Mayor, some councilmembers ask for more information and time, supporters suspect stalling tactic
Divides on the Crystal City Council became apparent as the city approved a resolution declaring it to be a part of the GreenSteps Cities program.
A series of 4-3 votes put the resolution back on the council’s Nov. 6 agenda after it was removed by Mayor Jim Adams, rejected a handful of amendments to it, and ultimately approved it over the objections of councilmembers Casey Peak, Julie Deshler and the mayor. In favor of the program were outgoing councilmembers John Budziszewski, Mark Hoffmann, Joe Selton, and extant councilmember Laura Libby.
The two groups have disagreed on several issues, most notably the city’s financing of a mill and overlay project and funding for its new public works facility.
Prior to the meeting, Adams had requested that the resolution be removed from the evening’s agenda, a move that Selton and Libby protested via e-mail.
Adams and other opposing councilmembers asked for time to schedule a public forum on the matter and argued that a presentation by the city’s Environmental Quality Commission prior to the meeting had not been able to adequately address their concerns.
Those concerns included potential costs of the program, a desire to hear opposing resident viewpoints, and whether or not Crystal would be forced to adopt any of the program’s policies once it joined.
“I would like to have more conversation with the council in relation to this,” Adams said.
Prior to the vote, Peak and Deshler both said they had not had adequate time to review the program or the resolution.
Deshler advocated moving the resolution to a future meeting, saying her constituents had not had time to express their opinions to her.
“Why can’t it be two weeks from now? I’m really opposed to not letting the residents have an opportunity to weigh in at a council meeting on this,” she said. “I’m not trying to keep this from being passed. I just want both sides to be able to weigh in with their feelings.”
Hoffmann said the opposing councilmembers had “every opportunity” to toss out a date for a public forum during the meeting, but didn’t want to do so.
“When you say, ‘let’s have a meeting,’ schedule that meeting,” he said in a phone interview.
Libby and other supporting councilmembers argue that the resolution’s removal from the agenda and requests for more time were part of an ongoing stalling tactic to defeat the green measure, since Budziszewski, Hoffmann, and Selton had all lost their re-election bids.
The incoming councilmembers might not be in favor of the program, Libby presumes.
“If we get to January, it’s going to be me, and the rest of (the council) won’t vote it through,” she said. “I truly believe they were going to keep taking it off the agenda.”
“In my mind, it got kept off for a reason,” said Hoffmann of the resolution. “It would never get its head above water level.”
Adams said he does not consider the requests for more information and time to be a stalling tactic.
“I consider having both sides vetted properly is the right thing to do,” he said, later adding, “I had no evidence of the other point of view being shown.”
“What is our role as a city? What is our role as a mayor?” Adams said, rhetorically. “Are we doing things green? Absolutely...It’s not incumbent, I don’t think, upon a local government to be the alternative energy source.”
Selton believes the new council could remove the city from GreenSteps.
“I have no doubt that they’ll try to repeal it,” he said.
In a Nov. 18 interview, incoming councilmember Olga Parsons said she doesn’t necessarily oppose the program but would support strategically changing the wording on the resolution, echoing the concerns of Adams, Peak, and others who are leary of the program’s billing as voluntary.
“People say that this is a voluntary program, but there is certain wording that sounds more binding ... it borders on nonvoluntary,” Parsons said.
Elizabeth Dahl and Jeff Kolb both said they didn’t know enough about the program to make a value determination. The pair will replace Hoffman and Selton on the council in January.
Kolb called concerns about the program binding the city to act “fair.”
The GreenSteps Cities program bills itself as a voluntary program that incurs no costs or benefits to a city except those which the city decides to undertake itself. Other cities in the West Metro have adopted it with little controversy and seem generally happy with the program itself, replacing light bulbs with more energy-efficient LEDs and so forth.
“Why are they so scared of a program that is free and voluntary?” Libby asked, rhetorically.
City Attorney Mike Norton said that, in his legal opinion, there is no language in the resolution that would compel the city to act.
“There’s no compliance requirement. The city doesn’t have to spend a penny on it if they don’t want to do it. It’s just totally up to the city, how many of those goals they want to achieve. There’s nothing being imposed on the city,” he said. “It’s an agreement to try to abide by the requirements, but there’s no enforcement mechanism and there’s no requirement for the city to spend any money up front ... There’s no legal requirement.”
Libby, a Green Party member who said she mentioned the program often during her campaign, said the public and council had several opportunities to learn about GreenSteps and have any objections to it heard.
At a Dec. 4, 2012 council meeting, six residents of a crowd of 15-20 spoke to the council in opposition to the program. Objections raised included a perceived lack of resident knowledge about the program and concerns over some of its recommended ordinances and policies, such as limiting low-density development and implementing parking maximums.
“I think the details are very vague. The public is not informed at all…this has the potential to dramatically restructure and negatively impact our community,” said Parsons, one of the six who spoke.
“What sort of tax implications does this have? When we’re going to lower our budget, are we going to join a group that essentially advocates mandating rebuilding the entire city?” asked Caleb Dahl, who, at the time, advocated tabling the issue until early 2013. Dahl is married to the incoming councilmember of the same last name.
The council voted shortly thereafter, and the resolution failed 3-3. Voting in favor were then-mayor ReNae Bowman, Dave Anderson and Hoffmann. Voting against were Selton, Janet Moore and Deshler. Budziszewski abstained.
Deshler said that there was truth to the statement that she could have researched the program since the 2012 meeting, but that she didn’t give it “much thought” because it had not been a formal agenda item since then.
“I usually don’t talk to residents until the pedal hits the metal,” she said.
Libby said the council was scheduled to talk about the program at a 2013 work session, but that discussion was thrown off track by a Communities United Against Police Brutality protest that prompted councilmembers to move to the city hall basement. That night, the council decided to wait for a recommendation from the environmental commission, for which Selton is the council liaison.
The commission, which is comprised of volunteers who live in Crystal, came back with a strong “yes” recommendation prior to the Nov. 6 meeting.
“We had the citizens of the EQC vet the program and look at it from all angles,” Budziszewski said.
“It was all the ‘pro’s,” said Peak of the commission’s recommendation.
Peak added that he thinks the program is a good one, in general.
An overview of the GreenSteps program and question and answer session with GreenSteps Program Co-Director Philipp Muessig also appears on the environmental commission’s May 15 agenda.
The GreenSteps program bills itself as a voluntary one that gives cities a framework for improving their energy efficiency and environmental impact. It lists dozens of environmentally-minded actions or policies that a city can undertake if it chooses, ranging from tracking waste costs in city buildings to designing and implementing foot and bicycle traffic plans.
As a city implements more recommended practices, it moves from “Step 1” to “Step 2” and, if it implements 16 of 28 possible practices, “Step 3.”
There are no explicit costs involved with the program other than ones cities undertake themselves to implement one of the practices. Likewise, cities are not rewarded financially for their participation other than any intrinsic savings they find by using the policies, said GreenSteps Program Co-Director Philipp Muessig.
“A city does not need to do any specific action … It’s simply a program to help facilitate actions for the city,” he said.
The GreenSteps website lists 75 participating cities, including Crystal, many of which are at Step 3. They include Eden Prairie, Edina, Hopkins, St. Louis Park, Fridley, and Columbia Heights.
City Manager Anne Norris and Muessig both estimated that Crystal would automatically become a “Step 2” city because it already does many of the program’s recommended practices.
Other cities’ involvement in GreenSteps
All of the officials from other GreenSteps cities interviewed by the Sun Post said they adopted the program with little controversy and were generally positive about it.
Edina is a Step 3 city that entered the program in January 2011. Ross Bintner, the city’s environmental engineer, said the program is “a way to flavor the work that you do to make it a little more sustainable,” and that the process was voluntary.
Hopkins Deputy City Clerk Debbie Sperling said GreenSteps is one of the undertakings the city has used to go green and “it’s saved a lot of money through the years.”
The city passed its resolution entering itself into the program in 2010. Sperling added that the city has found no negatives to the program.
St. Louis Park Environmental Coordinator Jim Vaughan said his city has done several of the program’s simpler recommendations, such as using LED light bulbs.
“There’s been no pressure to do anything more at this point,” he said.
City officials from Eden Prairie, Fridley and Columbia Heights did not return calls for comment.
Muessig said some cities have remained at Step 1, the first level a city achieves by virtue of joining the program, but none have formally withdrawn.
He added that one city had considered withdrawing: Breezy Point, a Step 1 city around 20 miles north of Brainerd that joined the program in June 2010.
Mayor JoAnn Weaver and City Administrator Joe Rudberg said some in the city government had reservations about the program because they believed it would be too time-consuming for city staff to complete the necessary paperwork. Breezy Point has a population of 2,394 and lists seven staff members, including a chief of police, on its web site. Some of GreenSteps’ initiatives require monitoring of utility usage in city buildings.
“It’s the documentation,” said Weaver. “You can’t just say, ‘oh, we’re already doing that.’ You have to go into the records and prove it, and we just didn’t have the staff to do that.”
“We could probably be halfway through the program, if not more,” said Rudberg. “It was just one of those things that we didn’t feel was important to do the paperwork.”
“Many of the things we were doing already, so it wasn’t a matter of, ‘is this a good idea or not?’” Weaver said. “Every city has its issues and we just had other things that came to the forefront. If you only have a certain number of people, you can’t expect them to do everything.”
Sperling said Hopkins hired an intern from the University of Minnesota to help take care of the program’s administrative duties and advised that other cities do the same.
“It’s a great program,” Weaver said of GreenSteps itself.
Contact Joe Bowen at email@example.com