Editorial: Process used for city’s big decision stinks

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Mayor Jean Eaton says Albert Lea needs to trust that she and the city council are doing what’s best by moving Paul Sparks into a full-time job as port-authority director and finding a new city manager.

But if they are so confident they are doing the right thing, why did they need to do it shrouded in secrecy? Why did they need to sneak the move into the city council meeting at the last minute, when nothing about it was on the agenda? Why did they need to vote Monday, after only a few minutes of public discussion on the matter?

If it’s trust they want to inspire, they failed Monday night.

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The council had put a similar plan on its agenda in April, but when developer Tom Leland placed an ad in the newspaper and blew the whistle on their scheme, the council scattered like cockroaches when the lights turn on, withdrawing the agenda item and going about the business of pretending it never happened.

Then, last week, a Greater Jobs Inc. board member admitted that he, two city council members, one other Jobs board member and lawyer Henry Savelkoul were having

secret meetings to discuss restructuring of the port authority. The media and the public were not invited. Most members of the secret group refused to publicly discuss what the meetings were about.

Then, at Thursday’s pre-agenda meeting, where the council prepares for its Monday meeting, the council members invoked attorney-client privilege to close the meeting, sending a reporter away while they discussed who-knows-what.

Finally, near the end of Monday’s council meeting, Jeff Fjelstad, one of the two councilors invited to attend the secret meetings, proposed this sweeping change in the way the city does business. It passed, with only George Marin dissenting.

The merits of the move can be debated. The secret group and the council seem to have decided that the city needs separate people to handle the important duties of city manager and port-authority director. Indeed, a strong case can be made in favor of separating the jobs. And getting a new city manager will help start moving the power at city hall into the hands of new people with new attitudes.

At the same time, allowing Sparks to linger in an important job is not likely to please those who believe he’s overstayed his welcome. His experience is valuable, but if it’s time for a change, as the council has acknowledged, then why keep Sparks around at all?

Of course, dissatisfaction with their move was just what the council was afraid of. What other reason could there be for keeping the measure secret and springing it on everybody at the last moment?

Many complained about how county commissioners handled the courthouse vote last year, but at least they allowed months for residents to attend meetings and workshops or call a hotline to voice their opinion. The city has taken no steps to allow public comment, unless you count a secret group of five powerful people as &uot;the public&uot; (and we don’t). They went out of their way to do this deal secretly, then claimed we should trust them. Well, trust has to be earned, and the council doesn’t earn any by conducting its business in the dark.