Bad government or simply mis-communications, there is turmoil in Cottage Grove, Minnesota.
It all began with the need for updated Public Safety facilities in the city. The current structure is cramped, inadequate, and the roof leaks. If the city continues to grow as it has in the past then there is a need for additional office space for city administration. This everyone understands.
Next, the Cottage Grove City Council went through a planning process, largely behind the scenes, and came up with a design for a 67,000 square foot facility to accommodate both Public Safety and administration needs. This new building to be constructed at a cost of $16 million.
Initially the City intended to finance the facility through General Obligation Bonds, and then ran into a problem. A group of resident, Cottage Grove Citizens Voice, circulated a petition to demand a referendum on the financing, and when that petition looked like it was going to be successful, the City changed its mind.
Backing off from the use of General Obligation Bonds, the City Council has elected to finance the new City Hall through private bank loans. This allows them to skirt any possibility of a referendum that will certainly delay the project and very well might see it turned down by the voters.
Understandably, this has made some people angry.
When the Council shifted gears and opted for private financing, the group has now shifted shifted gears along with them and is now attempting to change City Government itself. The group now proposes that Cottage Grove become a Home Rule Charter City as defined by Minnesota State Statute, which is an interesting idea and deserves careful consideration.
A Charter City can be organized to require a referendum for large expenditures such as proposed for the new City Hall. In addition a Charter City can go from electing the Council at large to a ward system, provide for initiative and referendum on a host of issues, and recall of Council members – none of which are currently available in Statutory City such as Cottage Grove. This comes at the cost of some flexibility in city management and should not be undertaken lightly.
To establish a Charter City, a petition containing signatures of 10% of the city’s registered voters is submitted to a District Judge, who in turn appoints as Charter Commission which becomes a permanent part of the local political scene. A petition drive is currently underway, but unfortunately, it has been tainted by allegations by Cottage Grove Citizens Voice of “Gestapo like tactics” on the part of the City. Of course this is an over reaction, but then again people are angry about the way the Council has gone about financing the project, and tempers are flaring on both sides of the City Charter issue.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Other than vague rumblings about a new facility, no information was forthcoming from the City until a completed design was presented to the public. There has been only a half-hearted attempt by the City to explain why such a large facility is demanded. The City has done an excellent job of explaining why the current facilities are inadequate, but has failed miserably to explain why a new combined building is the right choice when only the Public Safety Department is in desperate need. There are empty buildings in Cottage Grove that appear to fit the bill yet the City has rejected them without adequate justification.
Better communications on the part of the City at all steps in the process could have avoided the turmoil in Cottage Grove. Had more citizen involvement been solicited in the early planning stages, much of the concern over the new City Hall could have been alleviated. Instead the City Council is confronted by a problem largely of their own making.