Monday, December 6, 2010

How Tweeting Got Julie in the New York Times

Anthony and Julie at home.
"This wind is really messing with my over-the-air TV. #digitalnotalwaysbetter".

That's the tweet that was picked up by a NY Times writer and became a story in today's (12-6-10) edition.

Last year, Julie and her husband Anthony got married, bought a house and signed up for cable at an introductory rate at the State Fair. When the offer expired and the price went up, they decided to cut out their cable and get their TV the old fashioned way: over the air with the help of rabbit ears.

Apparently, the old fashioned way is still somewhat hit and miss. The signal is affected by the weather, air traffic, and standing in the wrong place in the room. Sound familiar? Reminds me of the days of snowy reception, the rotary antenna and aluminum foil. If the weather was bad, there was no TV.

Fortunately in 2010, if the signal is bad, there is an alternative. Their 50 inch high definition TV, which Anthony won in a sales contest at work, came Internet ready and Netflix downloads are just a couple clicks away.

You never know who might read your tweets. It could lead to fifteen minutes of fame in the NY Times. And you never know what a story in the NY Times might lead to.

Julie told me that Good Morning America had called and left a message, but she didn't have time to call them back yet. She was in meetings all day at work and after work was on her way to judge a dance team competition in Northfield.

GMA would have to wait until tomorrow.

Monday, November 29, 2010

New Council. New Ideas. New Approach?

How many council members does it take to change a light bulb? Seven. One to change the bulb and six to recall how great the old light bulb was.

Change. It’s not easy. A new mayor and two new council members will almost assuredly mean some changes for how the Bemidji city council conducts meetings and carries out business. Here are my ideas for some changes.

One change I will promote (and have already suggested to the Mayor-elect) is to move the time for citizen comments to the beginning of the meeting. The current agenda has “citizens with business before this council not on the agenda” as the last item, requiring residents to wait an entire meeting to make a brief comment. Moving the comment time to the beginning of the meeting sends the message that we value the ideas and thoughts of community members. More importantly, it provides them an opportunity to comment on agenda items before official action is taken and gives council members more information for decision making.

Shorter is not always better.

Parents often talk about wanting quality time versus quantity time when discussing parenting. I think the same is true for governing. If you could choose fewer productive, quality meetings or lots of short, perfunctory meetings, which would you choose? For me, I want to get some work done at a meeting and would opt for having fewer meetings, but investing that time wisely.

The current council schedule includes a meeting every Monday night. The first and third Mondays are the regular meeting and the second and fourth Mondays are work sessions. The bulk of their discussions and “work” take place during the off-week, hour and a half work session, leaving little work to be done on the regular Council meeting night. This routine has meant that several regular meetings in the past six months have been completed in 30 minutes or less. What’s wrong with this picture?

First, there is no video camera at the work session and generally, no citizen audience. Second, there are often added agenda items that are discussed and even voted on without (in my opinion) proper public notice. Third, this adds to community feelings that the city council is less than transparent when carrying out city business. Although the less formal format of the work sessions is a positive aspect, I would support having the discussions and “work” at the regular meetings so the public has the opportunity to be fully informed.

Committees (current committee list)
Too many committees, not enough committees or the wrong ones? There was a time when our city council did not meet on every alternate Monday for a work session. They generally managed their work at regular meetings, met in an occasional work session, or worked within a committee structure and reported back at regular council meetings for full council decision making. The standing committees provided an opportunity for citizen-staff-council interaction and collaboration to find solutions to issues.

The current council has scrapped the standing committee structure in favor of a regular work session. While it works, with this format council members have few opportunities to interact with staff except through occasional calls for information or to report a citizen complaint. Could council members and staff working side-by-side make better decisions than members working without benefit of their staffs’ advice? Maybe we should revisit the committees. Of course, using a committee structure requires letting go of some control, which can be difficult, but using the committee structure for research, review and problem solving seems like a good idea.

Ultimately, good governance serves the public by providing information that is accessible via a process that is transparent. If changing our routine better meets that goal, let’s change.

What changes would you make?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

City Bean Counting Update

Wondering how the bean counting at city hall is stacking up? The city has had the budget solutions bean counter game on loan from the League of Minnesota Cities since the first of the month. I wrote about it in this post "Be a City Bean Counter". Players get six beans to distribute among 8 budget choices.

Here are the results from the “City Bean Counter.”

Police 93
Clean Water 61
Parks & Recreation 54
Streets & Sidewalks 46
Sewers & Garbage 44
Libraries 44
Economic Development 42

The traveling display has to move on, but the city manager has announced that Bemidji will create its own model and continue to encourage citizens to participate in the budget balancing activity.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Post Election Thoughts for Bemidji

Thank you. Thank you. I've been elected to city council. Thanks to everyone for their support and votes. I'm pretty excited about that, but have to say that the budget challenges and the changes coming at the state and federal levels could make the job a bit more difficult. Or at least a bit different.

State Capitol

Local Government Aid
2011 is a budget year and Minnesota has a huge hole to fill. One of the talking points for the top of the Republican ticket was eliminating LGA. I understand that there will be changes to LGA. Let's hope our legislators can keep the formula fair for Bemidji. If we lose substantially more LGA, there will be property tax increases.

Headwaters Science Center

Bonding Bill (aka Jobs Bill)
Bonding for infrastructure and capital investments is done in even numbered years and our next large bonding bill will come in 2012. I will be interested to see if this legislature proposes a small bonding bill, which is a common practice and would have almost certainly been the case with a DFL controlled legislature. The bonding bill is usually considered one way to jump-start jobs in the state. There is a backlog of projects from 2010 that are "shovel ready," but were vetoed by Governor Pawlenty. One of them is $475,000 in planning money for a new Headwaters Science Center.

Transportation funding
With the defeat of Congressman Jim Oberstar, we have practically been cut off at the knees with regard to ever getting federal transportation projects in northern MN. According to this article in The Pioneer, Chip Cravaack does not support many of the airport, trail, and alternative transportation (rail) projects that are Oberstar's legacy and have benefited northern Minnesota and the Bemidji area.

Airport Groundbreaking 2010
Our airport has been expanded thanks in a great part to Jim Oberstar. Our state has a fantastic system of trails partly because of Oberstar. The city of Bemidji has requested federal funding to build a bike/pedestrian/snowmobile bridge over TH 197. Now, if it is built, it will likely be without federal money.

Trail advocate, the late Terry McGaughey and Congressman Jim Oberstar at 2009 Paul Bunyan Trail Ride reception.
There is even talk that Safe Routes to School funding and Transportation Enhancement funding could disappear.  Safe Routes provides funding to improve the safety of children walking to school with investments like sidewalks, signage, and new crosswalks. TE funding is for multi-modal connections. Bemidji has received TE funding to pave the East West Trail and the West Lake Bemidji Trail.

The Active Living partnership may have to rethink their plans, which currently rely heavily on both of these funding streams to move their agenda forward and increase recreation opportunities in our community.

January will bring a new city council, a new majority party at the state capitol and a new face in the 8th Congressional District. In the words of Bob Dylan, "the times, they are a' changin'." It remains to be seen how these changes will affect the city.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Be a City Bean Counter

Going to city hall to vote or pay a bill? Take time to play the “Be a City Bean Counter” game. It’s your chance to tell the city how you would like the city budget spent.

The setup includes eight receptacles labeled to represent various city services. Your job is to choose where to spend your beans. Just one catch; you only get six beans.

What is most important to you? Or, put another way; what is least important to you? The rules are taped to the counter at the city hall reception desk:

I’ll give you a six bean budget that you can choose to spend on these eight services that many Minnesota cities provide. You can spend it however you like. Put all six beans in one jar or spread them out. Thank you for your participation. Your opinion counts!

Choose among these services:

  • Police
  • Economic Development (business recruitment, business retention, south shore development)
  • Clean Water (storm water, water utilities)

  • Parks & Rec. (maintenance, improvements, recreational activities)
  • Libraries
  • Fire (medical emergency response, inspections, education)
  • Sewers & Garbage (wastewater, garbage services)
  • Streets & Sidewalks (street sweeping, plowing, maintenance)
How often are you asked to give budget feedback? The city manager asked the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) to bring the Bean Counter display to Bemidji. It will be here for a couple weeks and is one way to send a message to city council on what is important to you.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Door Knocking and the Future of Bemidji

“I’d like it to stay the way it is.” Bemidji, that is. That was the sentiment I heard while door knocking this week. It’s a sentiment that is shared by many citizens in Bemidji. The reality is that Bemidji is a regional center whether we want it to be or not. Wishing it could stay like it is today won’t help us keep what’s best about Bemidji. What we should be doing is looking to the future and taking action to best meet it.

Bemidji is changing and the changes are inevitable. Here are six reasons why.

We have an orderly annexation agreement.
In 2005 the city signed the orderly annexation agreement with Northern and Bemidji Townships. The agreement means that the three local governments agree that the city will be able to annex portions of both townships over the next 15 years. The city council delayed annexing the first tier into the city until 2012, but the agreement makes growth of the city (nearly) inevitable. Here’s my question: Have we identified the right areas for annexation? My answer: Maybe not.

 Our population is growing. Unlike some other rural communities, Bemidji has been experiencing an increase in population. According to the state demographer’s estimate, Bemidji’s population has increased by about 580 in the last five years and by about 1,625 since the 2000 Census. And the developing fringe has likely increased at a greater rate than the city. An increasing population will mean increased demand for housing, streets, water and sewer infrastructure, police and fire protection. With a property base that includes nearly 50% non-taxable property, how will we afford the infrastructure improvements we will need?

The population is aging. The “silver tsunami” of aging Baby Boomers will put pressure on the amenities and services that retirees expect: “continuum of care” living options for aging in place, recreational options for reduced and/or slower mobility seniors, clinical, hospital, and home health options; activities, entertainment and community events geared to them and their interests, etc. Seniors will be looking for employment options for those who are not ready (or able) to retire. Is our community ready to meet the needs of this population?

The way we do business is changing. Manufacturing jobs are decreasing. Retail is transitioning from storefronts to online. Attracting development and jobs is more about creating a quality community than about filling space in the industrial park. Bemidji will need to have the support and infrastructure needed to serve entrepreneurs and 21st Century jobs. In addition to a top-rate airport and global networking technologies, amenities like our parks, the university, and the event center are part of the mix that helps us attract jobs and development. But what else can we do to keep our brightest graduates in Bemidji attract cutting edge entrepreneurs?

Energy consumption is (or will be) changing.
Increasing energy costs will force changes in construction, heating and cooling, transportation, and public transit. An increased emphasis on green energy solutions and a sustainable community will require new ways of delivering service. We should be preparing for the inevitable residential and commercial alternative energy requests that will come (think windmills, solar panels and outside wood burners). Do our city code and land use Ordinances need updating to promote sustainability?

Downtown Draft Master Plan
 Where we want to live is changing. Reducing energy means changes not only in how we move around, but where people want to live. Both aging Boomers and young professionals are looking for housing choices that allow them to access jobs, entertainment, and other necessities in a compact, walk able community. New mixed-use developments that meet those expectations and reduce transportation costs will be needed. What can the city and the joint planning organization do to promote mixed-use development?

This is a just a glimpse at the multitude of changes that I see coming at our community. What changes do you think the future holds for Bemidji? What are the best things about our community that we should keep or protect?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Last Week of the Campaign

Tired of the phone calls, the door knocking, the radio and newspaper ads? It’s almost over! The last week of the campaign is upon us, but city council candidates still have two more forums this week.

Wednesday the Committee for an Informed Electorate (CIE) hosts Ward 2 and Ward 4 candidates at 6:00pm at city hall. This forum will be televised on Channel 2. On Thursday, BSU Student Senate hosts the city candidates at 6:00pm (or 7:00pm, the time is still unclear) at Hagg Sauer 100.

You've been bombarded by the campaigns. This is your chance to pose some questions to the candidates. What would you like to ask? The audience will be able to write down questions for the candidates at the CIE forum on Wednesday. Come on down to city hall and participate in the political process.