Council approves June 14 public hearings on future of CHEDA, HRA

Mike Christopherson

    The Crookston City Council Monday evening, in front of a full city hall council chambers, advanced two resolutions, each calling for June 14 public hearings that relate to dissolving the Crookston Housing and Economic Development Authority (CHEDA) and replacing it with a City-run Community Development Department.

    The vote on the resolution calling for the first public hearing, which relates specifically to the dissolution of CHEDA, was five in favor, one against, and two abstentions. Council members Kristie Jerde, Clayton Briggs, Don Cavalier, Dylane Klatt and Wayne Melbye voted in favor, Joe Kresl voted against, and council members Tom Vedbraaten and Steve Erickson, who both sit on the CHEDA Board of Directors as well, abstained.

    The vote on the resolution calling for the second public hearing, which will focus on the need for the City to have a housing and redevelopment authority, was six in favor – Kresl voted in favor of the second resolution, as did the same five council members who voted in favor of the first one – with Vedbraaten abstaining again and Erickson voting against.

    While Vedbraaten’s comments in opposition to what was being proposed to transpire were stronger than everyone else’s – he said City Administrator Amy Finch was “overstepping her bounds” – Erickson and Kresl each pointed at that they weren’t necessarily against CHEDA being replaced by a City-run Community Development Department, but they had big concerns about the lack of communication from Finch before she went public with the proposals that were included on the May 24 council meeting agenda, which was emailed to council members and the media and posted on the City’s website Friday afternoon. Even one council member who voted in favor of calling for the two June 14 public hearings, Melbye, was critical of the timeline that had the proposal to dissolve CHEDA going public before council members knew anything about it. Melbye, Erickson and Vedbraaten each said that they received many calls from constituents and other citizens Friday evening asking questions and voicing concerns about the proposal after they’d read about it in a Friday afternoon story in the Times or in other local media coverage, and they didn’t know what they were talking about. Erickson said being caught off guard like that was “embarrassing.”

    Melbye stressed that the votes Monday evening were just to have the public hearings, and that no decisions beyond that have been made. Now, he said, everyone will have time to prepare for the June 14 hearings.

    “My phone’s been ringing hot since Friday night; there’s a lot of stuff out there,” Melbye continued. “But this is just to bring it to a head, to bring the elephant to the room that everyone’s talked about.”

    Finch, who was city clerk in Ottawa, Kansas before being hired and starting as City administrator in Crookston last October, said she and staff have been taking a “hard look” at restructuring various aspects of the City’s operation to increase efficiencies and, overall, do a better job for the people it serves. She said economic development is a “huge” part of that, and that there is room for improvement. She cited redundancies with her as the City administrator and CHEDA having an executive director (Craig Hoiseth), and each entity having their own governing boards and separate audits and budgets. She said in the current scenario, communication is very inefficient.

    “I feel like it is a recipe for losing important information in the transmission,” Finch noted.

    She added that from the day she was hired she’s heard constant talk regarding the way economic development is handled in Crookston. The June 14 public hearings, Finch said, will give interested citizens and stakeholders a chance to ask questions and voice whatever concerns they have in a formal, civilized setting, and council members will be able to expand on their thoughts as well as they ponder their “next decision” regarding the future of CHEDA.

    Vedbraaten said it’s Finch’s job to bring recommendations to the council, not resolutions on a council agenda on such short notice. Finch said the resolutions are a recommendation, to call for the June 14 public hearings so everyone can have an open discussion on the matters being proposed.

    “There are lingering feelings in this community; it’s been a constant topic,” Finch added. “I don’t think this is news to anyone in the room. We need to have these discussions in the public view.”

    Erickson said he agreed with that, but “the way we went about it is totally wrong. To get a phone call and not know, is not a good thing. If I don’t have an answer, it’s embarrassing to me.

    “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to address this, but it’s the way we went about it,” he continued. “It’s 100% wrong in my eyes.”

    “It’s no fun to tell a constituent you have no idea what he’s talking about,” Kresl added.

    Erickson said Finch’s proposal would have been “perfect” for a Ways and Means Committee meeting. That committee is comprised of the entire council, and the mayor is a voting member as well. The meetings typically are held immediately following council meetings, and agenda items often appear on the committee’s agenda prior to being added to a council agenda in a couple weeks or further down the line. But lately, several Ways and Means Committee meetings have been cancelled, “due to a lack of agenda items,” including the May 24 committee meeting.

    Erickson wondered if Ways and Means Committee meetings were becoming a thing of the past with Finch as City administrator.

    Finch responded that when she began as administrator here, the “idea was that everything has to go to Ways and Means before council.” But, she added, the better idea is to talk about things as a city council and not a committee made up of council members. “I think this is most appropriate, this is the correct setting to handle discussions of this magnitude,” Finch said.

    Jerde said she understood that people would be impacted if CHEDA is dissolved, and she added that she also understood there are concerns about the way the proposal went public. But, she stressed, the June 14 public hearings will give the public a chance to speak in a fully transparent setting, and then council members can vote for what they feel is best.

    Vedbraaten said the media and public hearing about a significant proposal like dissolving CHEDA before council members knew it was even being proposed is not the definition of transparency.

    “That’s why you have a public hearing,” Jerde responded. “There’s your transparency.”

    Hoiseth was in attendance at Monday’s meeting but did not speak. Asked by the Times after the meeting if he wanted to comment on what’s being proposed, he declined.

    (Finch told the Times Friday that, if the proposal goes forward, the City would conduct an external search for a director of the new City Community Development Department, and that Hoiseth would be welcome to apply for the position if he so wished.)

Future of housing and redevelopment authority

    The second June 14 public hearing will focus on the need for a housing and redevelopment authority, which is a major part of what CHEDA does, whether its receiving federal Housing and Urban Development funds, working with Section 8 housing vouchers/credits, or owning and serving as the landlord of Oak Court Apartments. CHEDA also oversees a housing rehab program in the community that has been largely successful.

    Melbye said that was another hot topic of conversation Friday and over the weekend. He said he had no answers to questions about the future of public housing overseen by CHEDA or at least involving CHEDA, and that people assuming the worst-case scenario were wondering if they were going to be evicted from Oak Court.

    Finch said talk of the City eliminating the housing authority or having no more Section 8 vouchers is “completely inaccurate.” If the council eventually votes in favor of the proposals after the June 14 public hearings, she said the housing and redevelopment authority would “come back independently” under the City umbrella. And whether it’s economic development moving from CHEDA to a Community Development Department or the housing authority relaunching as a City function, Finch said the idea would be to move forward as smoothly as possible.

    “The intent is not to cause disruption, but do things better,” Finch said. “This hearing would be to determine that, yes, the City in fact needs a housing and redevelopment authority.”

    Vedbraaten asked who would staff the housing and redevelopment authority going forward. Finch responded that “there’s staff already for housing.” To that, Erickson asked if current HRA staff would be “guaranteed” jobs. Finch again stressed that the public hearing was simply being called for at this time, but that the intent “is to not have disruption” in services.

    Erickson said he loves the idea of the public having a chance to weigh in on such a significant discussion, to Finch, he said, “You evidently have been working on this for months.”

    Finch said that any additional information council members want prior to June 14, she will provide it. Vedbraaten said he wants a list of pros and cons regarding CHEDA remaining as is or being dissolved. Finch said she’s already working on such a list. Jerde said she’d like to see an organizational chart that illustrates the increased efficiencies and an outline showing how things would be managed.

Community Development Department ordinance

    The council Monday evening also introduced an ordinance that would create the City Community Development Department. The council does not vote when an ordinance is introduced and receives its first reading. It votes when at a future meeting the ordinance gets its second reading.

    The new department would have a director and, Finch told the Times Friday, some sort of advisory committee comprised of City staff and community stakeholders. But it wouldn’t be a governing board like the CHEDA Board, she said.

    Again, she stressed increased efficiency and doing things better as the primary push behind CHEDA giving way to a Community Development Department. Saying what she’s proposing is similar to a previous City government structure that she worked in and that she said functioned well, Finch said the community development director would be “part of the team” and would have immediate access to other City departments when information and insight are needed.

    “All of these things play a part in every development and they should,” she said. “So many efficiencies can be gained by having all of these resources available to this person.”

Restructuring, efficiencies elsewhere

    Finch also on Monday evening, saying that she and staff have been taking a “hard look” at the entire City operation in search of increased efficiencies and ways of doing things better, updated council members on other potential changes in the City’s structure and operations.

    The Finance Department, led by recently hired director Ryan Lindtwed, is one example, she said. Staff turnover in recent years has resulted in shifting duties, and as a result, Deputy City Clerk Ashley Rystad would be proposed to move under administration and not be under finance, and a new position, a human resources coordinator, would be proposed. The staff member could work with all of the union members and stay on top of open enrollment and maximizing benefit options, Finch explained, while also being a subject matter expert on things like retirement and elective options, and would also be the lead in on-boarding new City employees.

    Evaluation also continues of the Public Works Department and Parks and Recreation Department, Finch said. Monday evening, Public Works Director Pat Kelly’s retirement after 30 years was recognized by Mayor Dale Stainbrook, who presented Kelly with a plaque, and Parks & Recreation Director Scott Riopelle was presented with a plaque as well after announcing his retirement after 40 years.

    Speaking mostly to the future leader of Parks and Recreation, Finch said that things exist now that didn’t exist when the job description was last written, such as Crookston Sports Center and the Crookston Splash Park, and now the City owns the Community Pool as well.

    “We want to put more focus on promoting and marketing to increase awareness, and partnering with people so we increase participation,” Finch said. “You’ll see that when we bring forth the job description. We have some amenities here, we need to showcase them a little bit better.”