John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Monday, April 30, 2007

Passing the Buck

Every student of American history knows about the sign on President Truman's desk, which read, "The Buck Stops Here!" This slogan resonates with us in America. We like decisive leaders, and leaders who own their decisions. We don't care for leaders who dither, procrastinate, and prevaricate; nor do we like leaders who point the finger when their own decisions (or indecision) don't bring the good results hoped for. No one is perfect, but we all learn from our mistakes — and we wonder if someone who disowns his own errors, oversights and misjudgements can learn anything from them.

A recent entry in the blog of City Councilmember Will Rossbach calls our attention to the latest example of finger-pointing in our city government. A lower-level city employee has been formally reprimanded by the city manager for not knowing the legal requirements of the "60-day rule" for notifying a developer that an application was denied by the city council majority. The lack of this formal notice is a key issue in CoPar's lawsuit against Maplewood; it might be the issue on which the whole decision turns. Rather than accepting responsibility for the city's error, city manager Copeland passed the buck, placing the blame on an underling.

After mulling over the situation, Rossbach suggests that perhaps letters of reprimand should be added to the files of all the managers above this individual, including the city manager. I think Will stops one step short. The city council majority is due a harsh reprimand as well.

Even if you excuse Cave, Hjelle and Longrie their personal ignorance of the statute's requirements in this situation (which is perfectly understandable), this council majority can't duck responsibility for selecting Copeland as city manager and Kantrud as city attorney. Those two direct council appointees are responsible for supervising the lower-level staff and advising the city on its legal obligations. Competence in those offices would make any alleged neglect by lower-level city officials in this case irrelevant. The city manager should have put a written statement on the agenda for the following meeting for the council to formally approve. When he failed to do so, the city attorney should have brought the omission to the council's attention, since it's his job to know the law and provide such legal guidance to the council.

Perhaps some people on staff knew what needed to be done, but were afraid to stick their necks out by, in effect, telling the city manager how to do his job. (Remember how the human resources director was fired last year after insisting that the city obey its own ordinances with regard to a mandatory background check.) If this were the case, I still think the ultimate responsibility falls upon the city council majority and their appointed manager, whose approach to governance has made the atmosphere in city hall so poisonous over the past year.

The importance of a professional city manager is most clear not in the day-to-day matters, where any old person might do, but in the marginal cases where a reservoir of experience and knowledge keeps the city from even getting into problems like this in the first place.

I've already suggested that Maplewood needs to replace the current city manager with a qualified, competent professional. This is yet another example where Copeland's inexperience and lack of qualifications in running a city is failing both Maplewood and even the council majority that appointed him.

The city council has the power to remove the city manager, as they did his predecessor. However, at every step so far, Cave, Longrie and Hjelle have reaffirmed their support of Mr. Copeland. They did so with a vote of confidence after reviewing his background check (which clearly showed his lack of qualifications); they did it again with the 2 AM vote to cancel the search for a professional manager and install Copeland permanently (a vote which took place after this CoPar notification was botched, and at a point when it was becoming clear even to outside observers that Copeland's budgetary process was a mess).

In May the council will be reviewing Mr. Copeland's performance. Will he be held accountable for his failures? Or will it be up to the voters in November to bring accountability to City Hall?


Sunday, April 29, 2007

Nature Center Celebration

Our day had an environmental focus yesterday. In the afternoon Michelle and I visited the Maplewood Nature Center for its Arbor Day celebration. We enjoyed a walk around the Nature Center paths, heard about the new purposes Wipers Recycling has found for old leather goods, bought a pound of shade-grown fair trade coffee, and came home with two trees for planting. Everyone who attended was offered a free tree to plant to celebrate the occasion; Michelle chose the swamp white oak, to complement the numerous pin oaks that already adorn our yard. We also won a drawing for another sapling, and for that Michelle without hesitation chose the pagoda dogwood.

While we were there we picked up our kit for Maplewood's Great Tree Search (info PDF). I doubt any of our yard's trees will make the #1 spot (though some of them are very tall and old), but it will be fun to measure their height and girth and make a record of them for posterity.

After we got home we even had an environmentally conscious DVD to watch — our current Netflix rental was Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. It was a sobering film, but it also gives me hope — a world that successfully addressed the ozone hole can rise to this challenge as well, and a big part of the battle is just to spread the message that the problem can and must be addressed.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

PCSC Interviews

My notes from the interviews for the Police Civil Service Commission are now available on Maplewood Voices. I have them archived here on my website as well.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Goodbye Blue Monday

As I drove to work today, I heard on the radio that Kurt Vonnegut, a titan of American literature, had died.

My introduction to Vonnegut's writing came via coffee. During my senior year at Carleton College, a friend who had just graduated, John P., and a friend of his from high school, Chad S., opened a coffeehouse across the street from my apartment on Division Street. They named it Goodbye Blue Monday. I learned from Chad that this was an homage to the alternate title of his favorite Vonnegut novel, Breakfast of Champions. I had heard of Vonnegut, but had never read his work.

I was a regular at the coffeehouse, stopping there each day after I picked up my fledgling publishing company's mail from its box in the post office on the opposite side of Northfield's town square. As I made my living in the solitary pursuits of freelance writing and editing, with this new publishing venture on the side, the coffeehouse was a place where I could mix work (reading my mail, proofing a manuscript, or dreaming up ideas for a new project) with a modest daily allowance of human interaction.

Every day, the mugs of the coffeehouse were a reminder that I really should read some Vonnegut sometime. While I suspect most people are introduced to Vonnegut with Slaughterhouse 5 (my wife, Michelle, loved to use it when she taught college English — which, as an aside, is just one of the many reasons I have been madly in love with her since we first met), my first exposure to the author was thus Breakfast of Champions, the story of the lonely science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, an automobile dealer, and the author himself. Actually, it's a little hard to describe. It delighted me, in any case, and launched a minor binge of buying and reading Vonnegut novels.

So I'd like to offer a virtual coffee toast to the memory and work of Kurt Vonnegut. Let me quote the epitaph he wrote for his imaginary science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, in Breakfast of Champions: "We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane."


Easements Workshop

This past Monday, April 9, I attended the city's workshop with a representative of the Minnesota Land Trust about conservation easements. Motivating the workshop was the idea of establishing easements on city-owned open space and parks. (I've seen Mayor Longrie promote this idea in various meetings in recent months, but the council has never formally discussed or voted on it.) My notes from the meeting are available on Maplewood Voices, and I've also added them to this site's archive.

I appreciated the chance to learn more about conservation easements, which seem to be a useful tool for landowners and communities. In brief, a conservation easement splits off certain rights associated with a piece of land — namely, development rights. The specific easement varies from case to case, depending on the nature of the land and the purpose of the easement. In one instance the land affected might have to be left exactly as it is, while in another the easement may allow for trails or limited structures to be built or maintained. Perhaps a parcel of land has a scenic section of lake shore, and the easement may keep any development a certain distance away to preserve that valued asset; or an easement could allow farmland to continue to be farmed, while preventing future development into a housing subdivision.

The easement defines those specific rights, which are then given to a third party, such as the Minnesota Land Trust. The Trust commits to monitoring and enforcing (in court, if necessary) the rights that it now owns through the easement. While the land itself can still be sold, the property rights defined by the easement would remain the property of the trust, limiting what a future landowner could do.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Yesterday's PCSC Meeting Notes

Yesterday morning I got up earlier than usual so that I could attend the Police Civil Service Commission meeting at 8 AM. My notes from the meeting are now on Maplewood Voices.

At the meeting we learned that the court denied Banick's motion requesting a writ of mandamus, and Maplewood Voices has archived a PDF of the judge's decision. (Thanks to HAK for providing that PDF.)


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Destroying the PCSC

I have not heard yet heard if the district court will issue a writ of mandamus to force the city of Maplewood to comply with the order of the Police Civil Service Commission to reinstate John Banick as a Lieutenant.

Not being a lawyer, I can't judge the nuance of the law when it comes the proper issuance of a writ of mandamus. Out of my own self-interest as a resident of Maplewood, I hope that Banick's attorney's interpretation of the law is correct. Reinstating Banick would not only be just and uphold the proper role of the PCSC, it would save the city money. Remember, we are hiring four new police officers plus a “public safety director” über-manager this year. Reinstating Banick would just mean hiring three new officers instead of four. The sooner we do it the less back pay we'll be coughing up for time that Banick hasn't been on the job; and the safer our city will be, as we will immediately have another officer on the force. This all seems more important to me than defending the pride and personal revenge agendas of the city manager and council majority.

In January, the judge did say that the termination of Banick appeared improper, since it did not involve the PCSC, regardless of whether or not it was retaliatory; that leads me to believe that the city's arguments about the PCSC having no jurisdiction don't hold a lot of water — they are hanging on a technicality to delay the wheels of justice. Even if Judge Mott agrees with the city that a writ of mandamus is not the appropriate means to enforce the PCSC's decision, that won't be the end of this story. There is too much at stake here. If the city's arguments stand, the role of the commission is gutted, and this would set a precedent with implications far beyond Maplewood.

The city argues that by reinstating Banick as a lieutenant, the PCSC is essentially reorganizing the police department and creating a new lieutenant position, thus usurping the city council's inherent managerial authority. In practice, there would be a reshuffling based on seniority (moving a junior lieutenant to sargeant, a sargeant to patrol officer, and, in our present circumstances, hiring three instead of four new patrol officers this year). The PCSC has not had a chance to follow through on those personnel shifts.

Consider the logical implications of the city's argument. Not only would the PCSC not be able to issue this order in the Banick situation (to reinstate an officer improperly terminated); other PCSC actions actions would be invalidated as well. For example, in a past case cited in the PCSC's order, the commission demoted a police chief to his previous rank of sergeant. Following the logic of the city's current legal argument, the commission had no right to do so because they were effectively creating a new sargeant position, just as in this case they would allegedly be creating a new lieutenant's position.

Again, whether or not there was an open position at the lower level to which an officer was demoted, the PCSC should be able to rearrange others according to seniority to open a position at the appropriate rank; and, if necessary, it could lay off the officer in the department with the least seniority. The city is either pretending ignorance of the PCSC's authority to reassign individuals to different jobs in the department in this manner — or, more likely, it is denying that the PCSC has such authority at all.

In other words, the city seeks to destroy the Police Civil Service Commission as it has heretofore existed. The current city administration is arguing for the PCSC to exist as merely an advisory board, providing an illusion of resident involvement, with all of its decisions subject to review and reversal (or simply to be ignored) if it should please the city manager and city council majority.

Actually dissolving the PCSC would require (according to Minnesota law) either a unanimous decision of the city council or a referendum of the city's voters. Since neither of those is going to happen, the council majority is trying an end run around the law to eliminate a troublesome check against the unfettered exercise of power to which they feel entitled.

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