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Council can regain public’s trust

John Diers January 17, 2015

It’s a new year, but the Prior Lake City Council and city staff have plenty of old business left over from the old, and fences to mend, if they are to have credibility in the new.

People are angry. Consider the number and the tone of letters in the Prior Lake American and the standing room-only crowds at city council meetings.

A recent example — one of many — is the controversy over Stemmer Ridge Road. It began last summer when homeowners stumbled on the city’s proposal to turn their street into a thoroughfare from Mystic Lake Casino to County Road 12 and bring up to 6,000 cars a day through their neighborhood. It’s true the road is part of the city’s long-range plan—always a convenient excuse—but the residents weren’t aware of it when they bought their homes, nor did the city come to them openly and candidly with its plans and ask for their advice and guidance. Instead, they were given fait accompli.

Complicating matters, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) recently purchased the 95 acres of land where the proposed road is to be built and announced that it wants to develop it for housing. Meanwhile, city staff has been in quiet discussions with the SMSC over a quid pro quo agreement that would have the SMSC pay for the road if the city supports (or, presumably, stays silent) on its application to put the land in tribal trust and take it off city, school district and county tax roles, forever. The council deferred action at its Jan. 12 meeting.

The council should reject the proposed agreement. The SMSC may eventually prevail through the legal process, but the city of Prior Lake should not sign off on an agreement that will set a precedent for future SMSC trust applications and cost the city, school district and county millions of dollars of tax revenue. That revenue loss will far exceed the cost, or the benefit, of the road. It will also create higher property tax bills for city residents and businesses.

The SMSC operates several highly successful businesses and provides jobs for Prior Lake residents. It is an important asset and has been generous to the community, but, like any business, it should be responsible for tax obligations on land that it’s developing.

It’s ironic this follows a council decision to hike property taxes by 10 percent. I attended the Dec. 8 meeting and public hearing and expected a presentation that used real numbers and linked those numbers to revenues, specific projects and spending plans together with a justification for city spending. A large percentage of the city’s budget goes to wages and fringe benefits, yet there was no discussion of this at all. In fact, there was no substance whatsoever, just generalizations and threats from the city manager about closing the library and reducing city services and murmurings from a council member about the fund balance and budget reserve. Worse, when the hearing closed, the council immediately voted to raise taxes without pausing or reflecting on what it had heard and deferring action to the next meeting. It was insensitive and disrespectful to the dozens of people who attended and spoke in opposition to the increase, but the council had already made up its mind.

The council can redeem itself and regain the public trust, but it has to take charge of the city staff, or make changes. It can begin by making council workshops more available to the public. They are open meetings, as required by state statute, but are typically held on Mondays at 5 p.m., when most people are at work, nor are they televised or recorded, or streamed on the city’s website. There are no minutes. The council takes no official action, but plenty of important issues are discussed, followed by formal action at subsequent council meetings. While these are informational sessions for the benefit of the council, the public should have an opportunity at the end of a workshop to ask brief questions of the council, the staff and presenters. Copies of the material presented and discussed at the meeting should be available to the public at the meeting and on the city’s website. Doing this would be good for the council and the public. It would encourage a better understanding of the issues and the council’s work. No one likes surprises. Ask the residents of Stemmer Ridge.

There will always be disagreements and controversy, but the council needs to take a more open approach to resolving them and give that same direction to the staff. Perceptions are important. How the mayor and council work through the big issues in the coming year will determine if city government has any public trust left at the end of 2015. Right now that public trust is at low ebb.