Council needs to be open to citizen input

Published 8:26 am Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thank you to the citizens of Albert Lea for their overwhelmingly positive response to my decision to run for the office of mayor of Albert Lea. It is good to have competition for public offices in order to have an open exchange of ideas and opinions.

In recent years I have been considering running for public office. I have been encouraged by others to run for various levels of office from city, county, and school district to state Legislature. However, it is the issues at the city level that have most interested me and where I decided I could best use my background. I’ve commented on city matters and council actions on multiple occasions in recent years. I’ve disagreed with how some matters have been handled and felt it was only right to offer myself as a candidate to give Albert Lea citizens a choice in how their city is run.

I’ve been an advocate of keeping local government open to citizen input at the council’s public forum, and by adding visibility to decision making, such as by broadcasting meetings on government-access channels. I have also proposed making city government more open by eliminating the council’s pre-agenda meeting. Even though it is open by law, it is poorly attended, public input is not allowed and it is not broadcast. The public does not get to see the discussion, and it fosters the impression that decision making is not being made openly. Why go through the same agenda twice? We don’t need a rehearsal.

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Also, we do need to ensure that procedures set forth in the city charter and code are followed. For example, the city charter and code state that resolutions are to be presented in writing and the resolution must be read in full before a vote is taken on the resolution. Further, last-minute resolutions that come up during ward items, and are not otherwise on the agenda, do not allow citizens the opportunity to discuss these items with their council member or the mayor, and further the perception that decisions are being made behind closed doors.

I have also been critical of taxpayer money spent by the city. The East Main Street lighting project cost far more than was justified. Taxpayer money was put toward items for housing developments such as Tiger Hills, which should have been the responsibility of the developers. I believe the city’s responsibility is to provide a reasonable environment for all businesses. This is accomplished through responsible spending resulting in a tax burden that does not put our city at a disadvantage to retaining and attracting businesses. We must work in particular to retain the businesses we already have — it is far more costly to attract new firms with a success rate that is small considering the competition from other cities and states. I believe with my business background I can be an advocate for responsible spending and understanding the needs of our business community.

It is my belief that the mayor and members of the city council need to take a proactive approach in directing the affairs of the city. More questions need to be asked to fully ensure that all opportunities are explored. This is also true in occasions where there may be the perception that the public interest is not being served, for instance when there were questions about how some of the city’s scrap metal was being handled. We had been told repeatedly that nothing was wrong, yet in the end a city employee was terminated for violating the public trust in this matter.

Our mayor needs to be fully aware of what other levels of government are doing. For instance, at the Aug. 12 City Council discussion about whether Fountain Lake should be treated for algae, I was frankly astounded that our current mayor berated Brett Behnke, Shell Rock River Watershed District administrator, for not informing the city of what they are doing to clean up our waters.

While Randy Erdman deserves credit for helping to get the half-cent sales tax approved for lake cleanup, I had to wonder, did he stop trying to be informed about what is being done with the money generated by the sales tax? This information is freely available from the watershed district’s Web site, there have been numerous newspaper articles, and the watershed district’s meetings are broadcast on Albert Lea’s government-access channel. Our mayor and council have to seek out information, not wait for someone to hand it to them on a platter.

Except for attending the University of Minnesota to obtain a business degree, I have lived my entire life here in Albert Lea and Freeborn County. My wife, Geri, is the assistant editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. We have two daughters — Erin is in seventh grade at Southwest Middle School, and Tierney is in first grade at St. Theodore Catholic School.

Even though I have worked in Owatonna almost nine years, I have never considered moving. This is my home and the home of my family, and I’m proud to be from Albert Lea. Thanks for being an informed citizen. I ask for your vote on Sept. 9.

Mike Murtaugh is a computer programmer at Wenger Corp. in Owatonna, and he is a candidate for Albert Lea mayor.