by ZACH KAYSER
At the Winona County Board of Commissioners meetings, members of the public can stand up, or nowadays, Zoom in, and speak on whatever topic they wish for a brief period. As opposed to the private messages given to officials by email or phone, during public comment periods, the public is immediately aware of what is said.
Not so with the Winona City Council.
Mary Jo Klinker, who teaches gender studies at Winona State University and engages in community activism, said her fellow changemakers relied on the ability to make public comments. As part of the citizen group Community Not Cages, Klinker and dozens of other Winonans used public comments to push the County Board to reconsider the size of its proposed new jail and boost social services, mental health care, and substance abuse treatment. The group didn’t achieve its goal, but its comments helped reframe the discussion at the County Board table and spur discussion of future improvements to local social services.
“I think it’s important to allow local activists a space to set a stance on where they want to be in history,” she said.
As opposed to one on one contact with council members, she pointed out that public comment is documented for posterity. Too often the historic memory reflects that a point at a meeting was unanimous when actually there were a variety of opinions, she said.
Barb Nelson, of Lewiston, has spoken during public comment periods at Winona County Board meetings on a number of issues, including the discussions that lead to the county banning frac sand mining. She said public comments during a meeting had to bring issues to the front of public consciousness that otherwise would not have been addressed. It was odd that Winona city government didn’t have them, Nelson said.
“That’s a little strange, that you couldn’t be heard if you wanted to be,” she said.
Jerry Papenfuss, a leader of the Winona County Republicans who was behind the push to get election judges on the ballot board, also valued the public comment period at the county. Concerns raised by Papenfuss and others at County Board public comment periods directly led to the County Board adding a bipartisan slate of election judges to count local absentee ballots, a move the County Board unanimously agreed would improve transparency and trust in local elections.
“I’m very disappointed that the City Council does not allow that comment period to take place,” he said.
The County Board listened to him and realized change to the ballot board was necessary, Papenfuss said. By contrast, it seemed to him the city was reducing its transparency. “The city has become less and less open over the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s very difficult to really find out much.”
Winona city officials are more ambivalent regarding public commenting than their constituents. Newly elected city council member Aaron Repinski doubted now was the right time to add public comment to meetings because of coronavirus. He suggested people with concerns should contact him directly, possibly in organized forums, a continuation of his campaign promise to be open with constituents. But he didn’t throw water on the idea of public comments at regular city council meetings..“I’m definitely not opposed to it,” he said.
Mayor Scott Sherman was undecided. Without the right ground rules, public comments have a way of derailing City Council meetings, he said. “Here’s the thing — I’ve seen public input and I’ve seen it go sideways too many times,” he said.
Sherman wanted to seek public input before issues came into City Council meetings or the media.
“Is it appropriate for someone to come into a council meeting, talk about something that is not on the agenda, isn’t going to be on the agenda, when what they could have done is called their council member or mayor and had a good conversation?” he said.
City manager Steve Sarvi has encountered manifestly different approaches to public comments during his time in the governments of several different cities. When he was mayor of the small town of Watertown, Minn., he helped institute the practice. He said there was no reason it couldn’t be done in Winona — it was up to the City Council to choose whether or not it was worthwhile.
“If the City Council decides they wish to have that … there’s all sorts of ways to accomplish it,” he said.