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Does Savage City Council ever 'listen'?

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • November 1, 2011 - 2:59 PM

There was a moment in last week's Savage City Council candidate forum when the moderator's careful mask of neutrality seemed to slip.

Asking about those moments when "a vocal group is asking you to do what's not in your best judgment," Jean Fideler of the League of Women Voters added that she hears people say at times it seems like "your mind is completely made up."

At that same moment in neighboring Shakopee, the complaint was of open bickering and micromanagement. Here, though Fideler later stressed the complaint wasn't coming from her, the sense was of a group that feels a bit too much like a unified team, in lockstep with staff, fending off unhappy citizens.

"When citizens feel the need to hire lawyers" to take on City Hall, said challenger Joe Julius, "we have real problems. Listen to citizens: that's what you're here for."

Incumbents protested that they do listen, all the time.

"You need the courage to make hard decisions," Christine Kelly said. "Sometimes they're unpopular. You have to be cautious that you don't only listen to those in attendance at a meeting, or callers. It's also important to talk to parents at a soccer game, to take care of the entire community. That vocal group is not always the majority. A vocal minority may not want what's truly best for the entire community."

The risk incumbents run Nov. 8 is that folks unhappy with a series of recent and pending decisions are more motivated to turn out for an off-year election than the relatively contented majority that city surveys suggest is out there.

With three candidates seeking two council seats, Julius is well positioned to attract unhappy folks to a single magnet, while the "approves of" group splits its vote between two incumbents, Kelly and Al McColl, who agree on most issues.

The forum allowed candidates to declare themselves on some but not all of the contested issues. Among them:

ROAD UPGRADES

"People don't agree with the way we go about redoing roads," Julius said of a process that can result in heavy costs in assessments. "There's tremendous disagreement on whether they need to be redone when they're scheduled to be. We should look at that and make those adjustments if necessary."

Kelly and McColl defended the process. "We need to avoid racking up huge needs for the future that we won't be able pay for," Kelly said. "Maintenance is a smaller dollar item when you do it now and saves you money years down the road." McColl added, referring to the quality of city staff recommendations: "They went to school to be an engineer."

LIQUOR STORES

The steep decline in profits from municipal liquor sales should be a signal to bail out now, Julius said. While profits are still coming in, "it's only a matter of time" before they won't any longer. "The Titanic has hit the iceberg and there's that little bit of water there. It's only a matter of time before this doesn't make money."

McColl and Kelly disagreed. "They're still paying off library bonds," McColl said. "It's not time to throw it under the bus and get rid of it." Kelly added that she believes in private enterprise, and "every year it has made money." To ditch it would require making that up from somewhere else, a "terrible economic decision," she said.

Both incumbents also spoke of staff cuts at City Hall and a flat tax rate in recent years, accompanied by a rising bond rating as a sign of fiscal serenity the city hasn't always enjoyed.

RURAL SAVAGE

On a lighter note, there were comments suggesting a slightly different vision for the future of the city as it reaches full build-out.

Asked what Savage will look like at that point, Julius talked about more jobs, more homes, and said with a smile that the "cows on the corner of [County Roads] 42 and 27 will have to go away." Mayor Janet Williams's brother still farms in the heart of town.

Williams, running uncontested but taking part in the forum nevertheless, said of the future: "It may not be that different. ... Horses in a pasture could still be there in full build-out."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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