After Plymouth put a citizens advisory group on indefinite hold, some residents are criticizing the city for a lack of public input and transparency.
The City Council halted meetings of its transit advisory committee last month, saying the city is reassessing its role since it started contracting with SouthWest Transit to manage the city's bus service, Plymouth Metrolink. Plymouth is the first Twin Cities suburb to contract with the agency to administer the city's own bus system.
Advisory committee members like Audrey Britton are critical of the move, especially after the city put its human rights committee on hold in 2013. She also faults the timing, coming two months after the transit group questioned how the cost of starting a reverse commute service will be covered.
"We're talking about citizen engagement and oversight; they should welcome that and not abolish it," Britton said. "There's an inherent conflict of interest when you replace unbiased, impartial people with someone who is paid."
But City Manager Dave Callister said the northwest suburb is just adjusting to working with SouthWest Transit, which can take over roles that staff and committee members did. Public feedback, he added, will continue in various ways, such as focus groups and customer surveys.
"It's not perceived or real that we're shutting everyone out; we want feedback and input," Callister said. "It's not a personal issue at all."
Across the metro area, cities have advisory groups usually made up of volunteers appointed by city councils to give input and recommendations on everything from preservation to environmental issues. City councils have the decisionmaking authority, though, and can create or end advisory groups at any point.
In Plymouth, the city has six committees and commissions, four of which are active. The city got pushback in 2011 for converting an all-citizen human rights commission into a committee with city leaders on it, saying it would "redirect the work."
Virginia Klevorn, who was on that commission, said the move came after she spoke out for elderly Russian immigrants who objected to a rent increase in a city-owned apartment building. The committee, which last met in January 2013, is now inactive.
"It's just how much do they value committees?" Klevorn said this week. "Is it to make it appear we have government by the people? I just don't know. … I keep asking myself that question: Who runs this town?"
Now, Britton said she thinks the same is happening with the transit group, which met quarterly and started in 1984 when Plymouth was the first city to opt out of regional transit and develop its own system.
"I think it's coming at a time when citizens started speaking up," she said, adding that council members are involved with advisory groups. "I'm afraid there's some indication the city is moving toward being more heavy-handed."
In December, the city approved a contract with SouthWest Transit to manage Metrolink for $10,000 a month. The Plymouth Advisory Committee on Transit (PACT) wasn't involved with the decision, and when it met Jan. 28, some members questioned how the cost of adding reverse commute service to TCF Bank's new location and a correctional facility would be funded. It will cost $202,000 the rest of the year, while the annual cost moving forward will be $344,000, the city said. The group tabled a recommendation on it, waiting for details.
"That's the beauty of citizen oversight," Britton said.
But at the council's next meeting, the reverse commute was unanimously approved, with city leaders saying this year's cost will be covered by reserve funds.
At the end of March, the city sent the transit committee a letter saying that it would no longer meet as the city reassessed its role. Callister said in an interview that the city will evaluate the committee's role over the next year.
"It's nothing PACT did," he said, adding of SouthWest Transit: "It's providing some great opportunities for us to look at enhancing our services. We're leveraging some expertise."
Even with SouthWest Transit managing Plymouth's system, transit committee member Harold Onstad said there should still be citizen input, not just ridership feedback through a consultant.
"Are they making decisions good for their business or are they making decisions because it's good for the community?" he said. "It's a bit of a concern."
Council Member Jeff Wosje, a former committee chair, said that financial oversight is the job of elected officials.
As for it being the second advisory group put on hold, Callister said the two are separate issues. And over the years, Council Member Judy Johnson added, the council has started and ended committees.
"Citizen engagement is critical," she said. "But we want to make sure that, as we make significant changes in transit, it's meaningful."