John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fish Creek Recommendations

This coming Monday, the city council workshop will include the presentation of the report of the Fish Creek Natural Area Greenway Ad-Hoc Commission (note: link is a 6.5 MB, 40-page PDF with numerous images, which will take a while to download if you a slower internet connection).

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Smoke Clears

Remember all the controversy about wood smoke? Remember how, right before the election, a few pamphleteers and cable access TV shows purported to have uncovered a secret agenda on the part of mayoral candidate Will Rossbach to ban recreational fires, fireplaces, wood stoves, etc.?

Last night we passed the second reading of the amended recreational fire ordinance. It becomes law as soon as it's published in the official newspaper. Contrary to all the election-season bleatings of Maplewood's conspiracy mongers, we didn't ban wood fires. In fact, most members of the city council told you all along, if you asked, that no ban was ever being considered.

But from the outset of the wood smoke task force, some people (including certain now-former councilmembers) have worked hard to fan the flames of fear with rumors that a ban on wood burning was imminent. Denials could only be seen as proof of the sinister scheme underway, to their way of thinking.

Now that the ordinance has actually passed (and there is no ban, in case that was unclear), the naked dishonesty and cynicism of these conspiracy mongers should be plain to all.

What we actually did do:
  • Changed the ordinance to conform to state law (which supercedes our ordinances anyway) where they were in conflict. Examples: Our old ordinance permitted coal as fuel for recreational fires, which Minnesota law prohibits; our ordinance allowed fires 20 feet from a structure, while the state requires a minimum of 25.
  • Extended the permitted hours for recreational fires, formerly from 2 PM to 11 PM, now from 10 AM to 11 PM.
  • Added a "good neighbor" clause that states "Recreational fires should not be lit or maintained if the smoke therefrom unreasonably causes discomfort or a negative impact to neighboring properties."
  • Added a wind restriction to allow recreational fires only when the wind is less than 15 mph.
And after all that controversy and character bashing, after turning a minor ordinance update into a political football, how many of those "concerned" people actually showed up last night to comment on the final passage of the ordinance? Zero.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Pioneer Press on Appointment, Special Election

A Pioneer Press story over the weekend discussed our coming interim council appointment and the plan for the special election to coincide with the state primary.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Latest Call for Duplicate Audits

The Sunday Pioneer Press includes an article about a petition seeking signatures to ask the State Auditor to examine Maplewood's books. Leading the petition drive is Elizabeth Sletten, one of former Mayor Diana Longrie's most devoted fans (you may also remember her as one of the candidates in last year's city council primary), and Longrie herself.

Long-time readers of my blog may recall that we've talked about this before. As my term began in 2008, I seriously considered whether we should ask the State Auditor to look at our books, after the mismanagement and incompetence of the Longrie-Copeland era. You can read my entry on the topic from April 7, 2008.

Then-Mayor Longrie wrote an April 8, 2008 opinion article in the Pioneer Press about her wish to see an audit; she ran the same text as her article in the May 2008 city newsletter. Longrie's laundry list of concerns focused not on Copeland's time at the city's helm — rather, she wanted an inquiry to focus on policy disagreements such as the amount of city debt, and bizarre personal obsessions like someone joking about naming a street after Will Rossbach. (Perhaps Longrie thinks "Comedy Police" is part of the state auditor's job description.)

In the new Pioneer Press article, Sletten claims to have obtained more than 400 signatures so far — roughly the same number as votes she received in last year's primary. To meet the required 20% of registered Maplewood voters, she'll need about 4,200. Even then, the scope of the audit is determined by the auditors, not the petitioners. To quote the State Auditor's website:

If a petition audit is certified by the county auditor, staff from the Office of the State Auditor would then meet with a committee of petitioners to review the petitioners' concerns. The audit staff then would review the concerns to determine the scope of the audit. The audit might not include all the concerns identified by the petitioners if the audit staff determined that the concerns were based on decisions within the discretion of the governing body.

I believe the State Auditor would duplicate the work already done by our independent auditors every year — which, let's be clear, has included a lot of clean-up of issues from the Longrie-Copeland era. But staff and auditors have repeatedly told us that there's no evidence of wrongdoing, just errors that we can reasonably believe came as a result of the loss of most of the accounting department, who were driven away by the toxic environment created in City Hall by Copeland and his masters. To emphasize the point once again, a state audit would not just duplicate our independent auditors' work, but the city's taxpayers would have to pay for the cost of the audit in a year when the budget is already stretched thin.

I don't believe that this money would be well spent, especially in these lean budgetary times. Still, if 20% of Maplewood voters want it, we'll indulge the personal obsessions of the former mayor and her cronies on the taxpayers' dime once again. I don't expect anything shocking will turn up, but I do still have my own list of questions, as I wrote in May 2008, that I will happily submit to the auditors if they're going to be examining the city's affairs anyhow.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Town Hall Tomorrow

Senator Chuck Wiger (Minnesota Senate District 55) and Representative Leon Lillie (House District 55A) will be holding a town hall meeting tomorrow morning from 9:00 to 10:00 AM at the Maplewood City Hall. Sen. Wiger represents all of Maplewood, and Rep. Lillie represents the northern part of the city (as well as North Saint Paul).

From 10:30 to 11:30 AM there were be another town hall meeting at the Oakdale City Hall, hosted by Sen. Wiger and Rep. Nora Slawik, whose district 55B includes Maplewood's south leg.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Streaming Links

The City of Maplewood website doesn't yet have all the links and directions in place, but streaming of live and archived Maplewood meetings is in fact available now.

Here are links to the archived Maplewood City Council meetings of the year to date:

January 4th Special City Council Meeting
January 11th City Council-Manager Workshop
January 11th Regular City Council Meeting
January 12th City Council-Manager Workshop

Tonight's workshop, in which we will be interviewing a lot of candidates for the new Business & Economic Development Commission, begins at 5:00 and while it's going on it should be viewable online. Later it will also be available as an archive, with those handy agenda links embedded to make it easy to find whatever specific item on the agenda you may be interested in.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Streaming Begins

Rather quietly, online streaming of city council meetings began last night. It was hard to find the link in the city council page, and I didn't actually realize it was being streamed live (or nearly live, with a delay of a few seconds for the video feed to be processed into the format for streaming over the internet) until City Manager Antonen mentioned it in mid-meeting.

Presumably this evening's 5 PM workshop about the interim council appointment will be streaming as well at the same web address.

All of this year's meetings will be available in an archive online for on-demand viewing, starting in the near future.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Crime Down in 2009

According to a message from Police Chief Thomalla to the city council, 2009 was a year of improvement in the fight against crime in Maplewood. He wrote:
Preliminary numbers indicate reported crime was down significantly in 2009 after it had spiked in many areas in 2008. In 2009 we saw a slight increase in Robberies and Theft from vehicles, but all other of the major crimes dropped. There was a 21% reduction in Assaults, a 24% reduction in Burglaries, An 18% reduction in Thefts, a 12% reduction in Auto Thefts and 9% reduction in Damage to Property.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pioneer Press Mourns Loss of Incivility

The Pioneer Press editorial writers had some fun last week at the expense of Maplewood and the anticipated decline of our previously thriving headline manufacturing sector. "But where are tomorrow's quips, headlines, conflicts, gaffes and attacks going to come from, if not from our elected leaders?" they write. " This agreeableness has got to stop."

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Maplewood Review on the Wetland Ordinance

This week's Maplewood Review reported on the passage of the second reading of Maplewood's revised Wetland Ordinance.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Chicken Feed...back

Here are some of the comments I received in response to my entry linking to the Maplewood Review article about urban chickens last week.

Comment #1:
How would property values be affected?

What about the extreme cold on the chickens we have here in winter?

What is the benefit vs. cost of this idea? Could we instead support local farm raised natural/organic chickens? Also, it seems like it benefits most people with a larger size property who are able to abide by possible rules about footage between coops and neighboring houses, etc. Is this fair to those who don't own enough property but want chickens? What is the economic benefit?...

Interesting idea, maybe a good one if enough and the right restrictions guidelines and enforcement are put in place...or maybe not.

I do have to say though that a barking neighbor dog and piles of dog crap like we find so often on sidewalks and streets around here are much worse than a well-cared for chicken coop might be.

Comment #2:

I would love to have a couple of chickens as pets and for eggs, I have always wanted to do this.

Comment #3:

[We] both support the practice of having controlled chickens in the city. They are a good source of eggs and meat. The manure needs to be addressed in some way. It does make very good fertilizer.

We were listening to a rooster this fall from somewhere in our neighborhood. We think....

Comment #4:

I would like to stress my opposition to the idea. First of all we do not live in a rural area. I am all for having gardens but raising chickens is whole different story. If chickens were allowed then one could argue a few pigs should be OK. The story stated they could sell eggs to the local stores- Maybe they could but one must ask how many chickens would someone have to have to make it worthwhile. I would be very upset if the council ever decided to change the law to allow raising chickens once again and if I ever had to look out my window and saw chickens running around a backyard. We are a frist tier metro area not a rural area for many decades.

In addition to the e-mail, I also received comment in person from a couple who strongly oppose chickens in the city.


Friday, January 08, 2010

More on the Unallotment Decision

This week's online newsletter from the League of Minnesota Cities includes an article about Judge Gearin's decision to overturn the unallotment of funding to the Minnesota Supplemental Aid Special Diet Program. It provides a good explanation of the ruling and some of its impact, especially as relates to cities -- the main impact being "more uncertainty". It also says that the League board will discuss what if anything to do, in light of the decision, at its upcoming meeting on January 21st.

I've decided that I'm not eager to see the LMC and other entities join in a flurry of lawsuits to overturn the unallotments. I think it is vital to have a test case like the Special Diet Program to work through the constitutional issues, so I'm pleased with both Gearin's ruling and the Governor's decision to appeal it. This case ought to go to the Minnesota Supreme Court, either to clarify the statute's interpretation or to make the legislature rewrite it to pass constitutional muster.

But overturning Pawlenty's actions last year won't cause money to appear in the state coffers to restore those cuts. Any 2009 funding restored in court is only going to increase the cuts that will have to be made by the legislature and governor to balance the remainder of the biennial budget. It would be a zero-sum game, except for the legal fees that make it less-than-zero.

Partisan Angles
Many commentators seem to have taken Gearin's decision as a major blow to Governor Pawlenty and the Republicans, and some conservative partisans have gone further to suggest that it represents liberal judicial bias (a claim that doesn't really hold up in light of the many rulings in Gearin's career on the bench).

Sarah Janacek at Politics in Minnesota takes a different view than many of her colleagues on the right, calling the ruling "Good for the state and spectacular for Pawlenty and the Republicans." Janacek seems to accept the basic separation-of-powers argument in Gearin's ruling, without jumping to conclude that it was biased and wrong just because it was not the ruling the Republican governor had sought. The way she sees it playing out, the court decision may bring us back to legislative-executive gridlock, but she sees that situation as benefitting Republicans because Pawlenty will have nothing to lose. If he lets the government shut down for lack of a budget deal, it will only increase the national attention and anti-tax reputation that he seeks for his presidential aspirations. For his presidential run, the national reputation matters more than his popularity in Minnesota, where he won election and reelection with less than 50% of the vote.

Janacek's analysis is intriguing, though I'm not sure it will work out that way. What I do think is important is to realize that what politicians and parties want in the short term doesn't always play out the way they imagine it will. Republicans should not revile this decision just because it is a tactical setback for Pawlenty, and Democrats should not be too satisfied or mistakenly think that this represents a seismic shift of the budget negotiating terrain to their advantage. As Janacek points out, the governor still has the veto (and line-item veto), and as a lame duck official with aspirations for a higher office, he probably has less to lose than do DFL legislators if he decides to take a hard line and refuse compromise.

Maplewood's Bottom Line
No doubt there will be a lot of drama in the coming legislative session as state leaders wrestle with the budget. Unfortunately, I think the end result for Maplewood is pretty much the same in any scenario -- our Market Value Homestead Credit is gone, and I don't see it being restored. There's a lot of focus on the short-term forecasts and budgets, but the long term picture for state finances is even more challenging. I believe Maplewood has to plan for the future with the assumption that our MVHC, like Local Government Aid, is gone for good. If we do happen to get some in a future year, we should treat it as a windfall for one-time uses, such as capital expenses or debt reduction, rather than part of the operating budget.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

A Few Motivated Partisans

In promoting the idea of even-year elections last year, former councilmember Erik Hjelle mentioned his concern about "a few motivated partisans that sway the election process" in odd-year elections.

I think that this is exactly what happened in 2005 and the ultra-low-turnout 2006 special election, which put Hjelle, Longrie and Cave in office. As turnout has increased in recent elections, the number of votes for Longrie and Cave (and former running mate DelRay Rokke) did not increase proportionally. Stephan Flister discussed this phenomenon on Maplewood Voices last year, in comparing the 2005 and 2009 mayoral primaries; but it can be seen in the council races as well.

Look at these comparisons:

ElectionBallots CastTurnoutCave VotesChangeRokke VotesChange
2005 Primary2228n/a796n/an/an/a
2007 Primary3543+59.02%941+18.22%793n/a
2009 Primary4268+20.46%871-7.44%828+4.41%

ElectionBallots CastTurnoutJuenemann VotesChangeLlanas VotesChange
2005 Primary2228n/a1047n/an/an/a
2007 Primary3543+59.02%n/an/a200n/a
2009 Primary4268+20.46%1759+68%1415+608%

In essence, there seems to be a limited and largely fixed number of people who will vote for Longrie, Hjelle or their proxies. The bigger the voter participation (as is seen in even-year elections, when there are national or state-wide races on the ballot), the less likely it may be that a group like them can hijack Maplewood's city government in the future.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Photos from Monday Night

Councilmember Kathy Juenemann takes the oath of office for her third term:

Councimember James Llanas takes his oath of office:

Mayor Will Rossbach takes his oath of office:

The 2010 Maplewood City Council (at least until we fill the empty seat):

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Appointment Process

Mayor Rossbach and Councilmembers Juenemann and Llanas took their oaths of office at a special council meeting held this past Monday, January 4th. We also declared the vacancy of Mayor Rossbach's council seat, called for a special election to be held at the same time as this year's statewide primary, and discussed how to appoint a councilmember to serve in the interim.

For the interim appointment process, we decided that each councilmember will put forward the name of a qualified and willing candidate. We will ask these nominees to fill out an application or provide their resume, and we will interview them all together and discuss the appointment at a special workshop on January 12th. There was consensus that we would like to appoint someone with past city government experience, preferably a former councilmember but someone with experience serving on a city board or commission would be considered as well. The other criterion suggested by Councilmember Juenemann (and with which Councilmember Llanas agreed) was that we select someone who does not intend to run in the special election. I didn't think this was essential, but I also don't have a big objection to it and so I included it in the motion.

Ideally this process will result in an interim councilmember appointed in time to join our goal-setting retreat with staff, which we have scheduled to occur on February 5th.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Pioneer Press Looking Forward

Over the weekend, the Pioneer Press ran an article headlined, "What will 2010 bring to Minnesota? Pioneer Press reporters share their predictions."

One of those predictions: "A Return To Civility" for Maplewood, with the swearing in tonight of Rossbach as Mayor, and Juenemann and Llanas to the city council. "A smooth-running council could ultimately save the city money," writes John Brewer, and observers should "Look for increased transparency in administrative and financial matters as well as low-key council meetings."

Today's Pioneer Press features a longer article by Nancy Ngo, "In Maplewood, it's a new city council minus the old animosities."

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Digital Playback

The city's IT director, Mychal Fowlds, informed the city council in this past week's "FYI" from the City Manager's office that the new hardware we approved purchasing earlier this year is now up and running in the control room of city hall. Video outside of live broadcasts will now be played from a hard drive, rather than three DVD players. The result will be more content and more variety on Maplewood's Channel 16 -- more meetings can be included in the replay rotation, and additional public service announcements and special programming can easily be broadcast in the coming year.


Friday, January 01, 2010

Unallotment Orders and Appeals

The judicial branch has weighed in on the issue of unallotments as exercised this past year by Governor Pawlenty. In the first of what is likely to be numerous rulings, the court issued a temporary restraining order enjoining the state government from reducing its allotment of funding to the Minnesota Supplemental Aid Special Diet Program. The Governor has announced that he will appeal the ruling. Given the constitutional issues at stake — the executive branch usurping the powers of the legislative, the governor abusing the unallotment statute as a way to get his way without having to negotiate or compromise with legislators — I have to assume that this will go up to the supreme court.

The practical effect is less certain. The state's budget forecast is now worse than it was when Pawlenty signed those spending bills whose funding he planned to veto. Any reprieve for the MSA Special Diet Program or anyone else (like Maplewood) subjected to unallotment is likely to be temporary; even if a legislative-executive budget compromise in the coming session includes tax increases, it will no doubt include substantial cuts too, that may well be more than the Pawlenty's 2009-2010 unallotments.

Judge Gearin's memorandum recognizes the worsening budget situation, and asks the rhetorical question, "Why then should the courts bother to enjoin this unallotment? Is the separation of powers part of our constitution that important?" Her answer is an emphatic "yes." She writes:

The revenue bill that the governor vetoed would have balanced the budget based on the anticipated receives forecast in February 2009. The governor used unallotment rather than calling a special session of the legislature or vetoing the appropriations bill to balance the budget. He did this after signing numerous spending bills which taken together, he knew would not balance the budget unless revenues were raised. He used the unallotment statute to address a situation that was neither unknown nor unanticipated when the appropriations bills became law . . .

. . . [T]he Governor crossed the line between legitimate exercise of his authority to unallot and interference with the Legislative power to make laws, including statutes allocating resources and raising revenues. The authority of the Governor to unallot is an authority intended to save the state in times of a previously unforeseen budget crisis, it is not meant to be used as a weapon by the executive branch to break a stalemate in budget negotiations with the legislature or to rewrite the appropriations bill.

I think it is essential that the judicial branch rule on this constitutional issue. Were it to go unchallenged, this way of using unallotment would represent a major increase of the power of the executive — something that even Pawlenty's devoted fans might not appreciate so much in future years when the office is occupied by other parties.

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