Wendy Reuer, Published December 17 2011
A dysfunctional City Council in Moorhead?
A special meeting Monday will bring the divide to light once again as the council attempts to pass its 2012 budget.
Debate over increasing property taxes and cutting services to account for a loss in state aid have prolonged the budget discussions that began in July.
But an operating budget and levy have not been the only heavily discussed issues for the council this year:
- Permanent flood protection plans were discussed in July. The base plan and six phases were presented Aug. 29. The council agreed to fund projects Base plus A through C Nov. 28.
- A controversial drug paraphernalia ban was first read in July. After it was tabled for three months, it was passed Nov. 28.
- Motions to approve a city attorney contract failed three times before a one-year contract was approved with the current law firm Ohnstad Twichell, Dec. 5. However, attorney John Shockley was asked to be the city’s lead attorney rather than longtime attorney Brian Neugebauer because of what some council members described as “personality conflicts.”
“I do think the council has gotten a little more divided the last several years,” Mayor Mark Voxland said. “I think we’ve seen some division on how Moorhead should be moving forward, and that’s been part of the problem.”
Voxland has served in city government since 1988 and over the years, he said he has always seen a give and take among the council.
All of the issues – like the budget – require a supermajority vote, or at least six council members voting to approve.
“Because of that, you can get a tyranny of the minority,’ ” Voxland said. “That’s been used somewhat to the detriment of the majority going in one direction.”
Often in the minority vote is Councilman Luther Stueland, who has stressed his opposition of property tax increases and spending on non-essential services.
“I certainly don’t vote ‘no’ just to be obstinate. Almost always I try to explain my reason for voting that way,” Stueland said. “I think what the charter envisioned was an attempt to protect the minority, to give the minority a voice. It puts pressure on the minority to bend to the will of the majority, but it protects the majority from over-reaching.”
As council members hash out their opinions, meetings have tended to last upwards of three hours each week in recent months.
Councilman Mark Hintermeyer said that although lengthy, those discussions have been beneficial.
“It is a good thing that we struggle to get the six votes on our final budget resolution because that means we are engaged and we are trying our best to decide how we spend our resources,” Hintermeyer said.
He said he feels the council has probably been less contentious with each other this past year. He cited the fact that a unanimous vote is cast about 80 percent of the time, such as on the consent agenda. “Compromise doesn’t mean it will be a unanimous vote,” he said. “You move to the middle.”
In the past two elections, voters made their own voice for change clear, electing six new council members within 24 months.
“I think the last two election cycles have shown a change in the dynamic. I think there is a recognition the city has overstepped,” Stueland said. “We’ve seen a conservative leaning in the election results, and they’ve been pretty overwhelming.”
Council members-elect Heidi Durand, Steve Gehrtz and Mike Hulett said they all heard on the campaign trail that constituents are concerned about the council’s decision-making processes.
“They expect our council to move forward to get things done and move forward in a timelier manner,” Gehrtz said. “It just doesn’t seem like there wants to be any give and take, and part of being effective is being able to communicate your point but also listen to others’ point of view and come to a compromise.”
Durand said residents even asked her why she joined a “dysfunctional” group.
“People were concerned that there were individuals that took things personally, or there is sometimes animosity,” Durand said. “I think that is what the council needs to work on doing: understanding the sides and representing the people and not their own personal interests. There needs to be a happy medium.”
Hulett said he also heard from those who were very happy with the council.
“I really did get a wide variety of opinions,” he said.
In January 2011, Voxland challenged the council to come up with a five-year plan for the city to identify services residents want the most and means to fund them as state aid drops.
Voxland said that challenge fell by the wayside as spring flooding overtook priorities, but he plans to give the new council the same ambition this January when he makes the annual state of the city address.
Gehrtz, Durand and Hulett are optimistic the new council makeup will achieve the city’s goals.
“I would hope that the spirit of collaboration would be there so it becomes a more effective council,” Gehrtz said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530