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Dave Olson, Published December 26 2010

Year’s end prompts frank talk on Moorhead City Council

Year’s end is a time for looking forward and looking back.

And at the close of one of their final meetings in 2010, Moorhead City Council members did just that.

It started with Greg Lemke making a suggestion for a council retreat planned for January.

He asked whether it might be a good idea to bring in someone who could help the council with team building.

Lemke said in his 10 years on the council, he’s never seen the board more divided.

“I don’t mean divided by opinions, that’s good,” he said.

“We’re not always going to agree on things, but sometimes there’s better ways of doing that,” said Lemke, adding he sees a tendency on the part of council members to vote as a bloc.

“That’s not in the best interest of the citizens,” he said.

Fellow council member Nancy Otto disagreed with Lemke’s assessment.

“I’ve seen a lot worse councils than this,” Otto said. “There was one council member who never even said hello to me for an entire year.

“I haven’t seen that with this group,” she added. “Yeah, we don’t always agree. But we are respectful to one another.”

Lemke then backed off from his earlier suggestion, saying team building probably wasn’t what is needed.

But, he said, retired members of Congress speak at conventions from across the country have expressed worry that deep political divisions in Washington do not bode well for the country.

“We need to send a message to our state and federal officials that we work together for what’s best for our citizens,” Lemke said, adding he is concerned when he learns that two or three council members are communicating via e-mail, but other council members are left out of the loop.

“It seems there are attempts sometimes to keep people uninformed,” Lemke said.

Mark Hintermeyer said council members have to be careful when communicating by e-mail so as not to violate open meeting laws.

Limiting e-mails to one or two other council members avoids that, he said, adding that he knows the city manager will get the word out to everyone.

Hintermeyer said that during his first term on the council, he often felt like the one being left out.

“To be clearly frank, this council, my second term, I enjoy much more than my first term,” Hintermeyer said.

Diane Wray Williams said the council always pulls together on the big things, like floods.

But, she added, “We get a little provincial on some things. A little honesty and a little grappling with each other might be in order.”

Dan Hunt said he has no problem with council members disagreeing with each other, “But, once we make our decision, let’s support each other,” he said.

“I really appreciate Luther,” Hunt added, referring to fellow council member Luther Stueland, who in his first year on the council has built a reputation for challenging city spending.

“I think you’ve brought fresh air to this whole council, it makes people rethink things,” Hunt told Stueland.

Mark Altenburg compared the council to a dinner table at Thanksgiving.

“You don’t agree with every cousin you’ve got, but you (disagree) with respect,” he said.

Mayor Mark Voxland said the council is divided in some ways, but he said it isn’t the first time he has seen that happen on the board.

“When you start looking at the issues we’ve tackled in the last 24 months, we’ve had some doozies. That has caused us to be much more engaged, and I think that’s a good thing,” Voxland said.

Voxland said the board does seem to have trust issues and he’s not sure how to bridge those.

“It’s not that one group doesn’t trust another group,” he said. “It just seems to be a pervasive: ‘I’m not really sure.’ ”

Lack of trust has been worse in the past, he said, as far as officials springing surprises on each other at meetings.

“We had council members that would pull things out of their back pocket,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555