Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Kangaroo Court at the New Brighton City Council

I've been meaning to write about what's going on in New Brighton for a while now. The Star Tribune has picked up on the banana republic shenanigans and has filed this report:
Tensions have boiled over on the New Brighton City Council after a council member was accused of using city resources for her own benefit.

After an animated session six weeks ago, the council voted to censure Council Member Gina Bauman and relieve her from her appointed positions representing the city. Bauman believes her punishment was personal — and the situation’s fallout threatens to affect the council’s cohesion and productivity.

“As you can imagine, this is a highly sensitive situation,” said Dean Lotter, city manager.

Lotter described censure as “a public shaming” and said Bauman’s temporary removal from two committees, including the North Suburban Cable Commission, “is punishment for going out and representing the city poorly.”

Censure — essentially creating a public record that an official erred — is rare, and the state provides little guidance on it, said Lotter.
So how did Bauman represent New Brighton poorly? She asked the city attorney a question:
The censure came after Bauman consulted the city attorney in a private conversation about a petition she created to challenge a council decision. That phone call, which goes against council policy forbidding council members to use the city attorney for personal matters, resulted in City Attorney Troy Gilchrist resigning.
The question concerned a petition to put a change to the election schedule to the people of New Brighton. The council, on a 3-2 vote, decided to change the election schedule, which had been on odd-number years, to an even numbered year schedule. By doing so, the change shortened Bauman's 4-year term to three, and increased Mayor Val Johnson's 2-year term to three.
The boisterous dialogue at the April 26 work session between Johnson and Bauman — who squared off in the mayoral election last fall — extended to the regular meeting afterward.

Johnson said Bauman’s concern should have been brought to a council meeting, where the attorney could have commented publicly.

Bauman said there is no rule against her conferring with the attorney on what she believes is a city issue — a November council decision to hold future city elections during even years instead of odd — and that it’s been done before.
It has. There's more
Changing the city’s election years from odd to even was wrong, because the city had just had an election, Bauman said, and residents could have voted on the decision then. The switch means Johnson will be mayor another year while council members’ terms will be shortened a year, something voters didn’t authorize. 
That's right. The voters didn't authorize it. Even now, I would wager most voters remain unaware of the change. Back to the Star Tribune:
“What they did was they negated an election,” Bauman said. 
Bauman was absent from the first meeting and work session in May. On May 13, she dropped off a petition saying the election-year change should have been a ballot question. Bauman had the required signatures — 10 percent of city voters — but the petition was deemed invalid because she didn’t meet a statutory requirement to include a synopsis of the question on each page.

Some people didn’t know what they were signing, said Lotter.
As opposed to most people, who still don't know what the city council did in November.

I have lived in New Brighton for 19 years. I was at the original meeting in November, when the change was made. Although the current mayor is involved now, she wasn't in office when the original proposal was jammed down, a week after the election last year. There was no public discussion of this change beforehand, although it was pretty evident that the other three members of the city council had discussed it. I'm guessing that sort of discussion is just fine; it certainly doesn't seem to bother City Manager Lotter nearly as much as Bauman's pursuit of a legitimate question that affects the entire city, not just Bauman. One might also ask about the propriety of a city manager publicly disparaging a member of the council that employs him, but apparently that's okay, too.

The bottom line here is that Gina Bauman has been elected three times in New Brighton and the other members of the council don't like her because she challenges their decisions, generally on fiscal grounds. The other members of the city council like to spend money and Bauman is standing in the way of their wishes. The other council members don't much like transparency, either; if they did, they would have made this election schedule change a ballot question in the first place, instead of jamming it through when they hoped that no one would pay attention. The censure of Bauman is a show trial move and frankly it's embarrassing. I'd expect this sort of behavior from the student council at Highview Middle School, although that's an unfair comparison, because Highview adheres to higher ethical standards.

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