Council, commissioners debate the ethics of speaking as 'private citizen' at public forums

To speak or not to speak, that was the question at an informal work session between the Planning Commission and the Cloquet City Council Tuesday evening.

To speak or not to speak, that was the question at an informal work session between the Planning Commission and the Cloquet City Council Tuesday evening.

More specifically, discussion centered around whether or not city councilors or city staff should speak - as private citizens or as elected officials - during any public hearing held by the planning commission and vice versa.

"It's one thing to come to a public hearing and sit in an audience and listen - it's another thing to get up and address the Planning Commission," said City Planner Al Cottingham, broaching the subject of creating a city code of ethics for staff and elected officials.

When Councilor Dave Manderfeld said he didn't want to influence the commission's decision-making process - "I want you guys to stew over it and then get your input for the council," he said - Councilor David Bjerkness clarified the issue.

"I think Al is talking about actual councilors attending public meetings and standing up," said Bjerkness, who is the most senior member on the current city council.


"In short, keep your mouth shut, because you will get your turn," he added with a chuckle.

The issue, both governing bodies agreed, is that it is difficult to draw the line, even if an official states he or she is speaking as a private citizen. Speaking at a public hearing, because of the person's position, may give his or her opinion more weight than other citizens' opinions.

"I spoke about the landfill at the city council meeting," Planning Commission Chair John Sanders said, adding that planning commissioners are, of course, also residents of Cloquet.

Mayor Bruce Ahlgren said it might have been more appropriate if Sanders had instead spoken as the planning commission's "minority view" at that meeting, because the commission majority had recommended the council approve the landfill conditional use permit.

Legally, City Administrator Brian Fritsinger said, there isn't any issue with commission members or councilors speaking at other forums. But whether it's appropriate was the question.

"To hear what the community is thinking and saying [at a planning commission meeting] is very useful for the council," Fritsinger said. "But for them to hear what your opinion is can change the scope of things."

No official action was taken during Tuesday's work session, although the discussion was lively throughout. Other talking points included the council's failure to vote one way or another on the proposed chicken ordinance, as well as possible rental registration/inspection requirements, outdoor sales, a sand- and gravel-overlay district, kennel licenses and the city's comprehensive plan, which was last updated in 2007.

During the formal City Council meeting Tuesday, councilors and the mayor took the unusual step of voting to approve payment to Clark Builders LLC for work the small contracting company is doing at Chef's Marketplace as part of the Small Cities Development Program. The city requires that all bills for payment be submitted before noon on Friday so it can be approved at the following week's city council meeting, but the Clark Builders bill had not been submitted by Lakes and Pines (which is overseeing the project) until Friday afternoon.


Contractor Darrell Clark said it would affect the project's timeline if the small contracting company had to wait until after the next City Council meeting March 5 for payment.

City Development Director Holly Butcher said she had toured the site and verified the work was ongoing.

"I don't have any problem [with approving a payment]," Ahlgren said. "I understand the issue with being a small company and waiting for payment."

Councilors voted unanimously to approve payment.

In other matters Tuesday, Cloquet City Council members and Mayor Bruce Ahlgren:

- Approved a new license for Walgreens to sell tobacco and tobacco products. The new Cloquet Walgreens store on Doddridge Avenue is expected to open in March.

- Approved an agreement between the Minnesota Department of Revenue and the city for collection of the half-cent local option sales tax approved by voters in November. The Department of Revenue will collect the local sales and use taxes, which will be sent to the city minus a fee for collecting the sales tax. The extra half-percent sales tax will go into effect April 1, and is expected to generate approximately $550,000 in revenue annually which can be used for improvements to city infrastructure, parks and economic development.

- Approved the purchase of a Vactor Jet Rodder sewer cleaning machine at a cost of $354,882. The truck-mounted unit uses a high pressure water jet that is pulled through both sanitary and storm sewer mains to clean and flush debris from the sewer to a downstream manhole where it is then vacuumed out and into a tank that is mounted on the truck. Council member Steve Langley was the only dissenting vote. When asked why he voted "no," Langley said simply that he had been "talking to people for the past couple days."


- Set two public hearings for the 7 p.m. March 20 City Council meeting. One hearing will deal with the sale of tax-exempt bonds for the purpose of refinancing Evergreen Knoll, owned by the non-profit HADC Cloquet, LLC. The other hearing will focus on proposed assessments for last summer's 18th Street reconstruction project from Wilson to Prospect Avenue and on Prospect from 18th to 20th Street. Anyone whose property was affected by the project is welcome to speak at the hearing.

- Finally, councilors will not appoint a new person to the city's Parks Commission until its next meeting. There are also current vacancies on the city's Cable Commission, Library Board and Library Foundation. Anyone who is interested in serving on one of these city boards or commissions can contact City Administrator Brian Fritsinger at 218-879-3347 for more information.

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