Over the years of covering local community government, I’ve come to believe that some decisions are reached before they are on the public council, school board and county board agendas.
A good example is the Stillwater School Board that floated a bond issue to improve education without mentioning it had a plan to close three elementary schools. The public learned about closing the schools after passing the bond issue. Despite intense opposition, the School Board recently decided to close the schools.
In some cities, staff, led by the city manager, prepares proposals for the council that many times is unwilling or unable to counter staff’s recommendations. The public sometimes hears about the proposal too late to prevent it.
One former Jordan council member, Thom Boncher, said in a Star Tribune opinion piece last summer that some proposals from city staff go unopposed by a city council. Boncher said most of his colleagues neither wanted to press the issues nor push to put items on the agenda.
“Most were content to deal with what they were given,” Boncher wrote. “And what they were given came from staff, which would sometimes cook a project for months or years, eliminating options and obstacles before presenting the issue to the council.”
He’s quick to say this isn’t true of all communities and can be better or worse in any town depending on the issue. He acknowledged staff has the duty to bring to the council’s attention proposals that could add to the quality of life.
One controversial issue making its way through city governments is changing how the city collects garbage and charges for it. It’s safe to say that changing how garbage is collected and paid for generally doesn’t come from the grassroots public. It has been coming from the staff, ever since the Minnesota Legislature in 2013 approved a process on how the system can be changed.
Now in some suburban communities, residents decide what hauler will pick up their garbage at the price they negotiate, no matter how many trucks roll down their streets. The homeowners are in charge and love their freedom to decide.
Golden Valley held the required hearings on an organized garbage collection. Residents protested the loss of their right to decide and the attempt was stopped. Mounds View’s council held the required hearings on its proposal and after hearing opponents stopped the process. Fridley also decided against changing the system.
The Bloomington City Council, however, is in the process of implementing the decision it made in favor of the new collection system, after hearing strong opposition from those who fear the loss of an important right to select the hauler at a price they can afford.
The Bloomington staff started the process and a former city manager pushed for the new organized collection system and eventually convinced the council.
The staff argued that the new system results in fewer trucks, less fuel, fewer emissions, less noise and less congestion. In addition, staff said the cost would save each homeowner $100 a year while paying $19.52 a month.
So, why do some of the council’s decisions catch the public off guard?
Boncher observed that most people are happy with what they have unless they can get something cheaper.
He wrote: “Voters are the wild card in this game. Most of them don’t understand or care about the structure of their city’s government. They care about their taxes, or about specific issues such as growth/no growth. Voters elect city councils. City staffs need to recognize that voters set the tone, and that if quarrelsome or abrasive people are being elected to council seats, it’s because voters believe those traits represent what they, the voters, want.”
How can voters be more aware of what their councils and boards are doing? Here are several of my suggestions, in no particular order:
–Develop a good relationship with your council member and school board member and check in with them from time to time.
–Watch the planning commission agendas – most city proposals start there. As for the school board, most superintendents have administrative cabinets where proposals are born and discussed. County boards usually develop their proposals at the committee level.
–Of course, read your local newspaper and minutes of meetings in the public notice section of the paper.
–Go to or watch your local meetings. Some cities televise live the entire meeting over local cable access.
The lesson: Pay closer attention. It’s your government.
Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers.