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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


A Long Overdue Conversation

It's about time.

Monday night, at a council/manager workshop, the city council majority finally allowed a discussion of a wider range of options for the protection of Maplewood parks and open space -- a discussion that Will Rossbach has been requesting for months. The packet prepared for the meeting by city staff includes various alternatives, their pros and cons, and their costs.

This is a meeting that should have happened months ago. The city manager and council majority invested a lot of time and thousands of taxpayer dollars in one option (the most expensive one), and advocated its use across the board, before even looking at what other options might be out there. The entire saga of conservation easements has demonstrated the flawed approach to decision-making that is typical of this council majority, putting their personal and political agendas ahead of the public good.

Let's take a trip down memory lane.

The first mention I can find of conservation easements was a column attributed to Erik Hjelle in the September 2006 city newsletter: "The council is also researching the steps necessary for conservation easements on open space." (Can anyone point me to an agenda item or meeting minutes where the council discussed easements in an open meeting before this date or directed staff to research them?)

In the February issue Mayor Diana Longrie then wrote, "The council's Conservation Easement initiative is moving forward." Rebecca Cave had a column in the same issue, and promoted the upcoming conservation easements workshop, writing, "Anyone interested in learning more about how the City Council plans to protect our City Open Spaces permanently should come to this meeting." Again, before the council had actually looked at this issue in the workshop or taken any votes, as far as I can tell, Cave describes it as the "plan" that the Council will enact.

Cave and Longrie also mailed invitations, apparently with their own funds, to residents living near parks and neighborhood preserves.

At last, on April 9th, the council held a workshop on the topic. (You can read my detailed notes from the meeting.) At that time the direction Copeland seemed to be taking, without any formal vote or directive from the council, was to place easements on all of the city's parks and open space. When the representative of the Minnesota Land Trust suggested that doing that would take at least a year, Copeland narrowed the focus to just the neighborhood preserves, to have something that could be enacted on a shorter timetable (coincidentally, a timetable prior to the elections).

After laying all this groundwork, it came as no surprise when Rebecca Cave made conservation easements a centerpiece of her campaign ("THEY ARE NOT FOR SALE!"), along with spurious claims that her opponents want to sell the city's parks and neighborhood preserves.

Since the April workshop, the mayor has continued to promote conservation easements -- effectively campaigning for Cave -- in the taxpayer-funded city newsletter, in August and October. Ms. Cave did as well (in June). I don't know if they actually did it, but they at least planned for the city to produce a cable TV program promoting the idea as well.

(Let's keep in mind that, while keeping the drumbeat for conservation easements going, they also eliminated our Parks & Recreation Department and their city manager proposed a 72.8% cut in capital funding to parks.)

After more than a year of building up this campaign for conservation easements, linking it to Rebecca Cave, and stonewalling Will Rossbach, the council majority finally gave in to Rossbach's request for a public discussion of alternatives.

What do we find at the end of the discussion? Well, apparently conservation easements are not suitable for all of the Neighborhood Preserves; many of these alternatives cost little or nothing to put in place; and the protection provided by the other alternatives is actually more appropriate to many of the pieces of land at issue.

It sure seemed to me like at the end of the meeting both Mayor Longrie and Councilmember Cave were more or less agreeing with the position Councilmember Rossbach took all along -- that conservation easements might be appropriate for some neighborhood preserves, but probably not for all, and it was important to apply the right tools for each situation -- and they were claiming that this is what they really intended all along.

What to make of this? Like I said, it strikes me as another example of this council's bad policy process.

I suspect this all began with a political goal, to create a campaign issue for Rebecca Cave and manufacture a controversy. In order to put Rossbach on the record in opposition, it appears they needed to promote as extreme a version as possible at the beginning. Then, when Rossbach predictably stood up for common sense and reason and the not-so-crazy idea of looking at the alternatives before committing a lot of money to a specific course of action, they misrepresented his concerns to portray him as wanting to sell the city's open space. The campaign for easements had two key aspects: one was riling up fear and anger in neighborhoods (making people believe their neighborhood preserves and parks are threatened); the other was presenting Cave as essential to the only possible solution, with her commitment to conservation easements. In this way, the entire conservation easements "issue" has put the interests of the city behind the self-interested political agenda of the council majority.

As the high cost of actually enacting easements has become more apparent, as have the city's budgetary woes, the importance of actually putting the easements in place has waned for the council majority. But to my mind, the whole exercise (including the use of a lot of taxpayer dollars along the way) was a political gambit from the outset. I'm not even sure how much attention the council majority will have for the issue, once the election is past.

A better way, I believe, would have been to have an explanation of the problem that needs fixing, and a survey of the alternatives that might solve it, at the beginning. Explore the options, build consensus as you move forward, and settle on a course of action that has broad support and political investment, and public confidence that the best available option was chosen out in the open and the light of day. Building this kind of cooperative political will is not only a less-divisive way to govern, but it also makes for stronger and more-enduring policies. That's what Maplewood needs for a better future.

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