Editorial: What lessons can be learned from city’s vote?

Published 10:40 am Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Present and past city managers for Albert Lea have sought to reduce the Police Department, the Fire Department and now the Parks and Recreation Department. All three efforts met resistance and failed. Why?

There are gripers and naysayers, of course, like anywhere, but Albert Leans, on the whole, don’t imagine their city as a slowing, shrinking place with fewer and fewer public services like so many rural Midwestern cities. Many places seem ready to simply accept the fate of fading away year by year. Not Albert Lea. We believe we have something special.

Yes, there has been some population loss, but there has been gain in the long term. In 1940, there were 12,200 people here. In 1950, there were 13,545 people living in Albert Lea. By 1970, there were 19,418. It has gone down only slightly since — not bad for a Midwestern manufacturing city that lost 500 jobs to a packing plant fire —  and in 2010, the census listed Albert Lea at 18,016.

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In other words, there are many people living here who knew what it was like in a city that grew by 7,000 people in just 30 years. They feel it can be done again — even if they don’t stipulate it or succinctly say it.

This is a place with people who are ever-optimistic about future growth. The people believe Albert Lea will need a dedicated-and-sound city government — such as police, fire and parks staff — so the place will be poised for growth. They want the library fully open. They want to feel proud that the city is doing well. The surprising success of Albert Lea magazine is a fine example of how people want to view this place. It’s not some town. It’s distinct, special, singular. There is an extra dose of pride here compared to most communities.

It’s the same thinking that brought this city national attention in 1943 with a feature story in Time Magazine about the city’s plans for post-war growth. It’s why Albert Lea is home to the nation’s first industrial park and a place with a self-sustaining port authority. Other cities envy how we have filled industrial parks and needed to add new ones. The optimism is why Albert Lea is a place for success stories such as Mrs. Gerry’s Kitchen, Minnesota Corrugated Box, Alliance Benefit Group and Vasco. Even look at how our forefathers built a bigger-than-expected downtown. Look at how popular the 2013 makeover of the downtown has been. See how people overwhelmingly support bettering the lakes again and again.

That same optimism screams loudly in the present version of the city comprehensive plan, passed by many of the same council members just six years ago. That plan says the city government of Albert Lea sees this place as gorgeous and very livable. It tells outsiders we are going forward, not backward.

And when we look at that comprehensive plan in one hand and the plan to end the Parks and Recreation Department in the other, we cannot help but see the sheer incongruity of the two. Our comprehensive plan touts the parks and says “make parks the common ground of the community.” To do this, we need to keep a Parks and Recreation Department with a department-level director to back it up. Why even have a comprehensive plan if that’s not the direction the city is supposed to go? And if the issue is problems with participation in recreation programs, then let’s fix that rather than tear apart the department.


A few pointers

We like to be solution-oriented, so we offer this advice: If the city manager is going to find efficiencies, perhaps offering an array of options to the City Council is best next time. Give councilors five or six to choose from and let them and the community debate those options for a few months, rather than leave councilors and community members with a single up-or-down choice on what had been the manager’s preference. Some city managers call it cafeteria-style management.

Imagine hearing: “Here are options A through E. I recommend Option B, but I am OK with whichever route you deem most fitting for the city.” The council might select an option or even devise a mixture of a few options and create Option F.

Either way, it’s just a sound way to approach a board, a council or any panel of authority. It leaves the politicking to the politicians, and the administrating to the administrators.

One other suggestion: Sure, by law, city employees don’t have to live in Freeborn County. But nothing prevents asking in job interviews whether high-profile administrators plan to reside in the Albert Lea area so as to find someone who, when we hand over our Albert Lea-based tax dollars for their take-home pay, will spend that day-to-day money locally.

It’s all part of the shop-local approach. People want the city to pay local, too, especially when good-paying jobs can be scarce. In the recent debate over the reorganization, people voiced dislike at the idea that someone living in a far-off metro suburb would be in charge of local parks. The assistant city manager might be a skilled worker, but he is going to lose popularity points again and again and again unless he moves to at least within the borders of Freeborn County.

What’s more, it’s that same way all over the country. To lead a community, you need to be a part of it.