Over the past couple years or so, there have been several tense and heated exchanges among some Crookston City Council members, City administrative staff and the mayor (both past and present).
Which brings us to the council’s June 10 meeting. Crookston School District Superintendent Jeremy Olson makes a point to attend as many council meetings as he can, and he brought two of his daughters with him to city hall that evening. Considering the fireworks that have erupted at some recent meetings, a person walking in with Olson and his girls was heard expressing hope that his young daughters wouldn’t witness anything unpleasant.
While they didn’t witness anything unpleasant among any council members, the mayor or City staff, the Olson girls did see and hear a Crookston property owner angry about his damaged driveway raise his voice at the podium as he chastised Public Works Director Pat Kelly for his driveway not being properly fixed for two years. The property owner, Dave Regeimbal, has voiced his displeasure about various topics at the podium before, but he was pretty upset on this night.
As Regeimbal pointed an accusing finger at Kelly and Kelly pointed his own finger back at Regeimbal, Olson leaned over to whisper some – presumably – reassuring and/or educational words to his daughters.
So the scene that unfolded that night was bad and wrong, right? Something to be avoided if at all possible?
Certainly, Regeimbal was agitated. But that doesn’t mean a Crookston resident, taxpayer and constituent shouldn’t be able to go to the podium during the “Crookston Forum” that opens every council meeting and have his or her say.
But, while no one is trying to blatantly nix that opportunity for a grassroots give-and-take between citizens and the powers-that-be, Mayor Guy Martin later at that June 10 meeting said he’d read an article by a representative of the League of Minnesota Cities, and the article in a nutshell indicated that city councils need to keep citizens commenting at their meetings on a short leash. (Pamela Whitmore’s article, “Strategies for Successful City Council Meetings” was published in the LMC’s April/May 2019 Minnesota Cities magazine.)
The article didn’t state that explicitly. In fact, Whitmore’s thoughts were entirely reasonable, because her suggestions are already put in practice for the most part by our local city council. Having a sign-in sheet for people who attend meetings? That certainly can’t hurt. A time limit on public comments? Makes sense, too. The article went on to instruct council members to not directly reply to citizens or engage them directly while they’re speaking.
It was all “food for thought” at this point, Martin said, adding that he’d let council members think about it for a couple of weeks before bringing it up again at their next meeting.
This is unnecessary, a solution in search of a problem. Citizens who step to the podium before the council, mayor and City staff are, already, not allowed to go on and on for an extended period of time. They’re required to state their name and address before they speak so it can be noted in the minutes; that should suffice.
This is Crookston, Minnesota, a town of less than 8,000 people. This isn’t some big metro city council where people are lining up at almost every meeting to question, vent, demonstrate or protest. In my 20-plus years of covering city council meetings here, no one has ever screamed at anyone, no one has been escorted out forcefully, and there has never been the threat of a physical altercation.
My best guesstimate would be that, on average, out of every 10 council meetings, perhaps someone shows up to address the council at the start of a meeting twice. Maybe three times, tops. It’s simply an uncommon occurrence for a citizen to bother to show up and speak up. Sometimes there’s a brief conversation between the person at the podium and the council or mayor or other City staff, but often the matter is simply referred to someone or taken under advisement in order to be subsequently followed up on. And, yet, you’re going to explore taking measures to curtail or add further rigidity to this already unusual occurrence? (Martin also mentioned requiring citizens to fill out note cards beforehand detailing the issue they’re going to address, but the LMC article didn’t mention note cards.)
When it was clear that Kelly was the target of Regeimbal’s ire at the June 10 meeting, Mayor Martin, rightly so, asked Kelly for his take on the matter of Regeimbal’s driveway. Although both Regeimbal and Kelly became agitated over the give-and-take that transpired over the next couple of minutes, Regeimbal walked out of the chambers moments later with the satisfaction of knowing his driveway was going to get fixed by the City.
And, hopefully, Olson’s daughters saw that local government isn’t always pretty and wrapped nicely in a bow, but things do get done from time to time.