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How do city staff handle council requests? (07/07/2014)
By Chris Rogers
What happens when Winona City Council members ask staff to develop proposals? How can council members raise items for discussion and consideration by the full council? The Winona County Board has a specific policy: a single commissioner cannot order staff to take on large projects or demand an agenda item, but any commissioner can propose future agenda items at each meeting. If another commissioner seconds the item, it goes on the next agenda. At city hall, there is no set policy for how or whether council members can add items to their own agenda, "but generally we respond to requests by council members," City Manager Judy Bodway explained.

The council's recent history shows a mixed record. Council members Pam Eyden and George Boryzyskowksi asked staff to study pedestrian safety improvements last November and this January, respectively, then again in March. No report has been prepared yet. When Mayor Mark Peterson asked city staff to prepare a proposal for installing stop signs at nearly all of the city's uncontrolled intersections, city staff prepared a proposal involving over 120 intersections and arranged a special meeting to discuss it. When council member Paul Double wanted the full council to discuss his proposed resolution against public funding for the Frozen River Film Festival, staff put it on the agenda.

At the council's June 16 meeting, Eyden asked the council to take up the Citizens Environmental Quality Committee's recommendations to require air quality monitoring at frac sand facilities, which were rejected by the Planning Commission this spring. In an interview on June 26, Bodway said, "I have not done anything with that yet." She added that because the Planning Commission voted not to forward the proposal to the City Council, it might raise procedural issues for the council to take it up directly. "That is something we would have to talk to the city attorney about as far as process, because that's a process issue," she explained.

Last May, Borzyskowski asked Public Works Director Keith Nelson for an update on the McKinstry methane burner project. Specifically, Borzyskowki asked for a report on the project's financial history. In 2010, the city hired an outside firm to complete a project to convert methane at the city's sewer plant into energy using a statute that allows cities to skirt the municipal contracting law for projects with guaranteed savings. In the first year, the project needed $22,000 in unexpected maintenance costs and ran $18,000 behind its "guaranteed" savings, largely due to the fact that the $800,000 equipment could not burn methane properly. City staff apparently stopped keeping track of whether the project was meeting its guaranteed savings or not after the first year, but the equipment did not properly burn methane until last summer. Nelson provided an update to the council at the time that the problems with methane combustion were fixed, and the system was working properly and that city staff would continue to monitor its performance.

Borzyskowski asked for an update last December. Nelson responded, "We entered into a one-year arrangement for that, to continue monitoring the savings on that. We're in the middle of that now. It's not time for a report on that. At some point we'll get a report back from McKinstry showing what the ongoing savings are, but the system is running well; it's doing what it's supposed to now. Now we just need the proof from the reports in the next six months or so." June marked six months from that last update. No new report has been given.

When a council member "asks for information or an [agenda] item, we certainly look at what their request is," Bodway said when asked about how council members can affect their agendas. If a single council member asks for an update on a project city staff are working on, "I think we would follow through," she continued. For a new project or a new agenda item, "I would think we would need more direction to bring something back," than a single council member's request, she added. However, she explained that there is no rule or policy. 


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