Closed meeting changes timeline and public
Winona Mayor Mark Peterson met in a "private" strategy session with select Levee Park Committee project leaders and designers last Tuesday. After the meeting, from which a Winona Post reporter was removed, one project leader acknowledged that a major change in plans had been made for the park overhaul: city officials want to develop and select a final plan for redeveloping the park by the end of next month, and they may skip over previous plans for a public vetting process.
In only the second time the mayor has met with committee members and designers since the project's inception, most of the citizen representatives on the committee were excluded.
University of Minnesota (U of M) architect Mary Vogel and her research assistant drove to Winona for the meeting. Peterson and the consultants were joined by Levee Park Committee Chairman and former Winona Police Chief Frank Pomeroy, Vice Chairman and former City Manager Eric Sorensen, and Parks and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl. U of M landscape architect Matt Tucker joined by teleconference.
Since the U of M designers were hired for the project, the Levee Park Committee has spent relatively little time considering specific designs. The designers used a planning process that began with months of establishing a context and "big picture" vision before beginning to look at specific design ideas. Nine months after it first met with the U of M team, the committee is halfway through that planning process. The next — and final step of the big picture phase — was for the committee to host a public forum in late October on "what if" scenarios that might affect the park project. Designers postponed the forum due to family emergencies, and the project has been on hold since.
In an email, Pomeroy explained that at the closed meeting, he, Sorensen, Ubl, Vogel, Tucker, and the mayor decided to skip the public forum step and want to finish the design process by January 30.
Developing a "menu" of park redesign options, seeking public feedback, and narrowing the options — the next four steps in the planning process — were originally scheduled to take at least three months. The new plan calls for them to be finished in half that time.
Some of the next steps in the original planning process may be skipped, as well. Pomeroy said that he was unsure whether a menu of multiple design options would be developed and presented to the public for feedback prior to the new January 30 deadline, or whether a single option would be presented. Ubl confirmed that it has not been officially decided whether there will be multiple options for discussion or whether a single design option will be developed.
News of the meeting and the decisions made came as a surprise to most of the 14 committee members (membership numbers have fluctuated), who were not informed of the closed meeting.
An email from Pomeroy to committee members explaining the Tuesday meeting, after the fact, described it as "a strategy meeting with the [consultants] and the Levee Committee leadership," and the mayor. "There have been concerns regarding the use of the scenarios proposed by the [designers], and the delays we have experienced," Pomeroy wrote, referring to "what if" scenarios that included declining manufacturing and barge traffic, and to regular meeting delays because of consultants' family emergencies.
In an interview, Pomeroy acknowledged that the group had catching up to do and explained, "We asked [designers] to take a leadership role and that put us on the sidelines a little bit, because they did take a leadership role."
When asked if there would be enough time to fully develop and consider designs by the January 30 deadline, Pomeroy said that there will be time to continue refining plans after the designers have finished.
He acknowledged that the designers will be busy. "They're under constraints now because they have six weeks to do it," he said. "They're still at the University, and at least one of the people still teaches class Monday, Wednesday, Friday." He added, "We're going to have a lot of work to do," too.
City: 'this is a
The Winona Post was not given notice of the Tuesday meeting, but did receive a tip about an upcoming meeting of the full committee. Committee members not in attendance received notices that the committee meeting had been cancelled, but the Winona Post was not informed of the change.
A Winona Post reporter arrived at city hall at the time the committee meeting had been scheduled, and recognized Vogel, who was about to enter a small conference room near the City Manager's office. After speaking with Vogel, the reporter opened the closed conference room door and entered. Immediately, the reporter was asked to leave the room, informed that the meeting was "private," and barred from reentering the room.
When asked about the purpose of the meeting in a subsequent interview, Ubl stated that the city was negotiating an extension to the U of M designers' contract and "a plan to move forward" on the project. That contract, he said, was set to expire on January 1, 2014. At that date, the designers' work on the project would end by default, according to Ubl. Under the original agreement, designers were to come to Winona for monthly meetings. Meetings have not been held since October.
The extension would require consultants Tucker and Vogel to continue work on the project and finish the design without additional compensation. Tucker and Vogel were agreeable to that arrangement, Ubl said.
When asked about the decision to hold a meeting of the mayor and project leaders privately and to remove the press, Ubl said that it is not unusual for contract negotiations to be done privately or for the city to have other private meetings.
On September 10, the full Levee Park Committee met without notifying the public or the press to discuss the possibility of constructing a multi-million dollar Fish and Wildlife Services Visitors Center in the park and constructing a boat landing at Frog Slough, Latsch Island, or the Levee itself. At that meeting, those concepts and a number of other specific design ideas were discussed in greater detail than had been discussed in meetings before or since.
The Levee Park Committee is not subject to legal requirements for public notice under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law. Though the law itself explicitly applies to all government bodies, two Minnesota Supreme Court rulings created exemptions for temporary committees that do not make final decisions. However, city staff have provided notice for other Levee Park Committee meetings and, after the September 10 meeting, pledged to do so for all future meetings.
When asked about Tuesday's meeting, committee member and Winona County Economic and Sustainability Director Natalie Siderius said it was "perfectly appropriate for them to try to work through" some of the issues and then bring that information to the committee for discussion. She said she would expect the full committee to still have the final say over the decisions reached in the private meeting.
Siderius said that city staff should have provided public notice of the committee meeting planned for Tuesday. "You should have gotten notice; there must have been a hiccup," she commented.
Mayor Peterson was unavailable for comment on this story. Other committee members who were unavailable for comment or who declined to comment include Pam Eyden, Eric Sorensen, Rod Nelson, Bernadette Mahfood, Jason Gilman, Mike Kennedy, Tina Anderson, Jack Richter, and Tom Fassbender.
The next Levee Park Committee meeting is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 18, in the Wenonah Room on the third floor of city hall.