by CHRIS ROGERS
For a seemingly dry procedural change, it has sparked a surprising amount of debate. The city of Winona’s Citizens Environmental Quality Committee (CEQC) wants to become a full-fledged committee reporting directly to the City Council, not a subcommittee of the city’s Planning Commission. The change would enable the environmental group to make recommendations directly to the City Council without going through the Planning Commission first. It narrowly passed the Planning Commission on a 3-2 vote. The council is expected to consider the proposal next week.
“As a council member, I want to hear from the experts who are doing the work and digging up the data. I don’t want a middle man on the Planning Commission saying, ‘That’s not important,’ because their role is about development,” City Council member Paul Schollmeier said in an interview this week.
Historically, the CEQC has been a quiet committee, but environmental policies it proposed have occasionally made waves. In 2009, the CEQC helped develop and push for the then controversial but ultimately successful bluff land protection ordinance, which limits construction on or near bluffs. In 2013 and 2014, the CEQC unsuccessfully urged the city to require frac sand facilities to monitor silica dust emissions. In the end, the Planning Commission and City Council approved one state-funded air monitor on top of the Winona YMCA that produced clean test results; the CEQC had wanted monitors at every frac sand facility. State testing conducted elsewhere in Minnesota convinced many city leaders that silica dust emissions from frac sand plants was not a major health risk.
During the debate over frac sand dust, the CEQC tried to get its proposals in front of the City Council. The Planning Commission turned down one CEQC recommendation and city staff delayed a second recommendation from reaching the Planning Commission for months. A former CEQC member complained, “It’s beginning to feel like foot dragging.” Conversely, Planning Commission member Craig Porter said at the time that he was disappointed by what he saw as a lack of due diligence from the CEQC.
The city has numerous citizen advisory committees that report directly to the City Council: the Heritage Preservation Commission, the Fine Arts Commission, the Human Rights Commission, and even a commission dedicated to overseeing Dick’s Marine’s lease of the city-owned marina at Latsch Island.
The Planning Commission oversees the city’s zoning code and most development-related approvals. The CEQC was established as a subcommittee of the Planning Commission to provide environment-related recommendations for development. Today, CEQC members want to tackle areas such as energy conservation that do not have much to do with the Planning Commission’s work. “I’ve wondered, ‘Can I use this committee for topics that don’t really fit planning?’” Winona Sustainability Coordinator John Howard explained. It makes sense for the group to be an independent commission so it can take on those issues, CEQC members argued.
Since the hire of city manager Steve Sarvi and the creation of Howard’s position in 2016, the city has launched numerous eco-friendly initiatives: leading grant-funded energy conservation campaigns, buying into a solar power project that is projected to save the city money, and studying the feasibility of electric fleet vehicles. “I think the city has put a premium on sustainability and natural resources, certainly starting with John’s hire,” Sarvi told the City Council early this month. To support Howard, it is important for him to have a group of citizens to represent the community, to help guide him, to bounce ideas off, and to aid his work, Sarvi stated.
This year, the CEQC agreed on a list of issues it wanted to tackle: improving energy efficiency; promoting renewable energy; investigating city water quality, including reconsidering whether the city should use chlorine and fluoride in its drinking water; and pursuing an air quality monitoring program, including monitoring for silica dust.
The idea of doing away with chlorinated and fluoridated water took some Planning Commission members by surprise. Why would the city look into that, Planning Commission Chair Ed Hahn asked. CEQC member Dan Hall explained that because one member on the CEQC was concerned about possible contaminants from chlorine and fluoride, the CEQC agreed to look into the issue and toured the the city’s water plant. There are more expensive options for disinfecting drinking water without chlorine, Howard reported. Fluoridation is required by state law. “I think those fears have been somewhat dispelled, and the idea was, ‘OK, you have these concerns. Let’s go take a look,’” Hall explained.
Some of those goals did not appear to be vitally important issues to Porter. “The air quality issue, I thought pretty much the [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] tested it and put it to bed,” he said at an April meeting. “Questioning chlorine and fluoride — fluoride is required by state law, so I don’t think the city is really going to push back against the state on that.”
Porter was one of two Planning Commission members who voted against the proposal to make the CEQC an independent committee, and in an interview after the vote he said that sustainability initiatives are great, but the city does not need a local committee creating local environmental regulations on top of state rules. Porter explained that, to him, the word “quality” implied regulatory activity to make sure the environment was up to certain standards of quality. Multiple state agencies already have that covered, Porter stated. Most of the CEQC’s policy goals involve making the city’s own operations more green, not regulating private business.
The CEQC is full of qualified, well-reasoned people who are not going to forward a weakly supported proposal to the City Council, but even if they do, Schollmeier stated, “It’s an advisory commission. The buck stops with us, [the] council.” If the CEQC believes an issue is worth sending to the council, Schollmeier added, “I don’t want it to stop at the Planning Commission just because they think it’s not important. I want to hear it.”
“I think this is a very good idea,” Winona City Council member Pam Eyden said. She was on the CEQC during the development of the bluff land protection rules. “There were times … we were getting mixed messages from the Planning Commission and City Council because of the makeup of the two bodies,” she stated. These days, Howard and the CEQC are working on wide-ranging topics, not just planning issues. “I think this is really appropriate,” she said of making the CEQC an independent committee. Mayor Mark Peterson said he would support it, as well.
The CEQC’s current membership includes Hall, Bruno Borsari, Frances Goodin, Hans Madland, and Lynette Power.
Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Paul Schollmeier's wife, Chris Meyer, serves on the CEQC. Meyer resigned from the CEQC in May.