Last update: October 10, 2006 10:27 AM

Can't we all just get along? City officials, experts weigh in

When City Council members disagree, it can come at a cost of progress and public respect.

Sarah Moran, Star Tribune

With a string of city councils making news for their dysfunction in recent months and years, north-metro residents might wonder: What's next?

At times, councils in Anoka, Maplewood, Oak Grove and Roseville have digressed to the point that city business can't progress.

While many of the situations have improved, officials say that in general problems within local government seem to be escalating.

Local leaders, residents and academics weigh in on why this is happening and what can be done.

Q What are the root causes of City Council dysfunction?

A People don't understand how local government works and what the City Council's role is, candidates campaign on a couple of hot-button issues and can't work on the big picture, council members hold grudges against one another when votes don't go their way and discussions become focused on political posturing instead of issues.

Oak Grove Mayor Oscar Olson said there's an adjustment period for new council members to understand how the process works and to see "we're not going to change the world overnight like we thought we would."

Adjustment usually takes a couple of months, he said, but in Oak Grove, newly elected council members were overreaching or misunderstanding their role for years, he said. That has subsided in recent months.

In Roseville, the Twin Lakes redevelopment has been controversial both within the community and within the council.

The debate within the Roseville council was disappointing to some residents, said Dick Lambert, treasurer of the Roseville Citizens League.

"A lot of times the discourse tended to be very personal rather than on the issues," he said. "The Twin Lakes issue ruffled feathers, and it's human nature, once you have your nose rubbed the wrong way, you really have to fight hard to get back on track and do what's best for the community if you're still mad at the person."

David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University who has worked with many city officials to help them get along, solve problems and reach goals, said a lot of the problems in Maplewood and in Roseville when John Kysylyczyn was mayor stemmed from ineffective leadership and an inability to put aside personal agendas.

His conclusion after working with Maplewood: "They have to learn to act like adults and cooperate" and think about "the things you should have learned in kindergarten: Share, make nice, play well."

Q What does it take to work well together?

A Realizing your role is to make policy decisions rather than run the city, moving on once votes are taken and aligning with the council and participating in training, such as the two-day programs offered by the League of Minnesota Cities to teach new officials about city operations.

Roseville Council Member Dean Maschka said a good council "is kind of like a marriage" in that "once the decision is made, the people on the other side have the ability to let go."

A good council, Schultz said, has members who trust one another and their staff, communicate well, can persuade one another, and have "figured out how to put public agendas ahead of any personal agendas."

Q Why does there seem to be more of a problem lately?

A Schultz said dissolving to the point of dysfunction "is becoming far more common, alarmingly in the last few years." He said one reason is ignorance about what government does. Another is, "In the last generation, whether it's talk radio or whatever it is, people run because they're angry about something. This anger is what gets them to run, and they hold on to these deeply felt suspicions about government being the enemy, being crooks."

Government is also getting more complicated, and local officials have to deal with federal, state and local government and agency requirements and regulations, Maschka said, noting that the level of cynicism has risen substantially since he entered public office 16 years ago.

Kevin Frazell, director of member services for the League of Minnesota Cities, said, "It's a big business, and it's complex, and it's not usually black and white."

Q What is the public's role?

A Pay attention to how council members are acting and progressing at meetings, use your vote to eliminate dysfunction and get involved in citizen groups to keep tabs on your council.

Olson said, "It's up to the voters -- the voters educate themselves on what's going on in the city and decide what kind of people they want to provide the leadership they want for the city."

Lambert said residents must keep an eye on City Hall.

"There's got to be a group of citizens that are able to identify when things are starting to go to pot in their government and somehow put focus on that."


Sarah Moran 612-673-7512