City Councilman Bob Freyberg’s My View of Sept 11, contained some statements that require a response. Nearly a year ago the City imposed an unannounced moratorium on rental permits in the City of North Mankato. Rather than organize a task force of citizens, landlords, tenants and city staff to explore the perceived problems, the City hired Bolton and Menk to research the only four cities in the entire State of Minnesota that currently have rental caps. No research was done to see how the great majority of Minnesota cities without rental caps operate, or how they deal with problem rentals. This approach assured that rental caps would be the only solution North Mankato would consider. The preparation of North Mankato’s new rental cap policy took place without any public input meetings.
North Mankato’s proposal was not released to the public until early August, leaving only a short time for discussions before the city rental moratorium expired. Only then were two public input meetings scheduled for August 17, and August 24, on the same day of the week, and the same hour, precluding anyone with a time conflict from making either meeting. Invitation letters, dated August 8, were sent only to city rental license holders. No direct invitations were sent to tenants or citizens with rental complaints, or to general property owners, and public advertisement of the meetings was minimal.
I attended both invitational meetings. At the first meeting, citizens had questions and they wanted a general discussion, but administrator John Harrenstein announced, “There will be no questions at this time” After a five minute interchange on how to proceed, the frustrated participants were divided quickly into four groups for “staff presentations,” and they were only allowed to reassemble as a group an hour later after the participant numbers had dwindled to less than half. For the second session, a week later, the city hired consultants to handle the meeting. The first few minutes were spent assuring the participants that this time all voices would be heard. Mr. Harrenstein and the mayor were present, but did not participate in the discussion. The vast majority of participants at both sessions were not in favor of a 10% cap, but did want to see more rigorous enforcement of rental rules by both property owners and tenants.
On September 6, the Council held a public hearing and vote on the issue. To make their decision, Council persons, including Mr. Freyberg, had to rely on information from the public input meetings brought back to them by Harrenstein and the Mayor, the result of having not been in attendance at the public meetings themselves. Over 40 people attended the September 6th public hearing to express their near unanimous opinion in favor of stricter rules and against a 10% cap. These were the very citizens who should have been part of the initial work in developing a policy many months before, but the council’s method of formulating policy disallowed such participation. Citizens present were allowed a three minute statement each. Then the Council, without much discussion, voted four to one to adopt the new 10% rule. A tape of that meeting is available on the City website.
In his My View article, Mr. Freyberg writes that the city does have a format for developing policy, but sadly, it precludes citizen participation until the very end when change is nearly impossible. It is a format that has been used in the past to effectively eliminate direct citizen participation in policy making, and it was used again in developing a city-wide rental policy. Transparency and inclusiveness in process is as important as transparency in actions taken. When citizens did attempt at two public meetings to participate, they were accused by Administrator Harrenstein, in print, of “trying to hijack the meeting.” When citizens attended the public hearing to ask for a more reasonable result they were charged In Freyberg’s My View with “the use of biased proclamations”.
The rental rules in North Mankato are definitely in need of change, all agree to that, but what really needs changing is the way in which North Mankato City Government involves citizens in the decision making process. Many of us, as concerned citizens, believe that non-compliant landlords and tenants should be made to answer for their actions, but that the city should not paint all tenants and landlords with the same broad brush. The involvement of concerned citizens in the process of government is helpful to the process. No one has all the answers , but by working together we can come to better solutions to challenging issues.