NORTH MANKATO — A majority of the North Mankato City Council isn’t opposed to being ethical, professional, fiscally responsible, forward thinking, courteous, truthful, fair, respectful and cooperative.
They’re just not sure they want to put it in writing.
Councilwoman Diane Norland suggested the council adopt a “Statement of Values” to promote and maintain the highest standards of conduct among elected officials, managers and employees of the city.
“You know that in politics/government, we don’t necessarily treat each other civilly,” Norland said. “So here is a first step to think about those issues.”
It’s also the final step for a while after her colleagues greeted the idea with a great deal of skepticism.
“So I’m going to go back and rethink it, rework it,” said Norland, the top vote-getter among council candidates in the 2010 election. “The majority, as I heard in the discussion, clearly didn’t like it.”
The lengthy statement includes a list of nine values with detailed “examples/expressions” of how each would guide the actions and attitudes of employees, council members and appointed officials. It was developed by an ethics advisory panel at the League of Minnesota Cities and tweaked by Norland, who asked the council to post the document as a “draft” policy on the city website and discuss it at a future council workshop.
“I’m also hoping city residents see it as a model of civil discourse,” she said.
Council members were hesitant to back the idea, with Councilman Bob Freyberg suggesting — in essence — that the document could be shortened to four letters: WWJD.
“God is the only one I know of who could do all this stuff,” Freyberg said. “And I wish he was on the council.”
The document covers general areas that most citizens would hope to see from elected officials and government workers: providing prompt and responsive service, not leveraging their position for special privileges, not letting unlawful gifts influence their decisions, and preventing the misuse of public funds.
But it sets the bar even higher in some cases.
It involves compliance not just with the letter of the law but also “the spirit of the laws and policies.” Both official conduct and “personal actions” must be conducted in a manner “that is above reproach.” It suggests that people show “moral courage” and “a positive attitude.”
Other provisions include: “I am respectful in disagreements ...” and “I engage in effective two-way communication by listening carefully, asking questions, and responding appropriately.”
Some provisions might be a challenge for some, such as prohibitions on “interrupting others or making personal comments not germane to the business at hand” or the requirement that “I prepare for all meetings by reviewing any materials provided ahead of time.”
City Attorney Mike Kennedy advised the council to think about the implications of adopting the Statement of Values.
It would be one thing if the lofty standards were a goal for city officials to shoot for, another if they were the equivalent of an oath they must abide by, Kennedy said.
People displeased with a position taken by a council members — or by words they used in a disagreement — could accuse them of violating Section 5(c) or Section 7(b) of the Statement of Values.
“In other words, is this a ‘gotcha’ kind of thing?” Kennedy asked.
Freyberg said part of his concern was the document’s wording promising that city officials will meet the high standards — not simply that they will make an honest attempt.
“We can say ‘we’ll try,’ but I don’t feel we can say ‘we will,’” he said. “... To me, this is wishful thinking.”
Norland, even before presenting the idea, had taken out more forceful language.
“I actually edited out a statement that was something along the line of ‘you are required,’” she said Friday. “First of all, it didn’t sit well with me. And, secondly, I knew it wouldn’t fly.”
As it turned out, neither did her edited version.
Along with Freyberg’s comments that the council wasn’t sufficiently angelic to have a prayer of meeting the standards, other members were reluctant to impose such high ideals on a council that will be changed by the Nov. 6 election.
Councilman Bill Schindle, who is running for the Nicollet County Board rather than for re-election to another term, said he wouldn’t support placing a standard of near-perfection on his replacement.
“I’m not going to lay this on another council,” Schindle said.
The other council member whose term expires — Billy Steiner — agreed. As for a Statement of Values that is simply a goal to strive toward, Steiner
doesn’t see the point.
“I think it’s just a given (that elected officials should try to be good),” Steiner said.
Mayor Mark Dehen, also up for re-election, supported a motion to table the idea with Kennedy instructed to research whether any other cities have tried it.
Norland didn’t miss that she was seriously outnumbered.
“I’m going to step back and rework it,” she said. “One of the things that became apparent was that what I presented was really overwhelming. It was probably too long, too complex.”
She also thinks it’s too important — considering Americans’ growing suspicion about the integrity and effectiveness of their elected representatives — to let it drop, so she expects to bring revised version back to the council after the election.
“I think we see it at all levels — the lack of trust among the parties, the lack of the ability to play nice together,” said Norland, who would like to see North Mankato make a statement with its Statement of Values. “It’s really a call to a higher way and a more productive way of acting.”