The first 100 days since four new members joined the Rochester City Council has seen a shift in discussions.

“It does seem there is more openness to debate and policy discussion,” said council member Nick Campion, whose six years of experience representing Ward 3 makes him the senior council member. “Historically, I feel the council operated more tactically without those strategic conversations. There needs to be balance, but this seems like a positive direction.”

The added discussion has occasionally taken the council in unanticipated directions. That first happened in January when a request to approve permit fees led to discussions of exotic-animal circus acts and portable toilets.

“The biggest thing out there for the first 100 days is the difficulty in doing what is the city’s business,” said Ward 1 council member Patrick Keane, pointing to sidetracked discussions. “I think part of this is in the new members trying to figure out their roles.”

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First-year Ward 2 council member Mark Bransford, who was among the council members that digressed on the permit fee discussion, said he believes it was a matter of adjusting to meeting procedures.

“I think that was a lack of experience,” he said, adding that he believes the new council members are coming up to speed quickly and finding the correct avenues to address concerns.

Council member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick, the new Ward 4 representative, said she hasn’t noticed a problem with taking on unexpected topics.

“I’m open to any discussion that comes up, because I consider us all to be ward representatives, and we are speaking for our constituents,” she said.

While the added discussion has lengthened some meetings -- frequently closing in on or topping the four-hour mark every other Monday -- it hasn’t been met with extensive criticism from other council members.

“To me, it’s a fresh perspective,” said council member Shaun Palmer, who is in his third year as the Ward 5 representative. “I think it's been fun to have the four new members on there.”

He added that the discussions and new insights show council members are engaged and making decisions based on information presented, rather than starting meetings with set opinions.

“That to me is refreshing,” Palmer added. “That’s what I think people expect.”

Molly Dennis, the first-year Ward 6 council member, said she was aware the meetings would be long, but she’s also repeatedly suggested a change in schedules aimed at making them more efficient as the council tackles weighty topics.

Instead of long meetings twice a month, she has proposed holding weekly council meetings and shifting study sessions to another day for more in-depth discussions before a decision is required.

“I believe very strongly the city council should have increased meetings on Mondays for council members to vote and to hear public voices, and then the study sessions I don’t believe should be back-to-back,” Dennis said. “That’s bad for health and bad for brain function.”

It’s one example of council members pondering changes in policy making and operations, which Bransford said shouldn’t be surprising.

“I think there is also a natural difference between people who have been on the council and those coming on board,” he said, adding that the new council members successfully campaigned with messages of change in November.

One difference that has frequently divided council members is the approach to community engagement. The members who have been sitting on the council have said the city and elected officials do a good job at reaching out to the public, but newcomers have expressed a desire for more.

“You can always do better,” Palmer said, adding that engagement should happen in a way that doesn’t stall the decision-making process.

On several occasions, new council members have cited a desire to hear additional community input, calling for citywide surveys and other measures when possible, even if it delays final action.

“I would say, as a whole, the challenge is getting more community involvement,” Kirkpatrick said when asked about the challenges of the first 100 days.

Meanwhile, the council is in the middle of comparing individual notes and visions to create a set of council priorities to guide its decision making. It’s happening as members continue to get to know each other in a time with limited opportunity for face-to-face meetings.

“The biggest challenge for me has been making decisions on projects with significant costs associated with them without our new council's strategic priorities established,” Council President Brooke Carlson said. “We are in the process of establishing these priorities, which will enable us to budget planning.”

Some key issues to tackle before the end of the year -- from dealing with budget issues as the city recovers from the coronavirus pandemic to looking at options to spur more affordable housing -- are finding common ground among the council members.

Individual goals also remain in play.

“My campaign principles were collaboration, equity, efficiency and community-informed decision making,” Carlson said. “I use these as my lens for decision-making and am committed to working with my council and city colleagues to advance all of them.”

The council members have cited their differing viewpoints as beneficial, since they offer an eclectic mix of voices. At the same time, each member wants to represent their constituents, as well as the city as a whole.

“I believe on the council the greatest struggle has been prioritizing the needs of the community for the greatest good and convincing others of those priorities,” Dennis said, adding that the ongoing effort to establish strategic priorities is helping find a path toward new goals.

Campion said he also believes the effort will pay off.

“With time will come efficiency,” he said. “It’s critical we find the right balance of tackling strategic missions and tactical decision making to keep the city moving.”



TIMELINE

Here’s a look at some actions taken by the Rochester City Council during the regular council meetings held in the 100 days since four new members were seated on Jan. 4:

Jan. 4

  • New members are sworn in during a virtual ceremony before their first council meeting . That meeting is conducted online.
  • Council unanimously approved the city’s legislative priorities as the Minnesota Legislature prepares for its 2021 session.

Jan. 20

  • Council votes 4-3 to end lease with Legend’s Bar and Grill, citing plans to demolish the building.
  • Council votes 5-2 to deny requested approval of changes at Miracle Mile project.

Feb. 1

Feb. 17

  • The council votes 6-1 to deny proposed changes to the city’s home-rule charter regarding the park and library boards.
  • A proposed landmark nomination fee was referred to the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission before final consideration on March 1.

March 1

  • Council votes 6-1 to extend a contract through summer with The Landing MN to operate a day center for people facing homelessness.
  • Council unanimously approves seeking proposals for a new tenant at the city-owned site occupied by Dooley’s Pub.

March 15

  • Technical issues with the council’s online meeting leads to a one week delay on most topics, with public hearings rescheduled for April 19.

March 22

  • Council approves contract to start planned reconstruction of North Broadway between Civic Center Drive and 13th Street.
  • Council starts to discuss plans for 2022 city budget.
  • Partnership to map outdated racial covenants in Rochester is approved.
  • Council votes 6-1 to reverse past action and direct city staff to require prevailing wages be paid to on affordable housing construction projects that are receiving tax increment financing.

April 5