GOVERNMENT BY AMBUSH? - UNLISTED ITEMS ON CITY COUNCILS' AGENDAS PROMPT CRITICISM
MARISA AGHA, Pioneer Press
February 8, 2003

Joan Olson was disappointed last month when she learned about St. Paul city leaders' decision to grant a license to a neighborhood record store to host live music.

Olson didn't attend a City Council meeting where it was brought up. In fact, she says she didn't know the council would take the action it did. What Olson did not know is the item did not appear on the council's published agenda.

Some call them "ambush" items, issues or actions not listed on agendas of city councils but still acted upon. From the axing of the Roseville city newsletter to the hiring process for a new fire chief in St. Paul, these surprise topics can leave citizens feeling left out. Councils can do it, but they shouldn't make a habit of it, said Carl Neu, a Lakewood, Colo.-based government consultant.

"It becomes government by ambush," Neu said. "The public has a right to know what the public's business is."

In St. Paul, these unanticipated items are raised "under suspension."

Sometimes the issues are mundane, like a donation to a local booster club. Other times, however, major policy decisions, like a moratorium on convenience stores, are raised without notice.

In Olson's case, she received a letter from Council Member Pat Harris about the record store issue coming up at the Jan. 15 meeting, but she felt the letter discouraged her attendance by stating that there would not be a public hearing. Olson had participated in earlier public hearings on the matter.

And then the item did not appear on the City Council's prepublished agenda -- it was left off due to an error, Harris said.

While the St. Paul council was acting within its legal authority to grant the license, Olson still wanted to be heard. She had long opposed the Grand Avenue store's live music.

"We're all encouraged as citizens to get involved in the process, but then every agency has its own approach to business and they don't have a cheat sheet," Olson said. "It's just so darn bureaucratic."

Harris explained that the council had recently enacted a new classification that would allow the store to play live music with certain conditions and that the city had to act.

"I don't like suspension items," Harris said. "I've been complaining about them for three years. Sometimes they're necessary. ...You've got to move things through to keep the city business operating."

Unexpected issues are common practice in neighboring Roseville, where items such as the abolition of the city's ethics commission; the elimination of the city newsletter and then its reinstatement following a public outcry; and the approval of a possible trip for Mayor John Kysylyczyn to attend a mayors' conference in Washington, D.C., were all actions taken without prior agenda notice.

Kysylyczyn, who frequently brings forward non-agenda items, initially declined to comment for this story. However, in a later e-mail, the mayor stated that he is opposed to action on non-agenda items because of the lack of public notice, but that he is following a policy approved by his council colleagues.

Roseville Council Member Tom Kough said he generally doesn't like surprise items coming up at council meetings.

"I think John brings it up the most," Kough said. "Most things should be on (the agenda) in advance."

Roseville resident Tom Kelly, who regularly follows council meetings in his city, says that when a council acts on unanticipated issues, the citizens are the losers. Citizens, he says, can offer a historical perspective that staff and elected officials sometimes don't have.

"It reduces city business to the personal choices of members of the council," Kelly said.

Surprise agenda items are not the norm in Eagan, but they would disturb City Hall regular Elaine Eyre, who follows the council's business.

"By doing that, it's like it's almost a done deal," Eyre said of the approach. "It just doesn't give the citizens the opportunity to express either their concerns or opinions or ask questions."

State law requires cities to give notice of meeting dates and times, but not specific agenda items, said Jeannette Bach, research manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. City councils can make up their own bylaws about addressing non-agenda items, she said.

"Ultimately, it's up to the council," Bach said.

Neu, the government consultant, said the bottom line is that when councils consistently take up items their citizens don't know about, the democratic process suffers.

"It makes people angry," Neu said. "They've been blindsided. All this does is increase their cynicism about government."

Marisa Agha can be reached at magha@pioneerpress.com or (651) 292-1892.

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