Council will take closer look at the role of members serving as liaisons to boards

•Click here to see the City of Prior Lake’s policy on council liaisons to committees.

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

What should be the role of the mayor and council members serving as liaisons to city boards and commissions?

Elk River Council Member Paul Motin has raised that question, and the city is considering putting something in writing to clarify the issue.

“I know this is aimed at me. He (Motin) is mad at me because he thinks I talk too much at the Park and Recreation Commission meetings,” Mayor John Dietz said during a March 11 work session where the matter was discussed.

Motin replied that former Council Member Nick Zerwas also provided a lot of input when he was liaison to the parks commission. “You’re not alone,” Motin told Dietz.

Motin said later in the meeting that people have handled the job of liaison differently. A policy would clarify what the liaison’s function should be.

Council liaisons are ex-officio members without voting rights who serve as a liaison between the City Council and a board or commission. Dietz is the liaison to the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Library Board. Other council liaisons are Planning Commission, Council Member Barb Burandt; and Heritage Preservation Commission, Council Member Stewart Wilson.

Motin said his understanding is that the liaison should kind of take a “hands-off” approach. A liaison should be a resource for the commission and report back to the City Council but “basically otherwise keeping your mouth shut,” he said.

He doesn’t think it’s the liaison’s role to try to influence what commissions are doing.

Wilson, who was appointed to the City Council last month, said he has questioned what a liaison is supposed to do.

“It would be very helpful for me, entering this role, that we have a clear understanding amongst all of us what the expectations are of the council liaison,” he said.

Burandt, who was elected in November, said she also questioned what a liaison’s role was and believes it’s a good idea to have something in writing.

Dietz, meanwhile, said he doesn’t think he has tried to sway Parks and Recreation Commission decisions. He said he isn’t going to go to a commission meeting and “just sit there and do nothing.”

Council Member Matt Westgaard said he’s not against further defining the role of a liaison, but that might not completely settle the issue because council members all work slightly differently.

City Administrator Cal Portner had given the council a liaison policy from the city of Prior Lake as an example that some council members liked. Portner said that policy allows for some give and take.

Burandt said Dietz has been giving some history and background to the Parks and Recreation Commission and she thinks that would be fine under a proposed policy.

“I think that would help actually enhance the discussion because not everyone is aware of that (background information),” she said. It is different from trying to direct the discussion in a particular way, she said.

No vote on a proposed policy was taken. It was the City Council’s consensus to have Portner draft a proposed policy and report back.

To read Prior Lake’s policy on council liaisons to committees, click here.

Council discusses code of conduct

In another matter, the council also discussed a code of conduct during the work session.

The city has some components already in place, dealing with things like the open meeting law, conflict of interest and gifts, Portner said. It does not have any language addressing council decorum or censure.

Former Mayor Stephanie Klinzing had drafted a City Council code of conduct in 2010, but it was the consensus of the council at that time not to adopt it.

Portner provided some other examples including a code of conduct template from the League of Minnesota Cities and bylaws from the city of Prior Lake which outline the procedure for the City Council to commend or censure one of its own.

Motin isn’t sure about a formal policy for decorum.

“I will say I was probably the one who made the most egregious statements that probably would have been a censure issue,” Motin said, referring to a comment he made last year saying he favored firing two city employees. “… I know Matt (Westgaard) reamed me out soon after that at a meeting, that I shouldn’t have said something I said.”

Motin said he was likely “called on the carpet” faster than if a formal censure process had been available.

“I don’t want to get to the point of where we’re actually stopping discussion because of whatever we might try to do by way of decorum,” he added. “Sometimes things get a little heated and I think we all know we’re supposed to be on good behavior.”

Westgaard, meanwhile, said some earlier calls for a code of conduct had to do more with a “very tough time” within City Hall. “It had everything to do with asking the really hard questions at really difficult times and being as open, honest and direct as we can be. Sometimes that gets really uncomfortable and some people just don’t like that,” he said.

He said he’s open to seeing what the city already has in place regarding code of conduct issues and considering additional information that may shore it up.

Dietz also said he’d like to look at what the city already has in place. He doesn’t favor a lot of specific rules that could keep people from speaking their minds.

“Ultimately council people are judged by the voters,” Dietz said. “If the voters feel that they’re out of line, then they won’t be sitting here very long.”

He doesn’t think anything the council has done has been with malice and said they need to have a free exchange of ideas and opinions.

Wilson wondered how a code of conduct would suppress discussion.

Westgaard said a code of conduct wouldn’t necessarily keep someone from speaking their mind. It would be a reminder to remain professional and avoid personal attacks.

Burandt said she’s used to having a code of conduct where she works. A code of conduct encourages people to conduct themselves in a respectful manner.

In the end, the council directed Portner to review what the city already has in place and report back before the council decides if a change is merited or not.