Tuesday, September 20, 2016

10 Percent Rental Rule

Recently the City of North Mankato established a new rental cap of 10%. I proposed an alternative to the city that was based on clear rules and strong enforcement, but the city chose to not even discuss it. What follows is a brief description of the City's process. Check out the video of the September 6th meeting on the City's website. It is a good example of how the City deals with citizen input.

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.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Why I'm running

As a lifelong resident of the Mankato area, I have lived in North Mankato for the last 45 years. My family goes back to the founding of the city. My great grandfather, Wendel Hodapp, was North Mankato’s first mayor.

I became involved in City of North Mankato issues working first on changing the Marigold II project, and later working to create a nature park from the Tschohl property on Lor Ray Drive. Those projects caused me to become concerned about city priorities and particularly about the dismissive way city officials deal with citizen who bring issues forward.

Some examples:

Three years ago a developer proposed buying the Marigold 2 site for a six story 108 unit complex. He offered $1 for the site and requested TIF. Initially the city approved and gave the developer variances for the project. Citizens raised questions about the variance process and the appearance of the project but were ignored until a suit was brought that saved the entrance to North Mankato from a six story monstrosity. A different developer then came forward and offered the city $200,000 for the property and did not ask for TIF. Thankfully, the view of the bluff as you enter North Mankato was preserved, and the city got $200,000 rather than $1 for the property.

Two years ago a citizen’s group organized to help the city purchase the Tschohl property which was up for sale, for use as a nature park using it to connect lower and upper North Mankato. Sixty people attended a planning commission meeting, ninety attended a council meeting advocating for this project. In six months, the group raised $41,000 and secured a pledge of $100,000 over two years from an anonymous donor for the purchase. The city rejected participating in the proposal, claiming a lack of funds and an unwilling seller. No reasonable offer was ever made to the owner to explore a potential sale, and it was hard to believe the city’s claim of poverty when within a year the city spent $574,000 to build a parking lot for Belgrade businesses (with no citizen petitions or business contributions) as well as over $400,000 to construct the famous “Bike Trail to Nowhere.” It is not that a parking lot or a bike trail are bad ideas in themselves, it is a matter of priorities. The Tschohl property represents the last undeveloped bluff lot in the city, as well as being the last remnant of the century farm that was the origin of much of upper North Mankato. A parking lot can be built any time, but once potential parkland is commercially developed, that parkland and this piece of our heritage will be lost forever. This represents an egregious lack of long-term vision on the part of the city.

In the three years of attending council meetings I have seen numerous occasions in which citizens or groups of citizens have had their concerns dismissed. Over a three year period I personally brought the following issues forward to either individual council members, staff, or at formal council meetings and almost all were dealt with by silence.

They include:
  • Re-establishment of a permanent citizen park board.
  • Establishment of an Historic Preservation Commission as mandated by the 20/20 planning process that North Mankato signed on to ten years ago, but which North Mankato failed to implement.
  • Establishment of a city code of ethics for council and city committees.
  • Passage of an historic levy to aid in the preservation and promotion of North Mankato’s historical heritage
  • Establishment of a city wide policy regulating amplified noise.
  • Creation of a citizen design committee that involves neighborhoods in all future development projects so that new construction fits into existing neighborhoods.
  • Education of city staff on proper tree pruning techniques in order to improve tree viability and streetscape appearance.
  • Development of a creative solution to rental policy that would both regulate rentals and not deny homeowners the right to rent their properties.
There was there no discussion of the issues raised. In fact, there was often no comment at all, positive or negative. This is no way to run a city unless that is what you want to do…run a city, with no citizen “interference.” That is not my view of good government. Council, staff and administrators are to serve the people, not the other way around.

In the last three years I have also observed other citizens bring issues forward at council sessions only to meet a similar fate.

I want a better government, one that at least gives consideration to citizen ideas, one that has more vision for the city than just parking lots and Stalin-era apartment complexes. I want citizens to have as much voice as developers. I want divergent voices to be heard and responded to. I want development, but I want development to be compatible with the existing city scape and to be sustainable.

If you, the voter sees no problem with city government as it operates today, if you are not concerned about recent financial expenditures like:
  • $574,000 for a parking lot for businesses with no business contribution.
  • $400,000+ for a bike trail along highway 14 that will serve only a small fraction of the city’s population.
  • $400,000 for a facelift to city hall that is already over budget two weeks into its construction.
If these priorities pose no problem for you, if you feel yourself well represented, if you feel that no change in the way city government operates is necessary, then I am not your candidate, vote for the status quo.

I want a government for North Mankato that prioritizes sustainability, that looks far into the future before making decisions about the present, and that builds the future while preserving the past. The choice in November will be up to the voters. In a democracy, you get the government you elect.

— Tom Hagen