Edina City Hall (bkvgroup.com).
by Steve Timmer
Oct 13, 2016, 1:00 PM

Who runs this burg, anyway? Part Two

In Part One, I described the outsized role in making policy held by the staff (well, and consultants, too) in a city like Edina, and in fact, in Edina. And I cautioned against stacking the city council with members who are themselves professional municipal technocrats, likely to be staff and developer oriented, rather than resident oriented.

I have an example of what I am talking about.

Kevin Staunton was elected to the council in Edina two years ago. In real life, Kevin is a city attorney, representing a western suburban municipality. I voted for Kevin, and I am happy that he is on the council. At one council meeting in March of this year, however, I saw what can happen when you have a professional municipal technocrat council member, such as Mr. Staunton, interacting with another municipal technocrat staff member.

The agenda item being discussed at the council meeting was the adoption of a TIF for the greater Grandview area. The staff made a presentation advocating the adoption of the TIF, and several residents, including me, were then given three minutes apiece to comment. The comments were against the TIF. The staff, naturally, got all the time it wanted.

After the comments, the staff returned to the dais, and through a series of friendly questions, Mr. Staunton, particularly, led the staff members (asking leading questions, that is, questions that suggest the answers), and a couple of assembled consultants, too, in responding to the questions. Professionally, I was impressed with the job he did. But as a resident, I wanted to jump up and say, “Mr. Mayor, I object. The council member is leading the witness!” Or ask to do a little cross examination myself, maybe.

Here’s the meeting; regrettably, it’s the whole meeting, so you’ll want to freshen up your coffee if you’re going to watch it.

We elect council members to represent the residents of the city, not assist the staff. I believe, in any event, we shouldn’t make the situation worse by having two of the four members of the council who are professional municipal technocrats.

That’s what we’ll do if we elect Mike Fischer to the council. Mr. Fischer is an architect by training, and he and his firm have had a number of engagements from the city, some while he served on the city’s Planning Commission.

One of Mr. Fischer’s specialties is finding blight. Blight is one of the necessary ingredients in adopting a TIF; Mr. Fischer found it for both the Pentagon Park TIF (we can all agree that Pentagon Park was really ugly, but truly blighted?) and the Grandview TIF. He was at the March 2016 council meeting linked above, adopting the Grandview TIF.

It’s apparent that Mike Fischer knows the staff very well. I am sure that the planning director and economic development director would love to see him on the council. He would be staff and development oriented. Resident oriented? Probably less so.

At the recent League of Women Voters forum for city candidates, when asked about listening to residents, Mr. Fischer said that the council needed to listen to residents, and then make “bold choices,” which I took to be code to do what they want because the professionals know better.

That was the thrust of the bit of editorializing that Strib reporter John Reinan did in discussing development in Edina, too.

At the same forum, questions were asked of the candidates about city ethics policy and conflicts of interest. Mr. Fischer waved off the idea of a city ethics policy, saying the state had one. But I am told that a bit of a social media flap developed over the issues in recent days.

I personally think that if Mr. Fischer wants to sit on the council, he must pledge publicly that neither he nor his firm will accept engagements from the city during his term in office.

An easier way to insure no conflict will arise would be for the residents to reject his candidacy.

Update: And I will tell you who I do endorse in a day or two.

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