Melbye says too many complaints end up in limbo.
It had been just a couple weeks short of one year since the last time the city Community Development Committee had met, which is maybe the best indicator that the longtime efforts by Ward 4 City Council Member Wayne Melbye, the committee chair, to have the city more proactively respond to citizen complaints about things like junk cars, barking dogs, unfinished home improvement projects, long grass or cluttered yards had sort of fizzled.
"One year ago I got Aaron (then city administrator Aaron Parrish) in a pickup to show him a property in the neighborhood (the Woods Addition) that had gotten complaints. He took it to Richard (since-retired fire chief Richard Rock) and we were all going to keep updated on the process," Melbye recalled at Monday's Community Development Committee meeting. "We had a meeting, the effort lasted about a month, and then nothing."
After discussing it for a while Monday evening, council members both on the committee and not concluded that there's no need to reinvent the wheel or over-complicate things when it comes to citizens bringing complaints to their council person, city hall, or some other city entity or city official. "There is a process in place, we just have to follow that process and follow up on that process better than we have," Ward 3 Council Member Keith Mykleseth said.
What the process will continue to entail is that a complaint, no matter how it's received, will be forwarded to City Administrator Tony Chladek, and he will forward it to the department head he feels is the best fit to investigate the complaint and follow up. In order to keep everyone in the loop, Ward 2 Council Member Dana Johnson suggested that something as simple as copying council members on emails regarding citizen complaints would go a long way to keeping the council informed on such matters.
There's plenty of room for improvement, Melbye said. "I've told some people it would take four weeks to deal with something, and I've been dealing with some of these for 6 1/2 years," he said. "There's a lot of things in limbo."
At the heart of the renewed effort to see complaints through until there's a resolution will be a more active Community Development Committee. Those meetings, Chladek said, could be driven by a monthly status report for each ward and the complaints that have come from each given ward.
But no one is claiming that complaint resolutions are always going to be swift or clean-cut, or that they're going to satisfy the complainants.
"We have to follow the law," Fire Chief Tim Froeber said. "We can't just violate someone's private property rights."
And, Ward 6 Council Member Tom Vedbraaten added, if a property owner simply doesn't abide by city ordinance, the financial penalties aren't exactly steep, and the legal costs potentially incurred by the city if it pursues litigation might not be worth it.
"People can have junk on private property and there's not a lot we can do about that," Ward 5 Council Member Dale Stainbrook contended.
"I think we maybe need to have a talk about that, the existing laws and what we can and cannot do," Community Development Director Mike MacDonald responded. "This isn't a new problem; this is a long-term issue that we've tried to find solutions to."
"Well, if there's nothing we can do about something, at least that's an answer," Melbye said to MacDonald. "As much as you hate me asking you about this all the time, I have five people over my shoulder asking me more about it than I ask you about it."
Simply being more proactive when it comes to addressing citizen complaints might go a long way toward boosting citizens' views of how their city officials conduct their business, Ward 1 Council Member Tom Jorgens said. "The biggest complaint I get is that the city doesn't do anything, that the city is pretty toothless when it comes to facing these problems," he said. "We have to fix that; there needs to be an action, a clear trail. If we deal with these matters in that fashion, then maybe we'll have fewer complaints because there will be fewer things to complain about."