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Chaos serves no one

Fri, Aug 22nd, 2003
Posted in Features

The Preston City Council meeting ended in chaos on Monday night, August 18, some three hours after it began.

When the meeting started, there was a quorum of four council members, with council member Mike Gartner, who is being treated for leukemia, absent. By the end of the meeting, only two council members, Mayor Dave Pechulis and council member Mike McGarvey were present. By then, council members Jerry Scheevel and Heath Mensink had already left the meeting in apparent disgust. With no quorum, the meeting ended abruptly, just as if air were being let out of a balloon.

Heartland is as divisive an issue for the council as it is for the citizens of Preston. But what is even more disturbing to me is the seeming lack of respect that people on all sides of the debate show each other. Especially the Preston City Council members.

The roots of this problem go back to the previous city council. As Preston citizen Inez Strahl said at Mondays meeting, when resident Greg Johnson wanted a miniature golf course it took three years for the city to take action - they just kept him jumping through hoops, but when it came to Heartland they just sailed this sucker through in no time flat.

Yes, the previous council held all the right meetings, published all the proper notices, but they failed to understand the magnitude of the Heartland issue and the publics need to engage in constructive and healthy debate. After all, Heartland, if built and operated, will change the landscape of the community. And the lack of public process stuck in peoples craw.

Certain public officials at the time chastised citizens for raising questions at informational meetings. Even a resolution by the then council calling for an Environmental Impact Statement was left sitting on a city hall desk long after it would have had any impact on a regulatory bodys decision making.

New elections and a write-in campaign changed the face of the council. But, now, instead of a council unanimously supportive of Heartland as in the past, you have a council with a slim three to two majority in favor of the tire-burning plant.

Since then ordinances have been challenged, loopholes explored, and special legal council has been brought in to advise the city.

New Mayor Dave Pechulis, who was elected as a write-in candidate, runs the council meeting in a very inclusive style. An audience member raises their hand and they are offered the floor at any point during the meeting.

At Mondays meeting, soon after the pledge of allegiance, a woman raised her hand, stated her name and read a letter about how council members should live up to their oath of office. She wasnt on the agenda, and council member Heath Mensink was right in asking the mayor about this. He got no answer.

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting where a woman in the audience chastised council member Mike Gartner for speaking up, saying that another person had the floor.

And herein lies the problem. Its as if every Preston council meeting is a public hearing, but without the normal rules of order. Ironically, the council tabled a motion on Monday to discuss Rules of Order (Democratic, Sturgis, Roberts).

Council meetings, which are open to the public, are not meetings for the public. They are a chance for elected officials to discuss and transact business on behalf of the city. Citizens should be given every opportunity to ask questions and make comment, and in some cases to give testimony, but it should be done at structured points during the meeting. Most city councils offer a citizen input period, where interested public can sign up in advance to speak to their elected officials. Each speaker is usually limited to three minutes.

It is the responsibility of the mayor to ensure that each member of the council is treated with respect and that a climate prevails that is constructive and fair. The Preston Council meeting on Monday, I believe, fell short of that standard.

The meeting on Monday ended on a tragic note. A discussion about a letter from legal counsel Kennedy & Graven about how to go about issuing a building permit for Heartland (no application has been filed as of yet) turned into a free-for-all discussion. Council member Jerry Scheevel, who recently had open heart surgery, left the meeting at the beginning of the discussion, leaving a three member quorum.

Following a recommendation from citizen Dick Nelson that City Administrator Fred Nagle receive professional advice to ensure that Heartland meets all of the requirements for a building permit, Mayor Pechulis announced that he was stepping down (as mayor) to make a motion to rescind Heartlands conditional use permit. It was at this point that council member Heath Mensink left the meeting leaving the council with no quorum.

Council members fleeing like Texas-Democrats, and a mayor trying to pull a fast one when the advantage accidentally falls his way, are behaviors unbecoming elected officials. The citizens of Preston deserve better than this.

Like athletes, who in the face of adversity lift their game to another level, each of the five Preston Council members need to raise their level of participation to a higher standard at this difficult time.

Discuss Heartland openly and fairly.

Allow citizens to give input as a structured agenda item.

Discuss the conditions Heartland needs to meet to receive a building permit.

Resolve any questions there may be in the ordinance over permitted uses for building permits.

And lastly, treat each others opinions with respect.

Chaos serves no one.

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