Reporters were oddly absent from a special meeting of the Levee Park Committee earlier this month. City staff failed to provide public notice prior to a September 10 session, in which committee members discussed, among other specific ideas, constructing a new building in Levee Park to house a Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Visitors' Center.
The committee discussed the possibility of public funding of a new building in the park, which could be leased to the FWS, members told the Winona Post in interviews after the meeting was held. The subterranean structure of the levee, and the waterworks mechanism, prohibit construction in much of the park, making the area between the Boathouse Restaurant and the former Wilkie patio the only option for a new building, according to committee members. Siting a FWS Visitors' Center nearby, but outside of the current park, was also mentioned, though committee members stated that they did not discuss specific potential locations outside of the park.
An interpretive center at Levee Park has been talked about for decades. In the late 1970s a levee park committee proposed a $3 million interpretive center at the foot of Main Street to be operated by the Winona County Historical Society and to include a waterfall. Funding for that project fell short. In 1991, another committee proposed a $7 million interpretive center that would have housed the FWS and featured a skywalk over the river. Funding for that project fell through. Last spring, the FWS spoke publicly about its interest in having a new, riverside location in Winona. Since then, however, the committee had not discussed the concept in detail until the recent press-free meeting.
meetings not open
In a written statement earlier this week, Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl, under the advisement of City Attorney Chris Hood, stated that the Levee Park Committee — which was convened by the mayor, is organized by city staff, and reports to the City Council — "is not a committee of the city" and, therefore, "is not subject to the Open Meeting Law."
The Minnesota Open Meeting Law requires that meetings of all government bodies, committees, subcommittees, boards, and departments be open to the public and provide notice of meetings. However, rulings in two controversial Minnesota Supreme Court cases created a loophole in the Open Meeting Law for temporary committees.
"Even though we're not legally required to send it out, because it's a committee, we want to send it out," Ubl said in an interview last week. It was a mistake that city staff did not send notices to news media, he added. A late-August meeting had to be rescheduled, and city staff emailed notices of the new meeting date to committee members, but not to news outlets.
It is unfortunate that reporters were not notified, Frank Pomeroy, committee co-chair, said, because the committee relies on news coverage to inform the public about its work. "From the start of this committee, we have wanted to make it open to the news media. My understanding was that you would be contacted," he told the Winona Post.
"There are no secrets there," commented committee member Bernadette Mahfood. "We're very open, intentionally so."
It is of concern that notice was not provided for this meeting, but the news media and the public did not miss much, committee and city council member Pam Eyden commented. In 2007, city officials met with developers without notice to eye Levee Park's potential as a site for a $30 million performing arts and convention center. When reminded of the 2007 site visit, Eyden said, "there was nothing like a multi-million dollar development," discussed at the recent meeting. However, as noted above, the last discussion of a FWS center at the park included a multi-million dollar development proposal.
Boat landings, bike trail, and path to WSU
At the September 10 meeting, the committee also discussed its desire to usher boaters into the park. Docking at the park is an option used by some, but the swift current running against the park's edge deters many boaters, committee chair Frank Pomeroy explained. Somehow "we've got to get people off the river," whether by building pilings to shelter docking boats from the current or by creating a nearby space for boats to land, he added. Building a public dock for traveling boaters near Dick's Marina, on the west side of Latsch Island, or in Frog Slough, east of the commercial harbor, was discussed. If a dock was sited at Latsch Island, boaters could access the park from the proposed interstate bridge's large pedestrian lane, Pomeroy noted.
Levee Park Committee members also rallied around a call to restart the riverfront bike trail discussion. For some, having a bike trail that traces the river's edge from Prairie Island to the East End has been a dream for years. Such a bike trail "could generate a lot of interest and activity" and help make Winona an outdoor recreation center, Pomeroy said. Past attempts at the project were stymied by riverfront business owners who opposed a bike path running through their operations. Do not give up, said Eyden. "Other cities have forged ahead with their trails, running them around the obstacle and waiting for the obstacle to see the light," she said. This summer the city used $110,000 earmarked for the levee bike path to help repave the Lake Park bike path. "I was concerned about why that was done," Pomeroy stated.
Designers' proposals for pedestrian malls or promenades running from Winona State University's campus to the park were also discussed and received broad support, committee members said.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more information on the Levee Park Committee.