Councilor Suzie Nakasian was absent.
Public Safety Department Budget Review: A presentation of the proposed 2012 budgets for the Police and Fire Departments evolved into an airing of repercussions of recent changes made in the latter department following recommendations from two outside agencies. In 2011, both the Operational Health and Safety Administration and a consultant, Michelle Soldo, recommended correction of the condition of city equipment as well as the fire department’s governance and operating procedures. Among the issues were risk management and adequate training. About the same time, the position of Public Safety Director, now filled by Chief of Police Mark Taylor, was created. Chief Taylor has had responsibility for orchestrating the implementation of some of the recommendations.
Since that time, according to Councilor Erica Zweifel, there has been “a lot of concern from fire department staff about how the transition was handled.” The new standard operating procedures have created a “cultural shift.” Councilor Rhonda Pownell asked what we are doing to maintain the volunteer fire department and to preserve their traditional attitude of service. Fire Chief Gerry Franek said the volunteer spirit gives people a feeling of ownership and pride. Chief Tayor acknowledged that out of necessity they had made “three years of change in one year.” Rather than, as some charge, Northfield moving toward the “Faribault model of fire protection”, there is no agenda here – no conspiracy. He said that 20 years ago, the police department went through a similar change. For liability reasons, changes had to be made. With the new committee system for making departmental changes, he thinks they’re “over the hump.”
City Administrator Tim Madigan said in the five cities for which he has worked, he has always been an advocate of a volunteer fire department. It is critical if Northfield is going to continue to have a volunteer fire department for changes to happen. The Fire Department Roadmap has been created to guide the changes and innovations. Chief Taylor reported what has been accomplished and outlined future issues including selection of command officers, creating of a training board and schedule, upgrading equipment and planning for personnel changes created by anticipated retirements. Mr. Madigan noted that conversations with the rural fire association also have implications for many of the department’s future decisions.
Councilor Pownell said she appreciated the discussion and acknowledged the difficulties in the transition. Mayor Mary Rossing added it is amazing what has been accomplished.
Northfield Downtown Development Corporation: NDDC Executive Director Ross Currier and Board President Greg Knieser presented a comprehensive report on the past accomplishments and future plans. The NDDC works with other organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce, City Economic Development Authority and Arts and Culture Commission and the colleges in four areas: organizing, promoting, designing and restructuring and the report highlighted accomplishments within this framework.
Funding comes from three sources: partners, Taste of Northfield and the city. Several councilors asked for more concrete information about the accomplishments required in the contract. When Mayor Rossing asked why NDDC hadn’t put a proposal forward to assume the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Mr. Knieser said they had discussed this thoroughly, but decided they would rather work in partnership rather than lead.
Convention and Visitors Bureau Options: Earlier this year, rather than establish a new contract for the bureau, the council extended the current contractual agreement with the Chamber of Commerce to provide convention and visitors functions until December 31, 2012. In preparation for next year, city staff suggested two scenarios for the council to consider: contract with the Chamber for all CVB activities (similar to the present contract); or create a partnership approach. In the latter, the city would maintain financial control through a CVB Board of Directors, appointed by the mayor, approved by the council and reporting directly to the council. Part of the annual budget ($50,000) would be spent on contracted public day-to-day outreach services to be conducted by the Chamber. A coordinated marketing partnership would be funded at $30,000 - $35,000 per year likely on contract basis. The hefty CVB fund balance of $165,000 could be drawn upon for updating materials and other costs.
Most councilors preferred the second scenario because of the increased accountability. Councilor Pownell was the lone dissenter and did not favor it “sitting under the city: she didn’t want to add more workload to the city staff. Mayor Rossing sought a policy on use of the fund balance.
The staff will come back with more specifics for the council to consider and approve.
Appointment of New Council Member: City Clerk Deb Little presented a plan for appointing a replacement for Councilor Patrick Ganey who recently resigned from his Fourth Ward seat. The appointment would last until a successor is elected in November 2013 to fill out the term to the end of 2014. Ms Little proposed declaring the vacancy and authorizing the process for filling it at the October 2 council meeting. The deadline for applications would be October 17. Councilors discussed whether to postpone the appointment until after the election or until a new council is seated in 2013, but the majority agreed to proceed right away. They will interview candidates and will likely appoint a new member at their October 23 meeting. Already several people have expressed interest in applying for the position.
The work session ended at 10:15 p.m.
Comment: The frank airing of the community concerns about the changes in the fire department was a welcome surprise and, in this observer’s view, was a positive event. Although it may not dispel all the unease and resentment members of the fire department have expressed to some council members, Councilor Zweifel’s initiation of the conversation and Chief Taylor’s non-defensive response should ease the problem. There are other hurdles still to be scaled – decisions about the current fire facility, continued work on internal documents and procedures, and the on-going discussion between the city and outlying jurisdictions about fire protection. The conversation at this meeting should help facilitate those efforts.
As others have said, the recommendations of OHSA and Ms Soldo reflect 21st Century rules, regulations and culture and while to date the Northfield Fire Department has provided exemplary service, we will all be better served once the necessary changes are made. For example, there will be better public accountability with the improved command structure. Some might even suggest that in the long run, the firefighters will also benefit from these upgrades!