Citizens, First Amendment sidestepped by city
Open letter to Mayor Chris Johnson on the Northland Mall Project:
I helped gather over 1,000 signatures for a petition to ask the City Council for a referendum on the new city hall. I would like a mediator to review the facts to see if what you have done is honest and forthcoming.
I am not saying this is not the correct project, nor am I against a new city hall. What I am saying is that the First Amendment gives each and every one of us the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
What I have heard from the City Council is that because you have engaged the Economic Development Authority (EDA), that somehow that relinquishes you of honoring the spirit and intent of the U.S. Constitution by not allowing grievances to be redressed.
You and the EDA are essentially the same entity, with overlapping members. The city has asked the EDA to do the project so you are not bound by city rules. This does not feel right.
Mayor, you of all people should be intimately familiar with the concerns of the people on this issue. Your law firm was engaged by the citizens of Wyoming to require the same referendum of the Wyoming City Council on new city facilities. With your legal wizardry, somehow you feel you have gamed the system by strong-arming the residents of your community on the same issue you protected the residents from in Wyoming. This makes little sense to me.
If referendum was right for the citizens of Wyoming, then why is not right for your own community?
–The writer is a former mayor of Forest Lake.
Informed decision made in good faith
In response to Stev Stegner’s open letter, I want to assure all that the process leading up to, and the decision on, the Northland Mall redevelopment/Public Safety Building/City Hall was done openly and honesty, and in accordance with all rules.
In early 2012, during the Community Conversation series, we heard clear messages asking us to address the blight on Highway 61, specifically the Northland Mall site. Many requested we address our long-standing facilities needs. We listened. My goal has never been to attempt to please everyone. Rather, I simply try to make the best decisions for the city.
Some have wrongly claimed it unusual or improper to use EDA lease/revenue bonds for this project. In just the past five years, over 20 other cities in Minnesota have used such bonds for projects that were in part or entirely public developments. I understand Hugo funded its fire hall with such bonds. Our project is a private/public redevelopment of the entire Northland Mall site. It includes private redevelopment, private new development, a new parking lot and the city facility.
Mr. Stegner states that, though he is not necessarily against the project, he wants to ensure that the citizens have the right to petition their government and he asserts that this decision should have been put to a referendum. The citizens did submit a petition to the City and it was received. Nothing has been done to infringe on the First Amendment right to so petition.
As to why not a referendum, I don’t believe a referendum is a good decision-making model. Nearly all decisions by corporations, organizations and governments in this country are made by elected boards that consist of relatively few people. We’ve evolved to this model for good reason. Such boards are able to make deliberate and well-informed decisions and, in so doing, provide a vision for the organization and leadership to get it there.
This recent cry for a referendum is new. During Mr. Stegner’s four years as mayor, all decisions were made by council, without a single referendum. In fact, shortly before he became mayor, the first space-needs study for this project had just been completed with recommendations very similar to our 2012 study. He and his council decided to not move the project forward, and made that decision without a referendum. In the meantime, the project costs likely did increase.
I sense that the push for a referendum is not about process. Rather, it is project opposition. I understand that many don’t agree with it. We cannot please everyone. I know that, after many hours of study and deliberation, the EDA and council members voted what they thought was best for this city. After considering all facts and input, eight of the 10 people on the EDA and council, including me, believed that this project was the right move for the City of Forest Lake.
–The writer is mayor of Forest Lake.