What I’ve learned so far

2009 is almost over and so is my first year in office.    I’ve long thought that education is the process of refining what I don’t know.   After a year, I’ve learned a great deal about how little I know about city government.

I started 2009 with an experienced spectator’s knowledge of how city government operates and some experience with the land use planning side of things from my days on the Planning Commission (and a thick – even armored – skin from that time, too).    I had a good textbook understanding of the organizational flow chart showing the roles and responsibilities of staff, fellow Council members,  and boards/commissions.

At the end of 2009, I can report that a formal knowledge of city government is not very helpful and understanding the issues, while useful, isn’t nearly enough to get the job done.    Rather, I’m just beginning to develop a more strategic approach to that organizational chart along with a plan for shuttle diplomacy to advance issues.

A few targeted comments:

Roles & responsibilities: City staff have not taken over the city nor are they pushing a particular agenda.   On one hand, the staff face the challenge of trying to operate where there are 7 elected officials who rarely speak clear, declarative sentences announcing city policy in sufficient detail to address all the issues the staff must manage during the course of the work week.    Unless or until the Council can speak with a unified and clear voice, the staff must use their discretion.   Don’t blame the staff; talk to the Council.

On the other hand, the Council relies heavily on the staff to provide information to make our decisions.   This is where staff power and influence is most obvious.  If the Council only receives a few pixels of the big picture, we are not likely to understand the problem or make good choices for the long term health of the community.   I struggle much more with this side of the picture, especially with issues like the land development code (where I know that I’m not getting all the relevant information) and the Safety Center (where I strongly suspect I don’t know what I need to know).    Council members aren’t experts; we don’t always know when we need additional information and when we can accept the staff report as sufficient.    I still believe you, the public, should be directing your disapproval to the Council for failing to do appropriate due diligence and failing to provide sufficient direction to staff rather than whining about the performance or intentions of staff.

Your role & responsibility as a citizens.  Vote.  Be informed and engaged.  Stay in touch.  When you know more about an issue than we do, share your expertise with the Council so we can ask better questions and give staff better direction.   When you have a question about proposed Council action, ask early (and often).  If you have a specific and verifiable complaint about city staff, tell the Council.     We do need constructive criticism.  I welcome suggestions for doing things better.  I want to know about specific problems.   General griping, especially after the fact, is not helpful.

Public relations, information flow, and the open meeting law. I have a new respect and new loathing for the Open Meeting law after a year in office.  The Council could do more and do it faster if we could just  sit down as a group and in smaller groups behind closed doors and wrestle with issues.    Or have a little discussion via e-mail before the meeting to agree on meeting strategy and discussion points.    We could agree on our message before we broadcast it.     So, we could have efficiency, clarity and unity at the expense of transparency, accountability and participation.

But, since we do deliberate and decide in public, the process is going to be political (and arguably less candid) and messy.    I read the Northfield News with some trepidation because it sometimes seems that only the least relevant but most incendiary comments are quoted while the “real” issues aren’t explained.   But how should the newspaper sum up hours of disorderly discussion?  Clearly, the News is not enough.   You can watch the Council on KYMN (streaming live) or NTV, but the Council needs to find better ways to inform you of what we’re planning to do (with enough advance notice so your participation and input can be meaningful) as well as what we have done.    The challenges: who will do it, when will it be done, and what would be sufficient?

My dream (and I do dream about city government at night) is that the Council and staff will make progress in 2010 toward creating a city culture of sharing information rather than controlling it.    Happy New Year.

7 thoughts on “What I’ve learned so far

  1. Betsey: I appreciate your honesty. There are others, such as the Chamber, who have offered assistance. When the Council is ready to listen, let us know.

  2. This is a wonderful post, Betsey, but I must say… honestly… that it comes down on the side of authority, rather than public service… NOT as personally relates to you and your work, but as it relates to other some council members and some staff.

    I fully agree that if the staff is not given clear direction they must of necessity for their own work step into the void.
    However, it also cannot be assumed that citizens who ask questions, even repeated questions, are doing it for some evil intent or “whining”.

    It is often virtually impossible to write a LWV observer report because of the gaping holes in both the questions and the answers. The Safety Center discussions, in which the taxpayers will have to pay for the ultimate facility decision, are a prime example. It has been impossible to write a report of a clear path of either questions or decisions on that subject.
    An even more specific example: when did the council agree, in specific public discussion, that the current building would be torn down, and replaced with a single fire facility?

    I know that you don’t really think the open meeting law is that big a problem… but I assume that’s a politic way of telling both staff and council that there needs to be more clear, open discussion filled with facts, not assumptions.

    Good Luck… you’re doing a great job; you know I always appreciate your POV… but many of the general public say they no longer get involved because they don’t get replies , they only get put down… and that rebuff may come from either council or staff.

    If all the councilors spoke as evaluatively (is that a word?) as you do, “staff into the void” would not be a problem… Now who do I pay the $5 to? Charity of your choice?

  3. Thanks, Betsey, for this thoughtful blog. You’ve touched on some very important issues.

    It is difficult for us in the public to really know enough to be either critical or helpful. Even though I’ve attended a lot of council meetings in the last several years, I don’t always know enough to be confident about criticizing decisions. A theme which has troubled me is the tendency of people to criticize the staff for their perceived “agenda.” As you note, it is tough for the staff when too often they seem to have seven bosses.

    As an observer of council discussions, especially at the work sessions, I wish there were a way for there to be a clearer statement of the outcome of each topic. Too often, there are several (sometimes 7) views of what should be done on any given problem. In the absence of a clear consensus, it is understandable that the staff can appear to strike off on its own to fill the vacuum. While that is an unfortunate outcome, staff is responsible for getting the job done, ultimately, and needs to move forward.

    As Kiffi suggests, the council’s decisions on the Safety Center, illustrate my point about the staff filling the vacuum. After listening to endless discussions from June forward until late November, the staff listed the “options” which the council considered, discussed briefly and supported, almost with an apparent sense of relief.

    I look forward to the discussion of the council’s advisory groups. Since last January, the council has largely ignored or at best, gone against the work of two task forces, the Park Board.Skateboard and the Safety Center. The former, admittedly, began its work prior to the present council’s tenure, and that may explain the reversal. On the other hand, the Safety Center belongs to the present council, and seemed quite marginalized ultimately. While it is wise for the council to broaden the source of information and to seek recommendations, it seems counter productive to put citizens to work on an issue, and then to ignore the results.

    Farming out the information gathering and development of recommendations may save the council time, and does bring in “experts” to look critically at information and develop options. However, unless the advisory groups have clear understandings of council goals and policies, their work can be a waste of time. This could make it harder to find citizens willing to serve on these bodies in the future.

    Finally, on the matter of communication, seemingly, there is never enough. The News reports are limited by time and column space. Fortunately, the paper is not the only medium for following the council’s work. NTV rebroadcasts and KYMN’s live stream are useful for folks who want to take the time to watch. The League of Women Voters observer reports are another option – although I think they lack visibility. Your blogs have served many of us well, by foreshadowing upcoming discussions and with your thoughtful comments and observations. And, of course, there are the extended conversations on Locally Grown. As someone smarter than I once said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of democracy.”

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