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Fairmont City Council talks about its division

FAIRMONT — After almost 10 months of split decisions and divisive rhetoric, the Fairmont City Council held a work session Monday with the intent of working through some of those issues.

The session, called at the request of Mayor Debbie Foster, was facilitated by Pamela Whitmore, collaboration and mediation manager with the League of Minnesota Cities, of which Fairmont is a member.

Whitmore said she had watched videos of previous council meetings and had spoken to council members individually before the work session. She focused the meeting on communication, conflict and the open meeting law.

When prompted about what makes them proud, council members spoke of relationships with the citizens and the quality of city staff.

“You have a big community theme here,” Whitmore said. “You all have different perceptions as to what is happening, but your commonality is doing what’s best for the city.”

Whitmore led the council through an in-depth discussion on their meeting process by spotlighting comments and questions members posed, such as why a split vote is bad, disrespect for each other, inappropriate behavior and dishonesty.

“Our meetings are full. People talk, but council people don’t listen,” Wayne Hasek said.

He said this makes him question whether some current council members are taking direction on their stands on issues from their predecessors.

“I don’t think one or two people standing up at the mike represent the whole community,” Tom Hawkins responded. “Some people have an opinion and want to state it. That doesn’t mean they’re right.”

“It hasn’t been just one or two people. It’s been numbers and numbers and numbers,” Hasek said.

“I look at it as the silent majority,” Randy Lubenow said. “Like Tom says, if you have 40 people come to a meeting, that’s impressive, and they have a point to say, but we also represent 10,000 citizens.”

But Hasek didn’t accept that explanation.

“What Tom says he hears is completely opposite of what I hear,” he said. “We’re a small town, and I hear from all wards. I just don’t understand how I’m getting one side, and three council people (Hawkins, Lubenow and Ruth Cyphers) get another side.”

Hasek used the proposed community center as an example. He estimated his constituents are 30-1 against it while Hawkins frequently has said the majority of the residents support the new facility.

“I try to vote for what the people want, not for what I want,” he said.

Whitmore said people’s life experiences alter their perceptions. She used dogs as an example, saying people who are raised around dogs are comfortable with them while those who are not might show fear.

“Sometimes we do the same thing or see the same thing, and it looks totally different,” she said. “If the public is feeling that people aren’t voting to represent what they are saying, then that’s what the election is for.”

Whitmore asked whether the council ever held a strategic planning session or met to set priorities. They do meet annually to prioritize their budget requests.

Hawkins said he just attended a leadership conference at which several people mentioned having an off-site retreat.

“You can’t close the meeting, but having it off site, generally people don’t show up. It’s a chance to have dialogue and talk about vision,” Hawkins said. “There’s a surprising number of cities that do that, have a retreat off site.”

“First of all, if you have it off site, it has to be in your city. That’s the open meeting law. It has to be accessible,” said Whitmore, adding that there are some League of Minnesota Cities training sessions that are exceptions, but no discussion of official city business is permitted.

Whitmore encouraged the council to follow a rules process during meetings to keep dialogue focused on the issue. She recommended the group adopt its own procedures similar to but less stringent than Robert’s Rules of Order. She said the meetings would run more efficiently.

Council members considered various procedures and decided to institute one immediately. They will wait to speak until they are acknowledged by the mayor, who leads the meeting. Additional procedures will be determined after the new city administrator is hired.

“I think there’s other things that need to be addressed as well,” said Cyphers, who described herself as a parliamentarian.

“It’s a starting point,” Bruce Peters said.

Lubenow asked if the mayor, a non-voting member of the council, was just as entitled to participate in discussion as the council members.

Whitmore said her impression of the charter indicate the mayor can participate.

“The mayor is a part of the council,” she said. “She doesn’t have a vote unless it’s a tie, but she’s part of the council. It (charter) doesn’t say she just runs the meeting. It says she’s part of the council.”

The council shared the consensus that Whitmore’s advice was valuable, evident by stretching the work session an hour past the designated quitting time, and requested that she some back for an encore session at a later date.

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