The Free Press of Mankato, Nov. 22
Review Senate building deal
A new $90 million Minnesota Senate office building that escaped a rigorous public vetting process before its approval last year should be slowed or halted until it can be reviewed by the Legislature and garner public support.
The project was, according to a news report in the Star Tribune, "included in the tax bill late in the session with little debate." The project was not vetted by the House Capital Investment committee, a public process for vetting the vast majority of state bonding projects. Chair Alice Hausman told the Star Tribune she was frustrated by this process and suggested that some Capitol projects seem to get special treatment. She said: "Some have gone to the head of the line."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk defended the way the bill was approved in a statement to Minnesota Public Radio this fall after former Republican legislator Jim Knoblach filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the maneuver. Bakk said it went through the typical process for such projects, which include being vetted by legislative counsel and the public finance experts at the Minnesota Office of Management and Budget.
He said other projects have been included in the public finance provisions of the tax bill over the years and this was consistent with that. The project will be funded by revenue bonds versus typical general obligation bonds that would come out of the bonding committee.
Bakk may be right on the technical legality of including the project in the tax bill, but he should consider the perception among taxpayers that the process does not seem consistent with sound public scrutiny.
This sleight of hand legislative maneuver came at a time when dozens of projects around the state — some more worthy than a new office building — were rejected because there wasn't enough money.
The approval of what appears to be a pet project of Senate leadership erodes credibility of the bonding process and the public finance process. The proposed new Senate building should have to go through the bonding committee like other projects.
Some are already raising questions about the need for the project.
Democrat Hausman questioned the necessity of a five-story office building with attached parking to accommodate Senate offices that currently take up two stories. Supporters of the project have apparently told Hausman that when the Senate moves out of the state office building, the House can have two more floors, to which Hausman replied: "We don't need two more floors."
Proponents of the Senate building said it will house Democrats and Republicans together, that it will have expansive meetings rooms that can accommodate 300 people and allow more access to legislators and the legislative process.
Gov. Mark Dayton suggested the building is needed to house legislators outside the Capitol and that the office building is part of a bipartisan plan for the larger Capital renovation project. He seemed to wince at the opulence planned for the building, which will have a four-story glass wall overlooking the capital, a reflecting pool and a fitness center.
Bakk, a carpenter by trade, told news outlets last summer that he would like the building to be architecturally significant and a monument to Minnesota.
Accommodating public access is a worthy goal. One can argue having both parties in the same building also might be a good idea. The problem here is the way it was quietly approved without the proper vetting.
We suspect the project was approved quietly for fear that taxpayers in a tough economy would find it excessive. That's a reasonable assumption lawmakers ought to seriously consider. While some Minnesotans are struggling to meet their basic needs, they see their representatives treating themselves to a pretty obvious "want."
If there project is needed and if there are benefits to the public in terms of public access and participation in the legislative process, legislators should have no problem making their case.
They should reverse direction and get some kind of public support. The project should go through the regular legislative vetting process. That would restore some credibility to the fairness of the legislative system for approving building projects. It's also the right thing to do.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, Nov. 23
Overcoming inertia at MnSCU and beyond
The pull of the status quo is strong.
Individually, we get comfortable and would rather not change. In organizations, it's easier to do things the way they've always been done.
At the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, a new blueprint for system-wide change is meant to overhaul the way the state's largest higher education system -- and one of the nation's biggest -- does business, the Pioneer Press reported last week.
The system's "Charting the Future" plan is intended to increase collaboration across the system of 31 colleges and universities on 54 campuses in 47 communities. The plan "is essential to our ability to serve students in a permanent environment of scarce resources, continuous change and increasing expectations," according to the recommendations.
It will be a challenge, and leaders know it. "This is going to be hard; it's going to take persistence," Chancellor Steven Rosenstone told reporter Mila Koumpilova.
It takes a strong will to overcome the inertia that keeps organizations on familiar paths.
"Being successful at innovation requires a higher level of risk than maintaining the status quo," Jim Mulder, retired executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, told us.
In our public bodies, where risk-takers risk losing office, "we have zero tolerance for failure," said Mulder, who is completing a doctoral thesis on leadership, conflict management and innovation in local government. And a 24/7 news cycle makes it even more difficult, he said.
Mulder's concerns apply, as well, to prospects for Gov. Mark Dayton's promised "Unsession" drive to streamline state government during the 2014 legislative session.
Public officials "want to be in win-lose games," Mulder explained, but "innovation typically is thought of as a win-win" proposition.
"Right now in our political world, that doesn't work very well," said Mulder, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2010 with Independence Party candidate Tom Horner.
The MnSCU chancellor will encounter resistance. When it comes to transforming his organization to one that "plays as a team," Rosenstone will fare best if he can find a way to create an "all boats float" environment, Mulder said, so that success of the organization is based on "the total success of all the campuses."
That can't mean, however, that everybody's happy at every stop along the way, or that every bit of change-pain is shared equally. To govern is to choose, as the adage goes, and choosing what measures define success is key.
Concerns have been aired, and that will continue. Among them is over-centralization, and, in his meeting with us, the chancellor took pains to emphasize that more collaboration doesn't mean more control from the system office in downtown St. Paul.
The plan also has been labeled by some as "metro-centric," said Kevin Lindstrom, president of Minnesota State College Faculty, the bargaining representative for those at the state's two-year schools.
Lindstrom said the plan "relies on population trends to justify moves regarding offerings and campuses." That's a concern when it comes to campuses in greater Minnesota, where "their value extends way beyond just simple population trends."
And there are lots of moving parts to consider. "When you look at how programs are put together, they are integrated; they build on each other," said Nancy Black, president of the Inter Faculty Organization, which represents faculty at the seven state universities. "If you have change in one part of the program, it's going to affect the rest of the program."
Rosenstone said he would present an implementation plan to trustees in January and that he expects the process to take three to four years.
When it comes to change, "We have to start somewhere," Lindstrom said. "This is as good a point as any."
At this point, Rosenstone's reliance on the promise of a collaborative spirit is probably well-advised. But neither he nor his board should underestimate how much force is necessary to overcome inertia. If they can generate that force from within, great. If not, they'll have to exert it from without.
Duluth News Tribune, Nov. 25
Restore Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission's role in preservation
A history-rich community like Duluth has no shortage of folks watching out for landmarks, cherished structures and other pieces of the past that demand to be saved and that tell the stories of who we are and from where we came.
For decades, the Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission appropriately and rightly has been a leader in such efforts, including its responsibility to "recommend to the Duluth City Council designation of heritage preservation landmarks and districts," as is mandated in the commission's bylaws, which were adopted in 1989.
Inexplicably, however, the commission's responsibility for recommending landmark designations was stripped away by the city. It happened when a sweeping, new Unified Development Chapter was adopted in 2010. Suddenly, only a structure's owner could offer a nomination for historic designation, according to the UDC.
City councilors voted for the chapter but had no idea they also were reducing the heritage commission's important and longtime historic-preservation role, City Councilor Sharla Gardner said in a News Tribune report this month. "It was a mistake that got by everyone when the UDC went through," she said.
Councilors' failure to fully read and understand what they were approving aside, Gardner and fellow City Councilor Dan Hartman deserve credit for coming up with a plan to undo what apparently was accidentally done. They have a resolution to restore the heritage preservation commission's role. It's expected to be considered for the first time today when the City Council meets. With full support from all councilors, the resolution can be adopted at the earliest opportunity, which is Dec. 9.
This apparently unintentional and certainly unfortunate consequence of the UDC came to light in October when the heritage preservation commission was considering its nomination of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Duluth. The commission learned it no longer had the ability. And the church's owner, the St. Mary Star of the Sea parish in Duluth, objected. But the parish's reason for objecting — that it would be wrong to force landmark status on a property owner — was a bit of a puzzler.
Landmark status wouldn't be forced on anyone simply through the restoration of the heritage preservation commission's nomination ability. Any nominations from the commission would have to withstand a review by the Minnesota State Historical Preservation Office. Then the matter would go to the Planning Commission and a public hearing. Finally, the nomination, if still alive, would go to the City Council and yet another public hearing. The City Council would make the final call. And if a property owner were still unsatisfied, the case could be appealed to a district court judge.
"I would hope this proposal (to restore the commission's nomination role) is not controversial once people understand how many safeguards are built into the process," Planning Commission member Drew Digby told the News Tribune for the story on Nov. 16.
There's more at stake here, too, than just a sound process for identifying and, hopefully, ultimately saving our city's history. There's lots of money at stake. The change threatens Duluth's U.S. Department of Interior-issued status as a Certified Local Government. The status allows the city to receive state and federal grants for projects related to the city's heritage. Tens of thousands of dollars a year are in jeopardy.
The City Council has good and logical reasons to undo what it accidentally did. Undoing so would allow the Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission to get back to doing what it has done so well for so long: watching out for landmarks, cherished structures and other pieces of our past, giving them, with attention, at least a fighting chance at being saved and preserved for future generations of Duluthians.