Some observations from the peanut gallery at Monday’s Hillsboro City Commission meeting.
First order of business – call the meeting to order. Government meetings are run and led through a process.
Either via Robert’s Rules of Order, or a variation thereof, the nature of the process itself is to promote orderly discussion and debate while ensuring a level of respect and decorum.
It’s a somewhat unnatural procedure that forces people to be recognized and heard in an appropriate manner, and insists on respectful discourse as a means to elevate discussion away from personal grievances and outbursts.
There is a chair, or president, of the council to lead and maintain order. There is established protocol for recognizing board members or public attendees.
An employed representative of the council will typically be present to act as witness and record-keeper, and will generally remain outside the fray of discussion for a level of separation.
In addition, North Dakota has clear “sunshine laws.” These laws are designed to protect the public and to ensure that governmental business is conducted in the light of day – with public and press invited to participate.
Closed-door meetings are unlawful. Meetings held in person, via email, phone or other means with a quorum (a majority of the board) must be clearly announced prior to the meeting being held and is not optional. Chain emails count as a meeting.
Monday evening I attended a meeting held by the Hillsboro City Commission. A fairly large group of citizens was there for various reasons, many with questions and concerns for the council on recent events that included the public airing of grievances by Commission President Sando and Commissioner Levi Reese.
During the one-hour opening there were a number of questions raised and defenses ran high. Rather than a call to order, we witnessed a digression to all-out disorder with tempers flaring, council members referring to public attendees as the “peanut gallery” and an invitation by the city auditor for certain members of the public to be quiet. Tensions and outbursts were abundant, and still no call to order.
As a member of the peanut gallery, I felt offended by the disregard by some council members who seem to feel the public aspect of this meeting was an annoyance and trivial.
I felt outrage when a member of the paid city administration inserted herself into the drama by telling people to be silent, or attempted to deflect responsibilities to the newspaper as the culprit in the room for not reporting accurately. Watching the spectacle of grievances play out between council members and the public was incredibly discouraging and inflammatory.
Public engagement is crucial to governance. To be sure – every person who is elected or hired with public funds works for the people.
This is the very essence of the job. Government leadership requires understanding protocols and institutional process for the effective management of issues and people. Board members must work together to establish a unified team, and an orderly process is necessary to include – not exclude – the public. Respect is key.
In the meantime, inquiring minds still have questions, largely left unanswered.
Commissioner Reese has consistently raised concerns regarding President Sando’s role as commission president while simultaneously personally investing in commercial developments in Hillsboro.
It’s a fine line to walk between the job of protecting the public’s interests while potentially profiting from inside knowledge. This concern is relevant – if not in actual practice, then through public perception. As the city’s prominent leader it is ripe for controversy and could have been avoided through any number of steps, not the least of which would be to recuse or resign.
Public trust is everything.
Recently the Hillsboro city auditor presented a case to the county commission to receive funds through the federal CARES Act funding allotted for distribution through counties to cities. The specific request would be to fund a new digital sign located near Highway 81. Ostensibly to be used for COVID announcements, the truth of the matter is that this sign has been on the city’s radar for at least two years as a means to help promote Hillsboro businesses.
CARES Act funding was issued by the federal government in June of this year with the intention of providing necessary support to individuals and businesses who are in desperate need through the COVID crisis.
As we reach a pinnacle of cases in North Dakota, and people find themselves in increasingly desperate times, it seems particularly egregious for our city to ask for funds to be directed to signage.
Hillsboro has signage. We have a digital sign located in the center of Main Street.
There are private-sector digital signs along Caledonia Avenue and it seems logical there would be potential to develop partnerships with these businesses if urgent COVID messages were needed. Traill and Steele counties have a very involved and engaged COVID task force who have made it their mission to share out messages related to COVID.
The city has access to its own website, a Facebook page and a number of online partnered resources through economic development and the county. In addition, we have a community access television channel, church bulletins, the business partners themselves and city text alerts.
The ability to quickly convey urgent information is not an issue.
I, for one, would like to know who within our city felt this was a good idea. As a matter of protocol, the buck falls on the city commission president. The answer received to this question was deflective and unclear as fingers were pointed to the newspaper and to the need for reimbursement for PPE.
Appropriate reimbursements are understandable. The newspaper’s job is to report. Neither answer was sufficient.
City leaders ... step up and get your act together. You were elected to do a job, and in fact, you work for us. Please do so.