Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Unfortunately, the council seems unwilling...."

Raymond Schmitz Raymond Schmitz: Dave, have you filed for a copy under the public record act, if not I will!
Dave Beal Dave Beal: Since you seem to know what that is, by all means.
                                                                                                                           Facebook post 08.26.16


from the Webb Management Services Incorporated Chateau Theatre Reuse Study, August 2016
Context: Arts + Culture in Rochester
✲ The City of Rochester has an active and lively, but segmented, arts community.
✲ On one hand, the city has a number of well-established organizations and institutions with long legacies in the community entities - like the Rochester Community Band and Chorus, the Rochester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale, Rochester Art Center, and Rochester Civic Theatre, all of which provide regular programs and have dedicated rehearsal/programming/ performance space. On the other hand, however, can be found what might be referred to as Rochester’s ‘independent scene’ - multiple arts groups, artists, and ethnic cultural communities, all struggling for funds and space (but mostly space).
✲ As a side note, space is not only important because artists and arts organizations need places to work and produce - it is also a crucial part of the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council granting process. Grantees are required to have a public capstone. Without a guaranteed, final, public showing place at the time of application, a potential grantee will not be funded.
✲ According to arts groups, the need for arts and gathering space has increased significantly since the announcement of the DMC. While a handful of artists and organizations had space in downtown Rochester, the DMC has raised property values, leading to rents that many can no longer afford.
✲ Further exacerbating the problem, many of the community’s rentable spaces are either too expensive, too big, or have low availability. The Library, for example, is already booking for April 2017.
✲ In March 2016, the City opened a Request for Proposals for the Senior Center/Armory. The Arts and Cultural Initiative (ACI), an extension of the local arts advocacy group, Rochester Arts and Cultural Collaborative (RACC), submitted a proposal suggesting that the facility be converted to a multi-tenant, multi-use art space. The results of the RFP have not yet been decided on, but many art and cultural community representatives feel that, if the ACI’s proposal is unsuccessful, Rochester’s independent arts and culture community will be completely displaced. [ page 9 ]
User Demand
 ✲ Cultural Community: Rochester has a very large cultural community that has significant need for affordable gathering space. Flexibility is key for these users, both physically and in regards to operating policy (i.e. catering policies that allow them to work with a caterer of their own choosing or cook food themselves and bring it in). Many of these groups would like to have kitchen space. [ page 74 ]

2. In addition to making it the heart of the ‘Heart of the City’, make the Chateau the anchor facility of an arts and culture district or trail, one that includes the Armory as a home for Rochester’s small arts and cultural groups and independent artists. There is an acute need for small organization support in Rochester. The Chateau will be able to meet the needs of some of the community’s arts groups, but not all of them. We would recommend that the City give RACC’s Armory proposal significant thought, particularly within context of developing an arts and cultural district in downtown Rochester and the DMC. [ page 90 ]


This consultant's report that contained a recommendation regarding the Armory re-use was going to become public at some point. Eventually one assumes it will be on the Chateau Re-use Task Force agenda - the task force the Mayor chairs.

As chair it is hard to believe having received the report on August 16 (as we now know he did) that the Mayor had not seen this report and was not aware of its contents at the Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting on Monday, August 22.

At the COW meeting the Mayor was asked directly by the council president if he had anything he wanted to contribute to the Armory re-use discussion. Knowing the recommendation from the consulting firm his Task Force enlisted, and, contrary to that recommendation, all he offered was his opposition to the proposals. Fine. He's under no obligation to accept the consultant's recommendation. (That's pretty much what we do around here anyway, hire expensive consultants and then ignore them.) 

But he decided not to share the information that he did know with most of his colleagues who did not know. The Chief Executive Officer of the city thus denied these elected officials with whom he serves the opportunity - the courtesy, the comity - of reaching their own conclusions based upon that information.

But we were all going to see this report at some future meeting of the Task Force, so what was to be gained by withholding the recommendation and the data that supported it? What was to be gained once the existence of the report was made known by continuing to suppress it for several days until a copy was obtained through a request made under the public record act?

If the propriety of releasing or even acknowledging the report existed prior to a task force meeting was so important, then staff should have informed the council that they needed to delay their discussion and any subsequent action until this new information could be made available to them. But, that was not what happened. One of the report's recommendations was shared. Now it is clear that another even more pertinent recommendation was suppressed. So much for propriety.

Vox publica

There are increasing calls from the public and the press for the council to reconsider their intentions to reject the proposals before it and put the Armory up for sale. Calls to finally engage with citizens who they are elected to serve.

From a petition to the council currently in circulation:
The people of Rochester Minnesota call on the Rochester City Council to reconsider their rejection of the Arts and Cultural Initiative (A.C.I.) proposal for the community based use of the historic building now housing the Senior Center (Armory) at 121 N Broadway Ave, Rochester, MN 55906. 
We, the undersigned believe that the A.C.I. proposal has great merit and that it’s uses of the building as a space for inclusiveness, community building, interfaith and intercultural gatherings and education would add greatly to the quality of life for Rochester residents.

In addition the building will (Under the A.C.I. proposal) be used for visual arts displays and receptions as well as a venue for performing arts of any and all kinds.

We the undersigned believe that we cannot let this opportunity slip away. We must send a clear message to the City Council that this proposal will serve our community on a variety of levels and that this location is ideal for cultivating a downtown rich in myriad cultures, arts, ideas, humanity and simple human connections.
From a recent Post Bulletin editorial:
Unfortunately, the council seems unwilling to ask the questions and let the two groups better define their intentions, which could end up cementing council and community support for either project. During their presentations, members of both groups acknowledged the city's request left room for assumptions on the presenters' part.....

The council has two proposals, and they're proposals council members refuse to call bad. They are from groups willing to revise and hone their plans; they simply want an opportunity....

Additionally, it is unclear whether a sale would serve the public good. Council member Michael Wojcik noted Monday both proposals in hand seek to create an inviting community atmosphere. Would a new owner do the same?...
Ideally, they will seek answers to the first set of questions by engaging with the two groups. It could mean the armory building remains an active part of downtown, rather than sitting dark until the elected officials find an acceptable option without too many questions attached.

"First Class City. First Class Service" 

Though it required a bit of lawyering, the suppressed report is now available to the public. In the end, its continued suppression just corrupted further an already corrupted process.  A process characterized thus far by needless delay, the circumvention of the council's own rules, the suppression of information by high city officials, and an all too familiar disregard for good order, good manners, and good government.

"No ox left ungored" might be a better city motto.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Dark data: what you don't know can't hurt them

We have become so used to thinking of domestic politics in terms of party politics that we are inclined to forget that the conflict between the two systems has actually always been a conflict between parliament, the source and seat of power..., and the people, who have surrendered their power to their representatives. - Hannah Arendt, On Revolution


Recommendation from a report withheld from the city council by the mayor and the city administrator:
In addition to making it the heart of the ‘Heart of the City’, make the Chateau the anchor facility of an arts and culture district or trail, one that includes the Armory as a home for Rochester’s small arts and cultural groups and independent artists. There is an acute need for small organization support in Rochester. The Chateau will be able to meet the needs of some of the community’s arts groups, but not all of them. We would recommend that the City give RACC’s Armory proposal significant thought, particularly within context of developing an arts and cultural district in downtown Rochester and the DMC.  


1. The council president waited months after the deadline to finally bring the proposals for the re-use of the Armory before the Committee of the Whole

2. Then, after those presentations, the council president attempted to include another proposal 16 weeks after the deadline.

3. Then, after raising their questions and concerns during the presentation of the proposals, the majority of the council declined offers from proponents to meet with them to answer their questions and address their concerns. The one council member who was not present at the proposal presentations and was later concern by his "unanswered questions" also refused the opportunity to meet with proponents.

4. Then, some council members complained in their discussion of the proposals that they did not have sufficient information or answers to questions they admitted they had not asked.

5. Now we learn today that information favorable to the RACC/ACI proposal was withheld from the council by the city administrator and the mayor during COW deliberations that included the RACC/ACI proposal.

At this point, one wonders if it is enough for the council to say they'll need to review their process and do better next time. Sure it would be nice if once they set down a process they would respect it. What would be even nicer is if they treated the people they have been elected to serve with some respect as well. A great deal more respect.

Or, maybe they have in place exactly the process they want and it is working just as they intend it to work.

As for the interminable, solemn invocation of "due diligence"...well, if you can't manage it in a year maybe you can't manage it. And you certainly can't manage it by making it up as you go along and hiding important data.

"Due diligence" does mean research and analysis of a company or organization done in preparation for a business transaction. But you know what it also means: the care that a reasonable person exercises to avoid harm to other persons or their property. That sort of due diligence is overdue.

No surprise city/county planning is a broken system. We're struggling with basic good government, simple decency, and fair play. There is not an ox in this city that hasn't been gored. Bloody hell.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Dark (or if you prefer not transparent) dialogue

Good post, Dave. Three comments/questions: Shouldn't the library have initiated/organized/asked for the very type of meetings that have been occurring to build consensus for a proposal? As far as anyone knows, the expansion proposal is dead in the water...maybe there's something going on at the county and DMC EDA, but you wouldn't know it...and the city's "tentative approval" is more like an ambiguous nod of the head, rather than tentative approval. Second: These are the very people the library needs to move a plan -- any plan -- forward. It's counterproductive to portray people like Kiscaden and yes, Staver, as dark forces trying to work outside established channels. Third: Doesn't a combined facility of the kind described today make a lot of sense? - Jay Furst comment posted to Facebook 08.06.16

Here are responses to Jay Furst's comments to yesterday's blog. As I was getting to those, he posted some related comments on his blog, I'll get to them below.

Shouldn't the library have initiated/organized/asked for the very type of meetings that have been occurring to build consensus for a proposal?

It depends on what you think these meetings are about. The reporting says the group's purpose is "to facilitate discussion between several groups who have similar goals and similar needs." Since they are not just concerned with the library, but also UMR, the Y, and the Children's Museum, then probably no, I wouldn't expect the library to have initiated, etc. these meetings.

Though the impetus for convening the meetings to begin with appears to have been the rejection by the county of a library expansion proposal, the meetings seem centered on the UMR/Recreation District of the DMC master plan. Notions of re-locating the library there are not new. They have come up before. I don't know that the library seriously pursued it nor that anyone brought forth a serious proposal for it to do so.

Given the group's reported purpose, one could just as well ask shouldn't have UMR or the Y or the Children's Museum initiated, etc. these meetings. None of them did either. Meetings about these organizations were convened without these organizations.

Convening a group to work on the UMR/Recreation district has been proposed. One problem is the current DMC EDA strategy of taking the DMC master plan forward piecemeal starting with Heart of the City and Discovery Square. Maybe this approach makes sense on a Gantt Chart but, it's not keeping up with events on the street. St. Mary's Place isn't waiting. The UMR/Recreation district doesn't now appear to be either. With the DMC EDA understaffed, it's can't be easy keeping up. In whatever way this gets resolved, it's probably not best done ad hoc.

Of course, let's not lose in all this that the city council president - a member of this group - has already made his "consensus" position clear.

As far as anyone knows, the expansion proposal is dead in the water...

Probably safe to say that the initial $55 million proposal the library brought forward is off the table. Apparently there was no Plan B. The reporting is that the library is hard at work on one but "has not changed its approach to expansions plans" having "not seen a better option than the expansion of the library at the current location come forward." I assume that includes the option of re-locating to the UMR/Recreation district. I'm thinking these ad hoc group meetings have been about saying to the library: better take another look.

Again, the city council president leaves no doubt that in his view the library needs to find someplace else to be.

maybe there's something going on at the county and DMC EDA, but you wouldn't know it...

According to recent reports in the Post-Bulletin, the county and the DMC EDA, along with other elected officials and selected others, have been meeting privately as part of this ad hoc group. But, no, you wouldn't have likely known it otherwise. Nor would anyone else had the city council president not announced what he did at the forum and people began asking where did that come from?

and the city's "tentative approval" is more like an ambiguous nod of the head, rather than tentative approval.

Yeah. And, given the county's unambiguous shake of the head, moot as well. Even more so, the city council president is now on record withdrawing his support for library expansion at its current location. But then you know that. Indeed, that's how we got to these comments and questions in the first place.

Second: These are the very people the library needs to move a plan -- any plan -- forward.

You are right. There is considerable political power and private influence embodied in the electeds and selecteds comprising this group. I assume that's why they were invited to be among the convened. Though there is a collective wisdom amongst them, I am not sure one can overlook the aggregated power and influence.

Frankly, to be honest, if the outcome is just to get these four organizations to sit down with a "design expert," it seems a bit excessive to me. Rochester is not a what I'd consider a "consultant averse" city. Why in this instance would it take some rather heroic "encouragement" to get these four organizations in the same room with a consultant, a white board, and some Post-It notes? Why must a "safe environment" be created to even make the suggestion?

Of course, given the city council president's statement it seems to be more than a suggestion.

It's counterproductive to portray people like Kiscaden and yes, Staver, as dark forces trying to work outside established channels.

I do think it remains to be seen where the counter productivity - or productivity, if any - will come to reside. But, since the stated intent of the group was to work outside established channels ("a different avenue of dialogue" was the phrase) why would it be counter productive to say so?

I believe I took care not to characterize persons as "dark," but rather the process. I do see parallels - in principle at least - between the "safe and encouraging environment" created by a 501(c)(4) to solicit what has come to be known as "dark money" and the similar effort here to insulate dialogue from... whom?  Here is something else that is odd to me - what does creating a "safe and encouraging environment" mean in this instance? As mentioned above, if the outcome is just to suggest these four organizations sit down with a "design expert" why does that require a "safe and encouraging environment" to accomplish?

The selecteds are all either private individuals or represent private organizations. However, the four electeds cannot shake the other obligations they carry by virtue of their offices. I appreciate that our cultural light/dark framing carries certain connotations that using "dark dialogue" evokes, but it is only to the appropriateness of the process to which the term is applied.

If "dark dialogue" is too provocative, substitute " not transparent dialogue" and add a "?" if that helps take the edge off. But whatever one calls it, it is not without consequence as we saw on stark display in the city council president's recent remarks.

At any rate, I reserve the use of the phrase "dark forces" for Cthulhu, Thanos, and their ilk.

Third: Doesn't a combined facility of the kind described today make a lot of sense?

The Y and UMR are already located or planning to locate at the UMR/Recreation district site. So, what's really up for discussion are the library and the Children's Museum. The latter is on record as being months away from even beginning to seriously consider their space requirements and preferences and is currently engaged in a process of their own to sort that out. So their answer would likely be at best: we'll have to get back to you on that.

As for the library, the reporting indicates that they have not seen a better option than the one they are pursuing - including the one it is suggested they meet with a design expert about.

Does it make sense to me?  I guess I kind of like the library right where it is. Let's see if they can make it work even without the current city council president's support.

There's always a klatch.

Furst's most recent Furst Draft has a much more cheerful outlook on this whole thing. Sliced bread takes a backseat to what is now just a "high-minded coffee klatch" that simply required the efforts of the only person "in public life in Rochester who would have the local and legislative chops, the connections and credibility to step forward and do this." That's some klatch.

Of course this effort isn't just some elected officials sitting down with voters at the Food Coop for a morning coffee. Ad hoc though it may be, it has been an organized and systematic enterprise - looking, walking, and talking like "a well-oiled policy machine." Admittedly the gears jammed a bit when the city council president mucked up the communication plan mid-soft launch. Be that as it may, I'll cheerfully grant - klatch or otherwise - it is "high-minded."

As to the choice of "memes," Furst does not claim that this klatch had no issues with transparency. On the contrary, he takes well-deserved pride in asserting that this group "is newsworthy, and it's our job as a news organization to dig this out and deliver the transparency." Adding as if having just landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier, "Mission accomplished. I'm guessing the group's process changes as a result."

Perhaps, in time, it will occur to him that "dark dialogue" refers to the lack of transparency he now celebrates as having been so intrepidly dug out and delivered by the Post Bulletin.

On the bright side, I can close on my own cheerful note that both Furst Draft and A Life and the Times have reached a consensus on the issue of this ad hoc group's transparency. Not so much before. Much better now.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dark dialogue: public affairs in private places

Apparently an unsafe and discouraging environment

If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by "credibility gaps" and "invisible government,"..... - Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times


The Med City Beat (08.04.16)
Library expansion 
Staver's answer to the question of whether he supports a proposed $55 million expansion of the Rochester Public Library prompted a chorus of boos from the audience. "Not in that location," he said. 
He later clarified: 
I think the public library is a fundamental element of any community and we have a great one. I do have some issues with what we're trying to accomplish on that particular site. I'm thinking bigger picture here. I think, if we talk about the evolution of libraries, it's just not just stacks of books anymore. These are community gathering places; they are multi-media hubs. I think we should be thinking about a different location, perhaps, where we can embrace some of these new ideas. So I think spending that kind of money to expand in place is shortsighted. I really rather think more future
Allen, who was first to answer, simply said "yes." He did, however, provide a full explanation for his support of the expansion in a blog post earlier this year. 
Furst Draft (08.05.16)
The big headline of the night was the library issue: When asked whether the city should put $55 million into the public library expansion, Allen said yes, without a moment's hesitation. Staver said flatly, "Not at the current site." 
There was an audible gasp from many in the audience -- maybe there were boos, but from up front, I heard gasps... 
Staver went on to say he has "issues with what we're trying to accomplish on that particular site. I'm thinking bigger picture here. ... I think spending that kind of money to expand in place is shortsighted." 
That was a brave statement, especially in light of the campaign the library is running, which may be more energetic than any campaign in town right now. As an example: I asked for questions from the public in advance of the meeting, and about 10 were from people wanting me to ask the library question. That's good promotion. 
We've heard rumblings about an effort that's underway to find a new location for the library -- downtown -- that would dovetail with DMC and other goals. You may read more about that in Saturday's P-B. Library leadership and fans are dug in at the current site, but if they were offered a new, larger building elsewhere, presumably they'd listen. The current plan isn't flying ahead.
"Group deliberates public projects in private discussions" Post-Bulletin (08.06.16)
A high-ranking coterie of community leaders during the last several months has orchestrated conversations on pressing community needs, including a proposed $55 million expansion of Rochester Public Library. 
The ad hoc group also has explored the potential for collaboration between the library, Rochester Family YMCA, Minnesota Children's Museum of Rochester and University of Minnesota Rochester. Each organization has discussed facility and space needs publicly. 
Olmsted County Board of Commissioners member Sheila Kiscaden formed the group shortly after the county board declined to give a funding commitment to the library's expansion proposal. The proposal would have built on the current downtown location and provided needed space for community programming. 
Kiscaden described the group as people who have leadership, business and public project experience in the Rochester community. 
The group includes Rochester City Council President Randy Staver, Olmsted County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Stephanie Podulke, Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency Executive Director Lisa Clarke, Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce President Rob Miller and retired leaders of Mayo Clinic, IBM and Rochester Public Schools.


"... it is an ad hoc, informal group that's just trying to be good citizens and good civic leaders trying to move something forward....."

Despite the no doubt sincere characterization of this group as just some civic minded folks getting together to chat about community needs, it does include the President of the City Council with the city's tax dollars, the President of the County Commission (plus one more county commissioner) with the county tax dollars, the Executive Director of the DMC Economic Development Agency with its state tax dollars sitting around with other selected - as yet unidentified save for the President of the Chamber of Commerce* - private citizens talking about us without us. There are big public purses in that room along with the folks who hold those purse strings and the folks they choose to talk to.

It's not clear how one reconciles the statements in this article that the group has "no official capacity" with so many high-ranking officials with capacity in the room.

Or what it means to say that a group representing not just serious political power and private influence but also millions in public dollars can "suggest" anything that doesn't have the effect of a "formal recommendation."

Or to say that whatever these organizations decide to do "it's totally up to them" when the President of the City Council is already on record in his response to the question Wednesday evening regarding support for the expansion of the Library: "Not at the current site," he said. People wondered where that position - asserted so confidently without hesitation - came from. Now we know.

If you've ever wondered how hockey arenas and new charter schools can seem to appear before the city council out of no where fully formed and ready for fast-track action, well it looks like these meetings.

"...if we can create a safe environment, an encouraging environment....."

A few weeks ago, a story broke about what was probably at least a flirtation among some to form "a 501(c)(4) — also known as "social welfare" organization ... to raise and spend an unlimited amount of money on political activities and lobbying without publicly revealing the identities of its donors." The parties purported to be involved issued denials that such an organization was formed. The issue was raised at the recent city council president candidates forum as well. The sort of money raised and donated through these organizations is often referred to as "dark money" because individuals and organizations can influence elections without having to disclose their participation. One might say this alternative - perfectly legal - path for donations creates a safe and encouraging environment for donors.

Organizing, convening, and conducting a series of meetings to work through the very real challenges and difficulties in formulating public policy out of the public eye where those impacted by these discussions are not present and/or where the public cannot witness or review records of the deliberations is a form of "dark dialogue." These are not simply routine conversations in service to constituents or stakeholders, but part rather of a deliberative process meant to influence public policy and planning that will in turn impact decisions regarding public expenditures. These deliberations are not supposed to be "safe." These deliberations should entail political risk for those elected officials who participate. That risk is at the core of representative government.

I appreciate those who want to create safe spaces where difficult subjects can be explored with candor. But our political discourse should not be delivered to the public with the wrinkles all privately pressed out and the rough edges safely sanded smooth. If all we get to see is the vote and not how that vote was influenced by "dark money" or "dark dialogue," then we are ill-served by those we have elected.

"While the group will make no formal recommendations, it has suggested....."

Last week I offered that one of the major local trends "is expressed in a question and exemplified in four groups that have erupted into our city's life since 2013" to consider "What is the future we want to create together?" The four groups briefly shared in the post included the Community Networking Group, Journey 2 Growth, Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative, and In the City for Good. They include all sorts of folks including city and county elected officials.
These groups were not elected or appointed or created by an act of any governing authority. They are all bottom-up groups, grassroots and grass tops. They are more and less organized; more and less formal; driven by volunteers and dependent upon voluntary associations. None of them have any money of their own to speak of and most would speak of having none at all. Increasingly they supersede groups that preceded them. As observed above, even though these groups may form initially in an anxiety arising from uncertainty and complexity, all four quickly embraced participation, accountability, and possibility. 
By virtue of its select invitations, its membership, its intent, and its conduct thus far, the group we have learned of this week is categorically different than those described above and will remain so. In the attempt to create a safe environment, it provides an insulated one instead. They may seek an answer the the same question, "What is the future we want to create together?" But, the electeds and "selecteds" that comprise the "we" make for a pretty feeble "together."

We have already made a place for this

A couple of the organizations being talked about (note none were in the room until summoned) are private, another is a state institution, but the fourth, the Library, is a major local public institution. It has a Board established in city ordinance with members appointed by the city and the county. The Library Board meets every third Wednesday of every month at 4:30 p.m. in Meeting Room C on the first floor of the Library. If there is a time and place and body with whom to "dialogue" about the future of the Public Library, that would be it. Perhaps it isn't the "safe environment" and "encouraging environment" these elected officials seem to prefer. Perhaps conducting the public's business in public can be a bit of rumpus and ruckus. But, perhaps, we should discourage the alternative.


* Subsequent to publishing this post, the Post Bulletin updated it's online story with a complete list of members:

Sheila Kiscaden, Olmsted County Board of Commissioners
Stephanie Podulke, Olmsted County Board of Commissioners chairwoman
Randy Staver, Rochester City Council president
Nick Campion, Rochester City Council
Lisa Clarke, DMC EDA executive director
Rob Miller, Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce president
Jenna Bowman, Rochester Downtown Alliance executive director
Hugh Smith, retired CEO and chair of the finance committee, Mayo Clinic
Walt Ling, retired senior state executive/senior site executive, IBM
Jerry Williams, former Rochester Public Schools superintendent
Kathy Meyerle, retired Emeritus Legal Counsel at Mayo Clinic

Note the absence of anyone from the facilities or organizations being discussed at these meetings.