Members of Crookston City Council, CHEDA Board agree to navigate a better path forward

Mike Christopherson
Members of the CHEDA Board of Directors and the Crookston City Council share the Crookston High School auditorium stage Tuesday evening for their joint meeting, called by Mayor Dale Stainbrook. Left to right are Betty Arvidson, Paul Eickhof, Leon Kremeier, Craig Morgan, Kurt Heldstab, Clayton Briggs, Stainbrook, Jake Fee, Don Cavalier (partially obscured), Dylane Klatt, Steve Erickson, Joe Kresl, Tom Vedbraaten and Bobby Baird.

    Whether it involves communication, transparency, accountability or trust, members of the Crookston City Council and CHEDA Board of Directors, along with Mayor Dale Stainbrook – sharing the Crookston High School auditorium stage for almost 90 minutes Tuesday evening – agreed to work together to forge a more positive and productive path forward.

    Stainbrook, a longtime council member who was appointed mayor a few months ago, said he asked three previous mayors to call for a joint sit-down between the two entities, without success. But soon after being appointed, he made it clear one of his top priorities was to have the council and CHEDA Board hold a joint meeting in an effort to address negative perceptions in the community regarding the performance and behavior of both entities, and a negative reputation outside of Crookston that is apparently impacting the City’s search for a new administrator. A joint meeting was scheduled in late March but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The rescheduled June 30 session in the CHS auditorium attracted an audience numbering in the mid-30s.

    “We talk about negativity in the community and people leave towns for many reasons, but local politics should not be one of them,” Stainbrook said. “That shouldn’t be a deterrent to new people coming here, either, including a new administrator.”

    Stainbrook and council members on stage dominated much of the discussion compared to CHEDA Board members also seated on stage. But several of the remarks were made by the two council members who are also appointed members of the CHEDA Board, Steve Erickson and Tom Vedbraaten.

    The discussion themes of communicating better, being more transparent and accountable and trustworthy are nothing new for the council, which, along with previous mayors and previous administrator Shannon Stassen, have been ensnared in similar debates over the past few years. But, in perhaps a hopeful sign, many of the council member comments Tuesday came courtesy of Ward 5’s Joe Kresl and Ward 6’s Dylane Klatt, the two newest appointees to the council, who both said they don’t have remedies for all of the council’s problems and any council problems as they pertain to CHEDA, but that they sought their seats on the council because they want to be part of the efforts to make things better, for the council, for CHEDA, and for the residents of the community.

    “If you lose a vote on a particular day, just move on and work for another day,” Klatt said. “Don’t hold a grudge, don’t get into squabbles; be professional about it and try to move on.”

    “We can’t have any of that behind-the-scenes stuff,” Kresl added.

    In possibly another sign of hope, several council members and CHEDA Board members indicated that for the past several months – even though COVID-19 has thrown a huge monkey wrench into everything – communication, professionalism and mutual respect and trust has gotten better between the two entities.

    But does the Crookston community at large agree with that view of late through rosier-colored glasses shared by various elected and appointed leaders on the CHS auditorium stage?

    Perhaps audience member Chris Boike, director of the Crookston Public Library, put it best:

    “No disrespect or offense meant to anyone on stage, but from where I sit, the elephant in the room is a lack of trust among everyone and a lack of communication and probably to some extent a lack of transparency,” she said. “You all work for the citizens and represent our best interests, but if you can't get on the same page and work together, whether or not you agree or like each other and regardless of who the administrator or CHEDA director is, we won't get anywhere.

    “How are we supposed to get people to our community with this constant lack of (trust, communication and transparency) and this us-versus-you mentality?” Boike continued. “I'm not sure I would want to come here and take a job here if this is all people read or see when they turn on radio or read the newspaper.”

    Asked by Klatt if she had detected any improvements in recent months in how the council and CHEDA go about their business, Boike said she has sensed a more positive climate of late, but said there is much work to be done.

    “On transparency and communication, with some new council members, I do feel it has been better, and there’s been a willingness to come together and work some of these things out,” Boike said. “But I still see it as us versus them…CHEDA versus the council. People don’t have a lot of confidence in the overall system.”

    Wards 4 Council Member Don Cavalier recently conducted a survey of his constituents, and a clear theme emerged in the responses: People are seriously concerned about the climate on the council and CHEDA, and how the leaders of both work together, or don’t work together. Klatt, suggesting that surveys of residents of Crookston’s other five wards might yield similar responses, asked members of both entities to pledge to do better, even if they focus on only one thing to improve upon.

    “In that survey, neither the council or CHEDA came out in a very good light,” Klatt said. “Can we get a commitment tonight from both of us that we’ll try to do better at something? So we don’t have potential administrators concerned about coming here?”

    Vedbraaten said if Tuesday’s joint session serves as a “starting point” heading into a future in which the mayor, city administrator and CHEDA executive director communicate better, then the session should be considered a success.

Spotlight on CHEDA

    Although council members and Stainbrook spoke more than CHEDA Board members on the CHS stage, much of what they said involved asking questions of or voicing concerns about CHEDA’s budgeting process and its progress, or lack thereof, on various issues such as expanding child care in Crookston or adding needed housing, or bringing in new businesses and retaining current ones. With the pandemic negatively impacting many local business in particularly harsh fashion, some council members said it was especially critical that CHEDA actively interact with the local business community to see what they need to not just thrive, but survive.

    The longest serving member of the CHEDA Board, Craig Morgan, responded in defense of what CHEDA and its board do, and how they do it.

    “We’ve been very open about what we’re doing and want to do. We’re very serious about our budget and we hammer it out for three or four months. It’s clear and factual. Our finances are taken seriously,” he said. “If you look at the board members, finance is what we do, it’s how we’ve made our living for many years. I have confidence in our board and (CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth) delivering on what we say. We’re on the right track.”

    Morgan, too, said he’s noticed an improved climate in recent months, but he said he realizes there is much progress to be made.

    “We’re disappointed with the child care effort, but it hasn’t stopped. We’ve had updates. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. Anyone who can wave a magic wand, you should come and join us,” he continued. “All of this is on our minds, like business retention. I talked to (Hoiseth) right after the executive order (to shutter many businesses during the pandemic) about outstanding loan balances and we had great conversations. I think this board is very active. We’re private people and maybe not out in front all the time, but we are doing our job.”

    Offering a variation on the “starting point” that Vedbraaten previously referenced, Morgan suggested that CHEDA Board members and council members read the City of Crookston Charter to further determine and define what each entity is charged to do, both separately and together.

    “I understand it. Do you guys understand it?” Morgan said. “I know what we’re supposed to do. Maybe we start there, review the charter. Some eyes might get wide open.”

    Erickson said his eyes were certainly opened soon after he agreed to serve on the CHEDA Board. He said he spent several days one week early on sitting down with Hoiseth and members of his staff, trying to get up to speed on everything CHEDA does and everything it’s responsible for.

    “I was overwhelmed with all of the information, the funds, the organizations (CHEDA works with), all of the accounts,” Erickson said. “It was phenomenal…millions of different things and components. Just Section 8 housing alone…”

    With possibly more than $600,000 coming to the City through the federal CARES Act to help municipalities recover from the pandemic, council and CHEDA Board members agreed that coming up with the best strategy on how to get the best bang for those dollars that help the community and its businesses the most might serve as a great opportunity for the council and CHEDA Board to put their heads together and do some real good. Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee suggested that an advisory committee of sorts be assembled to set up a process, system and criteria for spending the CARES Act money. Interim City Administrator Angel Weasner, who would clearly serve an important role if such a committee were formed, cautioned that the guidelines for how the federal dollars are spent are very specific. She added that she’s still going through all of the criteria to determine what might be possible in Crookston, whether it’s some kind of modified loan program to businesses, or something else.

    Although the City’s current annual allocation to CHEDA to cover salaries and various operational expenses is $140,000, two years ago the council, with Fee leading the way because the City had ample reserves, voted in favor of allocating an additional $350,000 that year to CHEDA to be invested strategically in developments and projects that would add jobs, boost the tax base or otherwise improve the community. Although various possible projects have come and gone since, most of the money has yet to be spent and is collecting interest in what has been dubbed the “Community Investment Fund.”

    There was some talk Tuesday about CHEDA giving the money back to the City, but the prevailing thinking is that opportunities will likely still arise to spend some or all of the money in a very impactful way.

    In possibly the best illustration of the steep learning curve when it comes to figuring out how CHEDA and the council work, both independently and together, Klatt acknowledged that before he was appointed, he was under the impression that the City essentially funded most if not all of CHEDA. But he’s since learned that the City’s allocation to CHEDA each year is “much less than I thought.”

    Klatt also believed, perhaps until asking about it on stage Tuesday, that the CHEDA Board could spend substantial dollars on various projects or development initiatives unilaterally. He indicated some people in the community might be under that impression as well.

    Hoiseth, along with CHEDA Board President Kurt Heldstab, said that’s definitely not the case.

    “We wouldn’t spend a dollar of (the Community Investment Fund) without council input, of course,” Hoiseth said, while also reiterating that CHEDA didn’t request the additional $350,000 from the City, but that the council did so on its “own volition.”

    The CHEDA Board can vote in favor of investing dollars in a project, Heldstab added, but the City and the council would obviously play a critical role in any development, and, he continued, any CHEDA Board vote in favor would then go to the council for discussion and another vote.

    Although several on stage acknowledged that the pandemic has rendered just about every strategically planned priority list obsolete, whether it has been formed by the council or CHEDA Board, CHEDA Board member Leon Kremeier said both entities would likely benefit if they got together once a year and “aligned” what they think are Crookston’s biggest needs, wants, and wishes.

    “We need a list of three to five projects every year. Then we work on them, and maybe we only get one thing accomplished, but the next year we discuss it again and re-rank things because things can evolve real quick,” Kremeier explained. “You have your list and we have our list, but we align them and we push them forward. We will have disagreements, but when something moves forward we’re all in on it. There can’t be any dragging it out behind the scenes. I think that’s part of what’s been going on.

    “If we don’t have that alignment, it’s never going to work,” he added.