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Open government for Winona? (11/02/2008)
By John Edstrom

Open government, as opposed to public business being conducted away from public scrutiny “behind closed doors” has become a major issue in the city elections to be held Tuesday, especially the mayor’s race. The issue has been raised by mayoral challenger Clarence Russell, who was taken to task by the Winona Daily News last Sunday, for “playing fast and loose with the truth,” and having “precious little backing” for his claims.

Russell promptly shot back two specific examples that had been printed by the Daily News itself, one of which employed the wording, “City discusses Pelzer behind closed doors.” Both occasions had been held by Minnesota Newspaper attorney Mark Anfinson to be violations of Minnesota’s open meeting laws. Russell then asked if the Daily News would “please help in explaining their change of position.”

In an editor’s note the point was made that the “Daily News was focusing on Miller’s most recent term...Both articles were written before the editor was a member of the editorial board” – a weird attempt to justify a rather nasty allegation by claiming ignorance of the matter.

The note went on to claim that “Both meetings were closed and were ruled legal.” But neither item was taken to court, and the opinion of the best legal authority, Mark Anfinson, was that the meetings were in violation of open meeting laws. Who ruled them legal? And who is playing fast and loose with the truth?

The issue of open government in Winona city government goes well beyond violating or skirting open meeting laws, involving a long-standing culture at City Hall under Mayor Miller, not just the details of properly posting meetings. It goes to the heart of how the city does business in matters of the utmost importance.

The first would be in the matter of the industrial park that turned into a retail center. City government convinced the voters to enact a special sales tax, and the merchants to collect it, by representing that the proceeds would go to build an industrial park which would benefit the whole community by bringing in wealth and good-paying jobs.

Then, with little warning and less opportunity for discussion it turned into a giant retail center, which has virtually none of the benefits of industrial development, and demands far greater investments in infrastructure. One of the key events in that whole saga was the September 2003 council meeting referenced by Russell, which Anfinson had held to be a sub-quorum open-meeting violation. Council member George Borzyskowski explained the closed meeting as a way to avoid “a big public bashing.” Mayor Miller, during this campaign, has endorsed a new sales tax as “the only shot we have” at transportation funding, much of it needed to untangle the mess out in the East End.

The second key issue on which City Hall has been less than forthcoming is string and balloon annexation, specifically two miles, $2.1 million worth, of city sewer and water strung out to a development in Pleasant Valley which will bring back a maximum of only $800,000 in hookup fees. It has never been explained how the Winona taxpayers who are paying for this will benefit.

During a City Council meeting in July 2004 City Manager Eric Sorenson, complained that a tip to a reporter by Wilson Township violated an agreement to keep the annexation business on the hush, and “not to play it out in the media.” Wilson Township Board Chair Mike Kirschmann denied any such pact, but did say that Mayor Miller had approached him personally about forging one to keep controversial annexation issues out of the news.

And then, of course, there is the issue of the Wilkie restoration, where private volunteers were put to a task in which the mayor and city government obviously had no intention they should succeed. If you are unclear on the many details and long history of that fiasco, ask any of the original members of the Paddleboat Committee and you will get an earful.

The most recent example of a secretive city government was last December’s announcement by the mayor that the theater facility which a committee had been working on for nearly a year, and was now ready to hire an architect for, was suddenly to be transformed to accommodate a sports arena. He had been planning this with “private businessmen” for over six months, but neglected any mention of it because, “We didn’t want to say anything. We just wanted to keep it cool.”

The Winona Post has not chosen to endorse any candidates in this election. If you believe that Mayor Miller has done a good job for these twelve years, vote him another four. But if you care about an open city government that conducts business in the light of day, Clarence Russell has addressed this problem fairly, accurately, and in detail, and he would be your man.




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