary people. But, he also talked about a code of ethics which would limit access by those who already have substantial access. Perhaps most importantly, he talked about the individuals serving the common good with or without government involvement as being the best service to the nation.

    I also liked his invocation of God at the appropriate moments. Generally, Republicans assume that God will do too much; Democrats assume that God can do too little. Good government must assume neither.

    January 21, 2009
  54. Anne Bretts said:

    OK, an online open mic is nice, but this is a solution in search of a problem.
    A citizen has every ability to send an e-mail to the mayor or the administrator, asking that it be printed and distributed to the council along with the regular correspondence, which is included in the public record of the council meeting. An individual can ask his councilor to read his statement into the record on his behalf. A person can send someone else to read the statement on his behalf. A person can send a group e-mail to everyone on the council or everyone at City Hall if desired, and send a letter to the newspaper as well.
    And of course, a person can write a statement, print it and deliver it to City Hall, asking it be read into the record.
    In short, there are lots of options for public comment.

    January 21, 2009
  55. kiffi summa said:

    Anne is correct in her evaluation of the many ways a citizen can comment to their representative.

    I think you were just working through the possibilities in your mind , Griff, but your podcast suggestion of a real time online comment to councilors during a council meeting is, IMO, a lack of recognition of the amount of areas they are trying to manage during the meeting.

    It is obvious, in meetings, of the difficulty of keeping all your thoughts in order, keeping all your papers in order, having all eyes focussed on you on that dais, knowing all the focus directed on you by the cable TV watchers of the meeting, and trying to do ALL within the sometimes rather obscure, and often not followed, Robert’s Rules of Order.
    The Mayor has an additional heavy burden of managing/chairing the meeting process.

    To add to that not inconsequential burden, the awareness, reading, thought process involved with monitoring online comments would make the task less than productive, as well as certainly slow the meeting down, and ‘everyone’ seems to be so concerned about the meeting length.

    Sorry… bad idea.

    January 22, 2009
  56. Anne Bretts said:

    Kiffi and I agree…change really is here.
    Online real-time comments would be in total opposition to the limited (and appropriate) public comment periods during a meeting. If you can’t just get up in the middle of a council discussion and participate, you shouldn’t be able to do that online.
    The purpose of public meetings is to make sure the council acts in public, that the public can observe government, not that individuals can pull up a chair and start debating. That’s the problem we’ve had for the last four years, a problem that has allowed a handful of individuals to drag out meetings, thus interfering with the rights of others to hear issues and comment in a timely manner.
    I guess I’m wondering where there are actual instances of people being unable to participate under the current process, and how an online discussion would affect them. Are any councilors reporting problems with people getting in touch with them? Has anyone asked for this online open mic option (other than the triumvirate)?

    January 22, 2009
  57. kiffi summa said:

    Griff; Here’s a great test case for you…….. you could clarify a moderation /ethics/inquiry-as -to-process-from- Felicity, all in one fell swoop here, with reference to Anne’s comment immediately above… which is an ‘agreement’ , a double personal slam, and a reiteration of a point already made; all slickly packaged together in a supposedly acceptable manner, at least one which differs from the style on the NFNews website.

    January 22, 2009
  58. Griff Wigley said:

    Kiffi, nothing from my proposal above talks about anything real-time/during the Council meeting. All citizen comments submitted online would be optionally read by Councilors prior to the meeting. Please read it again:

    My comments on the podcast weren’t well-thought thru!

    January 22, 2009
  59. Griff Wigley said:

    Anne, if citizens have all these other means to contact their councilors, why not eliminate open mic then? It eats up a lot of council meeting time, people often are disrespectful but councilor have to sit there and take it, there’s no transcript of comments, etc etc.

    One (of many) of the advantages of open mic is that it’s the only way for citizens to officially address the council and have the entire citizenry (via NTV, DVD, KYMN) hear their comments, too. And then because the comments are public, subsequent commenters (at that meeting or subsequent meetings) can fine-tune their comments based on what earlier speakers said. Speaking to a council in a group setting is powerful.

    So I’m just proposing another way for this to happen, one that takes advantage of the online medium and accommodates to people’s busy schedules, and acknowledges the fact that fear of public speaking is the #1 ranked fear among the general public.

    January 22, 2009
  60. Anne Bretts said:

    Griff, I’m not opposed to having the open mic expanded to include online comments, which would be read by someone in the room during the specified time limit, just as an e-mail sent before the meeting would be read by someone in the room. I’m ok with having the comments seen on a screen in the room (but still read into the record). I’m not ok with online streaming of questions throughout the meeting.
    If you go back a few commments, you’ll see that I suggested having a webcam option for people to speak to the county board (or council) in the open mic or public comment section of a meeting. E-mail is another version of that.
    All I’m saying is that so far, this is something you feel the city needs, but I have seen no evidence that anyone has been unable to comment under the current system. There is no media committee (which I also recommended) that has surveyed the city and determined that this is the best use of city funds to expand participation. There is only the strong, unrelenting demand of one person, (or perhaps three people) presuming to speak on behalf of the public. I would just like to see some real public input before a decision is made to add a feature that so far seems an amenity rather than a necessity.

    January 22, 2009
  61. kiffi summa said:

    Griff: Excusez-moi , if I heard you incorrectly, but I thought you suggested the realtime online comment process in your podcast with Tracy and Erica?
    Open Mic cannot be eliminated without changing the Charter, as it is provided for in that document. And although the council minutes are very skimpy, they do list the name , address, and gist of each person’s open mic comment.

    January 23, 2009
  62. Anne Bretts said:

    Excuse me as well, as I misunderstood your proposal. Now I’m more confused. It seems the only difference between this online process and e-mail would be in having the messages posted on the website as comments, as they are here.
    Again, I’m not seeing how this will be an improvement over e-mail, telephone, etc. And I’m not seeing the demand.

    January 23, 2009
  63. David Ludescher said:

    Griff: The strength of the open mic process is also its weakness. People are often bypassing their reps or using the open mic process as a political tool to get their way.

    Who wants to run an ad in the News or on KYMN when they can get the Council’s ear directly with very little effort? The process is so open that you don’t even have to be a citizen to speak.

    January 23, 2009
  64. Griff Wigley said:

    In yesterday’s Strib: Surprises, civility dominate at Edina town-hall session.

    The Edina City Council decided to hold
    the town hall meeting as a way to give
    residents an open forum with city
    officials. Last year, some residents
    complained that city rules about what
    they could comment on at regular
    council meetings were too restrictive.

    Council members, pointing to Eden
    Prairie’s success with town hall
    meetings, thought a less formal
    setting might encourage some of the
    city’s more bashful residents to have
    a dialogue with city officials.

    January 29, 2009
  65. David Ludescher said:

    Griff: 30 people in a town of 45,000 is hardly a public engagement success.

    January 29, 2009

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