A Broader Perspective for the City of Ortonville?

Late last week, I accompanied Ortonville Township officials to St. Paul, where they testified in favor of HF 1425, a bill designed to curb the abuse of annexation by ordinance by cities in Minnesota.

Along with their testimony, the township officials provided members of the House Government Operations Committee with a map of the proposed Strata quarry site parcels, as subdivided to allow the City of Ortonville to circumvent Minnesota state law allowing annexation by ordinance of only 120 acres per owner per year.

Ortonville Township was not the only township present to testify about abuses of annexation by ordinance by neighboring municipalities, but it turned out that their testimony, and especially the “reality of the map” was a key element in persuading the Representatives that some highly “creative” work-arounds are taking place in greater Minnesota.

Ortonville Mayor Steve Berkner was also present, and testified about how his city struggles to attract new development. It wasn’t clear from his testimony how the new developments described (except for the quarry) required more than 120 acres, but he didn’t field any questions on that point.

And since Mayor Berkner’s testimony preceded that of Ortonville Township Supervisor Al Webster (and the distribution of the city’s annexation map), it was Craig Johnson from the League of Minnesota Cities, who testified alongside Bradley Peterson from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, who ended up in the hot seat about Ortonville’s apparent end-run around the process.

Some excerpts of those questions:

Representative Hansen: “I understand what you’re saying about process and complexity, but then I look at this map, and I see…you know, I’ve seen some creative redistricting lines in the past, but this is really, really something, I mean in terms of creativity to have annexation. So, how do we deal…I think the bill is probably here because we’re dealing with the reality of the map and when we have a creative action to try to provide…getting around the process. So, how do you deal with this? How…if we don’t have a bill for the existing process, how do you deal with this? Because this doesn’t look right. This looks extremely creative, and when we have this much creativity here, I think people start asking questions. When people try to be as creative…if this was a redistricting map we’d say wow–quite something. For annexation…I say wow, this is…this is quite something. So how do we deal with this? How do citizens deal with this if it happens in Minnesota?”

Representative Freiberg: “I can see Representative Hansen’s point here because the map did really kind of jump out at me, and it does seem like it’s an effort to work around the 120 acre limit that’s in here, comparable to some kind of gerrymandering proposal, like he suggested. So, to me at least the issue is not just whether any potential legislation would fix this specific situation.  I have to imagine, though, when something like this happens once it seems like there’s the potential it could happen again. So it does seem like potentially there is the need for some sort of legislation just to prevent what appears to be an end run around the law from happening again.”

You can listen to the entire hearing on HF 1425 here. The portion I have referenced above starts at about 46:06.

In the past couple of weeks, Representative Andrew Falk (who authored HF 1425, and represented Big Stone County before the recent redistricting) has taken quite a drubbing from Mayor Berkner through various local media outlets and in the last city council meeting. According to Berkner, Rep. Falk has “attacked” the City of Ortonville through recent legislation and acted on matters that are outside his district.

But a wider perspective clearly indicates that the way in which Ortonville attempted to annex the proposed Strata quarry site ran afoul of the spirit of Minnesota law, and even the League of Minnesota Cities isn’t denying it. The question then becomes, how best to curb this kind of creativity-in-annexation and still allow for good development across the state.

While HF 1425 is tabled for the time being, Committee Chair Rep. Michael Nelson secured commitments from the Minnesota Association of Townships, the League of Minnesota Cities, and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities to sit down and work out a compromise to remedy the situation in Big Stone County, so that it might not end up affecting the entire state.

With a Strata quarry Conditional Use Permit public hearing scheduled for tomorrow night (Tuesday, April 7th) at 7pm in Ortonville Public Library’s media center, we’ll soon have an answer to whether the City of Ortonville is as committed to negotiating as are the other parties involved, or if they will persist in a course of action that clearly violates the spirit of Minnesota law.

 

 

 

 

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Annexation Rules Change for Proposed Quarry Site Hearing Details

Both meetings are on MONDAY, OCTOBER 15 (tomorrow, as of the date of this posting).

City of Ortonville Planning Commission public hearing (to consider a change of rules regarding how annexed land is zoned): 3pm, City Hall, 315 Madison Avenue, Ortonville, MN 56278

City of Ortonville City Council meeting (to consider recommendations of planning commission/adopt annexation rule change): 7pm, Public Library Media Center, 412 2nd Street NW, Ortonville, MN 56278

I don’t know why I was hearing there would be a special meeting of the city council at 5pm in city offices–first and third Mondays of the month at 7pm in the basement (sidehill entrance) of the library are the council’s regularly scheduled meetings, so it sounds like that is where and when the language will be considered/adopted. If I find out anything different, I will post ASAP.

These meetings are PUBLIC. And, the public is strongly urged (by me, and by all those who oppose annexation of the proposed quarry site in Ortonville Township) to attend.

If you care, do what you can to be there.

Democracy & the (Im)Polite Objection

How annoying to hear the commentary following last Thursday night’s vice presidential debate.

I’m talking about all the, “Joe Biden was too aggressive” crap. Apparently, it’s “not done” for Democrats and Progressives to call out their opponents on their bullsh…er, malarkey. We’re supposed to be the polite objectors–the effete, “I say old chap! I’m sorry, but I don’t quite agree with what you’re saying over there,” foils to the brutes and bullies stepping on our heads.

Well, I think Joe was great. He called out all the ways in which Ryan and his Mitt’s policies would harm the working class, the middle class, the elderly–the majority of people in this country. And he looked like he was having a great time doing it. It’s not that the issues aren’t serious, but quite frankly, a professorial tone isn’t the best way to reach that majority of people Joe was defending.

And, it’s not that I don’t appreciate calm and rational discussion of facts and the merits of policy. Civil discourse is a great thing. But when opponents are anything but rational and civil, well, the gloves have to come off. And it always amuses me how utterly horrified and alarmed the reaction is from those who seem to think they have a right to wield power.

Just a reminder: the whole point of democracy is that power comes from the people. If you misuse that power and mistreat the people, the power you’ve been given can and should be taken away.

Lately, I’m seeing some of this horrified-and-alarmed reaction on a local level–though here in Big Stone County it isn’t about whether one is a Democrat or Republican. It’s more about whether local government’s process should be by the people and for the people–or whether it should be by a corporation and for them, too.

For one, the citizens have learned that calling out public employees and elected officials on false or misleading statements, conflicts of interest, and non-transparent governing processes regarding permitting a destructive quarry, overstepping jurisdiction, and land-grabbing through annexation is Just. Not. Done.

In the Just-Not-Done view, it’s OK for a public employee to publicly ridicule and attempt to undermine a local government’s state-sanctioned right to engage in their own land use planning process (First Amendment rights!), but it’s Definitely Not OK for local citizens, who are contributing to that person’s salary through their tax dollars, to publicly question how those behaviors affect good relations in and among governing bodies in the county.

One might follow that “logic,” to say that some people have more First Amendment rights than others.

In terms of First Amendment rights, it’s true that the rules for disciplining public employees on their speech are somewhat tricky. But a little research about Discipline and Workplace Rights makes clear that, “[E]ven if the speech addresses matters of public concern, when the employee’s speech rights are outweighed by the disruption that the speech causes to the operations of government, the employer can discipline the employee for speech.”

Shoot. That wasn’t very polite to point out, was it?

The other totally impolite objection to those currently in power in Big Stone County is occurring in a couple of races for county commission. In two districts, write-in candidates are opposing incumbent commissioners who overstepped their jurisdiction and ignored constituent voices in approving the Conditional Use Permit for Strata Corp’s proposed aggregate quarry at the headwaters of the Minnesota River.

In District 5 (which includes Ortonville Township–site of the proposed quarry and current city annexation fight–as well as Precinct 2 in Ortonville City, Odessa Township and the City of Odessa), Mike Hartman is running as a write-in against incumbent Joseph Berning. In District 3, which includes the Cities of Clinton and Correll, as well as Townships of Almond, Akron, Artichoke, and Otrey, write-in candidate Mark Block is running against incumbent Brent Olson.

Reports have it that at least one of the incumbents is completely shocked (shocked!) that someone would run against him, as he thinks he’s done a fine job.

Of course, in a democracy, it’s not really about what an elected official thinks of the job he or she has done, it’s about what the people think of the job he or she has done.

So, it will be interesting to see how well the write-in candidates can get their messages heard and names recognized by the public in the weeks leading up to the election. Write-in campaigns have a notoriously low success rate, but with a small population it may well be easier for those candidates to let the public know they have a choice.

However impolite that may be.

Annexation–Without the Mess!

In order to make Strata Corporation’s plan to blast and crush the outcrops along the headwaters of the Minnesota River as smooth and painless as possible, the Planning Commission of the City of Ortonville is holding a public hearing October 15th to give lip service to the idea of democracy.

The idea here is to change the zoning rules following annexation of that proposed quarry site, so that the City won’t have to go through yet another messy public participation process to change the zoning on the piece of land they’re planning to steal (legally, of course!) from Ortonville Township in order to allow Strata to make a bunch of money and destroy local residents’ quality of life.

If you think this looks like a poor excuse for government “by the people and for the people,” I’d like to personally invite you to attend the hearing on Monday, October 15th at three o’ clock in the afternoon (I’m sure they didn’t mean to pick such an inconvenient time!) to let the commission know what you think.

After this meeting, rumor has it that there will be a special meeting of the Ortonville City Council at 5pm to consider…er, most likely just pass the duly recommended change in language.

And, you can come to that meeting, too! Both should be excellent and educational examples of your local government at work.

Be there, or quit complainin’ about the government. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

 

 

Annexation of Proposed Quarry Site on Ortonville City Council Agenda

Packets have gone out to the Ortonville City Council this evening for Monday’s 7pm meeting in the Ortonville Public Library Media Center. On the agenda, under New Business: “Hedge Annexation.”

Rumors of Ortonville City’s possible annexation of the proposed Strata aggregate quarry site in Ortonville Township have been leaking out for a few weeks now, and those rumors were further fueled by a post-meeting-adjournment question to the council from Ortonville EDA Community Development Coordinator Vicki Oakes about whether the city would rezone the proposed quarry site when (not if) it was annexed.

Since passing an interim ordinance late last winter, the Ortonville Township Board of Supervisors has moved to create their own planning and zoning committee and to develop their own land use plan in order to preserve and protect the quality of life of their approximately 100 residents. I have been a witness to several of township’s board and planning committee meetings, and I can tell you that these people are incredibly dedicated public servants who have embarked on a very steep learning curve in order to do right by their residents.

The State of Minnesota provides for townships and other municipalities to exercise this right of local control through passage of an interim ordinance precisely because larger governing bodies do not always respect the will of the people in smaller ones. Clearly, this was the case when the Big Stone County Board of Commissioners moved to approve the Strata Corp. conditional use permit for an aggregate quarry in Ortonville Township despite the objection of the majority of its residents and despite the county’s lack of jurisdiction once the interim ordinance was passed.

Signs protesting the approval of Strata Corp’s CUP at a public hearing late last winter.

And, despite the legal right of the township to take control of its own land use planning, Ms. Oakes, formerly Big Stone County Planning Commission chair, has publicly ridiculed the township’s process, spread false rumors about its intentions and effects, and has continued to push the quarry project and the interests of one non-resident landowner (who happens to be one of the wealthiest citizens of Big Stone County) over the rights of the many residents of the township.

It is frankly amazing how much information Ms. Oakes can convey considering her presence at only one of these township meetings–one at which no planning committee business took place. Is spreading rumor and innuendo and ridiculing the process of local governments an appropriate role of a paid employee of the City of Ortonville?

Now, in defiance of the township’s role and right to preserve and protect the health, safety, property values, and quality of life of its residents, Ms. Oakes, landowner Gayle Hedge, and Strata Corporation are pushing the City of Ortonville to annex township land and push forward the quarry project against the will of the majority of the families who actually live there.

Is this the kind of place we want to live? Where a bigger government bullies the smaller one, and residents have no say about the community they want to live in?

Unfortunately, townships have few legal rights when it comes to annexation by a neighboring city. The process that Ortonville Township has embarked upon to protect and serve their people could be for naught unless the people of both Ortonville City and Ortonville Township stand up and make their voices heard.

Plan to attend Monday night’s meeting, and contact Ortonville City Council members to tell them to preserve the rights of Ortonville Township residents by rejecting annexation of the Hedge property.

Ortonville City Council:

Mayor David Dinnel 839-6226
Mel Reinke 839-3084
Mike Dorry 839-3048
Angela Doren 763-202-3487
Ron Thomas 839-3039
Robert Meyer 839-2364
Steve Berkner 839-3914