Henry Smorynski, Sartell
It’s become common in public affairs and governmental actions for citizens to expect both transparency and accountability for decisions affecting them. Recent actions of the City of Sartell’s administration and the majority of its city council have violated transparency and accountability. They reflect a dramatic violation of public trust. They depend far too much on consultants and city staff with little regard for residents’ clear opinions and preferences. The community center location decision of Aug. 10 is an egregious recent example of disregarding citizen desires. The obvious and consistent request that the community center be located at a central location in the city accessible to all by walking, bike, bus and car was totally ignored. Community centers need to be located close to their most likely users. In this case, that would be where children in the school district are and neighborhoods where the vast majority of Sartell residents live.
The gold standard of public accountability and transparency involves the practice of open and well-advertised public hearings. In all its discussions and decisions about the community center, the city has not encouraged, solicited or collected data from its citizens except from limited special-interest groups, particularly youth sports teams. The city hired project consultants and made decisions without any timely and significant input from the residents that city officials serve. Not one public hearing was held on the community center even though citizens have lobbied the city and its council for more than 10 years for a center. Yet the city held public hearings for its proposed ordinance on e-cigarettes and one on the limits of the number of dogs a resident can have. These were clearly not multi-million–dollar decisions affecting most residents. The city was saved from approving a consultant and city administration-sponsored proposal regarding LeSauk Drive only because Stearns County held a well-publicized and attended meeting to discuss traffic implications for planned changes to Minnesota Hwy. 15 and CR 1.
The city administrator’s claim that the location decision for the center was fair and open totally misrepresents the process used. Center meetings were orchestrated by the consultants and city administration. Councilman Pat Lynch’s questioning Joe Perske on his comments during the Open Forum clearly demonstrated defensiveness. The reasons provided by all council members voting for a southern site were all based on pure speculation and personal preference, not on data. They all assumed unrealistically a quick and extensive business development along Pinecone Road which has not happened in more than 10 years. The city will not grow in the future as it has in the past. Waite Park, St. Joseph, Sauk Rapids and St. Cloud will be the dominant corridor for future retail development.
Further evidence of lack of transparency and accountability can be found in not providing council members with consultant reports and other data before council meetings. The council’s refusal to table and consider other central locations for the center provides more evidence of its unwillingness to examine other central sites as opposed to orchestrating a decision in favor of a town square and Ferche/Weyer. The city acted without current general community input using its 2007 survey, ignoring more than 5,000 new residents added to Sartell in recent years. The council ignored the previous work of the Friends of the Library and the Great River Regional Library’s concerns about choosing any southern site. It did all this without any thorough or reasonable explanations of why consistent citizen desires and input were less relevant than city administration and consultants’ desires to push a southern location without any supporting data.
The city administration and consultants changed position over three city council meetings from saying that a site location could not be determined without knowing what the community center would include to defining eight site locations without council agreement or without concluding what would be in the center. Then, the city through its consultants went on to aggressively promote during all their city council presentations one site – namely the southern town square site.
Transparency and accountability should be standard for any public expenditure in excess of $10 million. There is no evidence to support that happening any time soon in Sartell.