Efforts by Grand Marais to poll public opinion ran amok last week as residents claimed officials were casting shame on their neighbors.
An online survey posted to the North Shore city’s website and Facebook page showed 77 photos of local properties and asked respondents to say whether the property contributes or detracts from community health. Respondents could also say they felt neutral about an image.
Some photos showed manicured lawns and well-kept gardens. Others showed yards strewn with equipment or covered in tall grass.
Dozens berated the survey on social media, arguing it was biased against certain properties and unfairly singling out homeowners.
The city claimed the survey was designed to get feedback related to community behaviors and property conditions to inform officials as they work to revamp the city code and enforcement standards, something the City Council has listed as a top priority.
“The city is not doing stuff to patronize and shame people,” Grand Marais Mayor Jay Arrowsmith-DeCoux said. “The city is trying to gather information and needs to gather the correct information.”
Still, a handful of residents showed up at Wednesday’s City Council meeting to raise concerns, including Mike Smieja, whose house was featured in the pool of survey images.
“I have a totally messy yard, I’ll be the first to admit that,” said Smieja, a potter who is working to build some kilns on his property at the moment. “I really wasn’t super embarrassed, but it was a little upsetting.”
What worried him more was the prospect of litigation against the city. An attorney contacted Smieja last week asking if he would be interested in joining a class-action lawsuit.
“We’re a small town,” he said. “Our taxes keep going up, and we can’t afford something like that.”
Council members voted to take down the survey at Wednesday’s meeting after an hourlong discussion.
Smieja said there was a noticeable distinction between images that might be “contributing” to Grand Marais instead of “detracting” from it.
“It’s a little like they’re pitting the community against you,” he said.
Arrowsmith-DeCoux said he doesn’t believe people in Grand Marais were “targeted” by the survey.
“The images that were used in the survey were things from all across town that were more or less randomized pictures from things around town,” he said. “It was not meant to be singling people out. It was meant to ask: What do we need to build ordinances around?”
The city will use other tools to collect information from the community as it continues to seek and analyze potential changes to the code, the mayor said.
Most of Grand Marais’ city code hasn’t been updated since the 1970s. The city has received regular complaints about its ordinances, Arrowsmith-DeCoux added, both from people who want more regulations and people who say the code should be cut down because parts of it aren’t enforced as it stands.
The survey received 524 responses in about five days. In a community the size of Grand Marais, which has a population of less than 1,500, that response rate is “pretty exceptional,” Arrowsmith-DeCoux said.
Hopefully, it’s a sign of the community’s willingness to engage in these conversations about the city code, he added.
“It’s something that a lot of small communities probably need to do, too,” Arrowsmith-DeCoux said. “It’s not fun. If you’re actually able to get the community to engage with this, it’s worth it.”