Notes from a marathon meeting-Welcome Center Coordinator

We set a new meeting duration record Tuesday night (somewhere around 5.5 hours or adjourning somewhere around 12:30 am).  I hope this record stands for a very long time and not just because I’m a morning person.

Re-establishing the position of Welcome Center Coordinator was #16 on the agenda (postponed from our prior meeting).

I’ll start with the good part: People who worked with the former Coordinator, used Welcome Center services, and concerned others came to meeting (thank you for your patience through the first 2.25 hours of the meeting before we reached this item) and many spoke to the Council about the value of the services provided.   Several spoke in Spanish (translations provided, ironically enough) and the message was clear: the Welcome Center provided a vital link between new residents and city services.

Public institution or private service: Taking the policy high road, I believe this position should be underwritten by the City and I am deeply disappointed that only Councilor Erica Zweifel and myself voted to reinstate the position.   The City should revisit the job description to ensure the position meets the needs it is intended to address and the City should pursue cost-sharing discussions with other possible partners like the school district, Community Action Center, and others.   But…City support is vital to make this function part of the social infrastructure of Northfield.  It’s like the library in my mind: the Welcome Center, like our public (that’s important) Library is how government can help provide free and equal access to information, government services, and social resources.  The private sector may manage pieces of this picture, but the shared, tax-based funding, accountability by elected officials, and the oversight capacity of government give the Welcome Center the public institutional grounding I believe it requires.

Dollars: Yes, this position and its services cost money.   Yes, the City is in a budget crisis.  But I know money is not always being spent wisely at City Hall (consider the disaster of a land development code rewrite process, for example) and I’m willing to look hard to find the dollars to support the Welcome Center position by cutting other positions and services.

10 thoughts on “Notes from a marathon meeting-Welcome Center Coordinator

  1. Betsy,

    I saw the first 2.5 – 3 hours. I can’t believe there was much more to the meeting than what I saw. I had a couple of major thoughts related to some of the discussion:

    the city is not “another non-profit”, the city runs on taxes provided by the people it serves / represents, that comparison, from Councilor Pokorney serves no purpose

    it was heartening to see the Hispanic community rally for their own well being, I was proud to sit among them as they shared their perspective

    I was very curious who set the agenda to have the item that the majority of the audience was there to comment on at #16 following on the heals of a lengthy debate about the fire / police station planning – was the goal to have a larger audience to see how hard the council is working on that issue?

    I fully support your position to re-establish the Welcome Center Coordinator and look forward to following how the City follows up, speculating that the Chamber of Commerce could be a partner is again a comment that has very little merit and like the contention that the city is just another non-profit is not productive

    if councilors weren’t trying to look supportive while voting against the re-establishment of the position the meeting wouldn’t have gone 5 hours – your fellow councilors should limit their musings and rationalizations to play both sides of the issue

    • Thanks for your comment, Paul. I had similar thoughts about Councilman Pokorney’s “just another non-profit” remark. We use taxes to provide services for the benefit of the entire community even though individual taxpayers may never use that service (or even approve of it) and taxes are not optional. This is very different from non-profits supported by donations from willing givers (of course, there is also grant money from public sources).

      The Mayor and the City Administrator meet to set the agenda items and the order in which they occur. Individual Council members can offer input, but we don’t collectively decide on these things. The Mayor has resisted changes to the agenda to accommodate members of the public who have come to comment on other occasions as well “out of respect for the published agenda.” I respectfully disagree with this choice when the Council chambers are filled for a single issue; moving an item earlier on the agenda would be a simple way to make government more user-friendly and responsive.

      Thanks again, Paul

  2. Thank you for the inside look, Betsey.

    Care to offer any clarification about your statement, “money is not always being spent wisely at City Hall (consider the disaster of a land development code rewrite process, for example)” ? That sounds eerily like Councillor Denison, but I don’t think you mean the same things. 🙂

    • Thanks, Tracy. I don’t mean to be either cryptic or slinging mud randomly. As the Planning Commission chair, you know that the land development code revision process has been going on for a very long time. From the original plan to write regulations at the same time the Comp Plan was being drafted, we are now almost two years past when the Comp Plan was adopted in late 2008. The draft regulations from the consultant (2009) was unacceptable (but was accepted by our staff) and since then the Planning Commission and staff have spent untold hours working to improve it. From watching Planning Commission discussions, it is clear that city staff do not always understand Northfield or writing regulations. The PC’s efforts are heroic and the regulations are much better than when you started, but at what cost? If we had spent some money 2 years ago to get a reasonable draft, we could easily have consolidated city planning functions in this depressed economy when few development applications are being filed. If we simply delegated the regulation-writing to our very competent PC members we could have saved time and money.

      As a Council person who has to look out for money, I wish our planning staff had been able to say to the City administrator: The draft we received from the consultant is unacceptable. What are our options for finishing this project to ensure the highest quality product at an acceptable cost? And then for the City administrator to be able to examine various possibilities, determine an answer, check with Council for approval on the strategy.

      As a former Planning Commission member, I think: the PC is doing staff’s work. The Commission has educated themselves about zoning regulations, researched how other cities have approached similar issues, looked at how Northfield has actually developed, and checked for consistency and accuracy. I applaud your innovation and problem solving, but I despair that staff has been able to let you do it.

  3. As the LWV observer, I sat through the entire 5 and 1/2 hour meeting, and would like to bring up the fact that the League has long deplored the ordering of the Agenda which invariably puts the most important , or the most contentious issues last… when it is far into the evening hours.
    However, it is not just this Mayor and Staff who do/have done so… this has been going on for the ten years I’ve been observing the council… so I must conclude that it is a guiding principle in City Management 101 classes.
    Another however, it is terribly disturbing to hear the Mayor refuse to consider a re-ordering of the agenda sequence, even when it is asked for by another councilor, as you say: “out of respect for the published agenda”. There is a clear inference in that statement; the published agenda deserves more respect than the citizens who have taken their time to come to the meeting.
    To what ‘master’ does the elected official answer?

    As a citizen, and a League of Women Voters observer (and please remember the LWV main concern is Best management Practices for Government) I would like to know (1) what the ‘obstinacy’ of Staff’s position on the acceptance of the 1st draft of the LDC was based on, and now that staff time is often ‘parsed’ out into project segments, (2) what has it cost to get accomplished what ‘we’ had paid for in the first place?

    Now in these hard financial times, what has this lack of holding the initial consultant responsible cost us, and how is that OK with a supposedly fiscally responsible , professional staff?

  4. After re-reading what I said in the comment above, I actually left out the strongest part of my feeling about the welcome center co-ordinator position, which is: this is in actuality a constitutional issue; it is about equal access.

    Approximately one tenth of our NF population needs help transitioning into the community. It is unconscionable to deny equal access to them. The “we’re not a non-profit” comments were inexcusable.
    Sometimes I think the council needs to get on each others ‘cases’ a bit more; principle comes first, or at last it should, in elected officials. ‘Collegiality’, that oft used term, ought to be able to be maintained through polite, but firm, disagreement. There should be less of a sense of responsibility to each other than to the citizenry, if it must come down to that.

    Thank you, Betsey, for being able to manage a polite but firm disagreement in some of your positions.

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