Monday, July 20, 2015

Sometimes a small notion

"Freedom of Speech" (variant) - Norman Rockwell

One way to increase positive feelings about government is to promote citizen involvement. - Chapter 6, Handbook for Minnesota Cities, p. 29

Through a glass darkly

I see that the president of our city council is a new member of the board of directors of the Minnesota League of Cities for 2015-2016. Dedicated to "promoting excellence in local government," the league aspires to be a source of "trusted guidance." Maybe our council president has taken the opportunity to skim the league's Handbook for Minnesota Cities.

Of course, though citing applicable Minnesota law throughout, the Handbook is no substitute for local ordinances and offers no legal advice. None the less, it seems our city now faces a growing threat to the rule of law at city hall brought about by what a local news outlet recently described as "volunteers committed to providing community insights for the city council." In these dark times of citizen participation, a handy handbook may be just what the city council president needs.

First, let's examine the crisis as we now are given to understand it. According to reports in a local news outlet, the city administrator has uncovered that some people - or maybe a person, details are sketchy - are telling him that something he "prefers" not to be going on might be going on in gatherings of "volunteers committed to providing community insights for the city council." Specifically, something the city administrator describes as "negotiations" - or were they described to him as "negotiations"? Again, details are sketchy.

What these allegations of "negotiations" might or might not entail, with whom they are taking place, with what results - we just do not yet know. It seems these "volunteers committed to providing community insights for the city council" operate in the shadows and we cannot learn of their activities except by means of informants. If there were other ways to find out what happens at these gatherings (sometimes called, "public meetings") surely a local news organization would have discovered it by now.

Be careful what you ask for

Admittedly, it is awkward to keep referring to these groups as "volunteers committed to providing community insights for the city council." Perhaps we might call them "citizen commissions," terms used in the Handbook for Minnesota Cities. So, how is it these "citizen commissions" have managed to infiltrate city hall? Here's what we know based upon the public record:

Turns out that these commissions managed to get themselves created by the city council. Then, taking advantage of a process also established by the city council, people living in Rochester have applied for appointment to these commissions. (That's right, people living among us at this very moment.) These applicants are then interviewed by the mayor - who has said in the past that there have been thousands of these interviews. The mayor has then submitted a list of appointees to the city council for their approval. The city council has then approved these appointments.

Well, before you know it, these commissions are operating deep inside city hall. So, you can see just how easily a situation like the one now facing the city can arise.

How about a little respect

In case you missed it, a local news outlet also points out for us that these commissions are "non-elected bodies". That's right, "non-elected bodies" who we now learn have alarmed the city administrator - whose "non-elected" status must need pointing out to this local news outlet since it failed to mention it.

Let's be clear about this much anyway: Non-elected persons appointed by the city council to serve in the government of the city have in some way not yet fully explained, annoyed a non-elected person hired by the city council to serve in the government of the city.

Despite how they are characterized by a local news outlet, these persons are not just "volunteers committed to providing community insights for the city council." They are commissioners. They are serving terms on duly established government bodies to which they have been likewise duly appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council. They operate under the laws of the city and in some cases the state of Minnesota. They perform duties under similar authority. They are part of the government of the city.

The conduct of these commissioners is being called into question by other city officials on the basis of something heard by, let's just say, "an employee hired to provide professional services for the city council." A local news outlet is satisfied that if these commissioners are being subjected to hearsay by the city they have only themselves to blame because the city has not been recording their meetings - except in those cases where the meetings have been  and are being recorded.

Pretty much accused by city staff of the wrongful exercise of lawful authority. Subject now to pending inquiries by the city council. Blamed by the local media for the very hearsay upon which these accusations are thus far based. Well, let's just say it has not been a great couple of weeks for increasing "positive feelings about government" though citizen involvement.

Some light summer reading

Bringing us back to the Handbook for Minnesota Cities and the trusted guidance it might have for the council president and others in this our city in Minnesota.

In its discussion of citizen commissions and boards, the Handbook observes that where formed and encouraged by councils these bodies "have saved time and have made contributions that could only occur through citizen participation." Noting that councils should take care in forming a body "to establish the ground rules for its activities," the Handbook also cautions that the use of these citizen-advisory bodies only works "if the council listens to the advice." Adding, "If the council does not follow the advice of the committee, it should give understandable reasons for taking other action." (Whoa, there's some guidance worth trusting.)

Though the Handbook does not offer "trusted guidance" on how to respond to accusations of citizen-advisors that border on misfeasance (difficult to cover every contingency after all), one might reasonably extrapolate that "understandable reasons" for such accusations would be a welcome gesture here as well, not to mention the downright decent thing to do.

That's a lot of "maybe's" you got there

All in all, if this brewing internecine conflict at city hall is going to afford us an opportunity to review the work of these commissions, then let's do it up right. Perhaps, like the city's comprehensive plan, the city itself is long over due for a review.

Given our status now as a City of the First Class with a downtown that is the site of a 20 year, half billion dollar economic development project.

Given our population is projected to double over that same time bringing with it increased demands for city services and amenities.

Given the challenges on the horizon and at our doorsteps.

Given the city we long to become.

Maybe we should not just revisit "mission statements" of what a local news outlet likes to call "volunteer bodies" to see if they are doing "what the public expects them to do."

Maybe if we do not simply assume, as does a local news outlet, that the preferences of a city employee necessarily reflect the public's expectations, we might find that the public expects something different of everybody at city hall - including elected officials, the people they appoint to serve in city government, and those they hire.

Maybe under the auspices of the charter commission or another citizen-advisory body formed for this purpose, we should revisit whether or not all these servants of the public - elected, appointed, or hired - are doing what we expect them to do, what we need them to do given the circumstances in which we now find ourselves.

In closing, this final bit of guidance from the Handbook might be trusted to light the way:
Council members have found that ignoring citizen concerns can result in their removal from office at the next election, or in the defeat of a program or activity as a result of citizen opposition.  - Chapter 6, Handbook for Minnesota Cities, p. 29

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