One thing is clear after an exercise in team building for top Golden Valley officials: Some team building is definitely needed.
A recent survey of senior officials by a management consultant unleashed a torrent of criticism of the City Council and the mayor. The five council members, including the mayor, were among those surveyed.
City officials on Tuesday downplayed the criticism, saying it was part of a healthy process of self-examination and improvement.
“I take it as a statement of, how can we get better?” said City Manager Tom Burt. “How can we improve as an organization? And if you can’t identify a weakness, you won’t improve. That’s one chapter of a multichapter book.”
The team-building exercise was part of a long-term, strategic planning process for the city. In it, participants gave anonymous responses for a “SWOT” analysis, a management tool in which people identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. In this case, the participants included the council members and eight senior staffers: the city manager and assistant manager, the police and fire chiefs, the finance director, the communications manager, the physical development director, and the parks and recreation director.
Asked to identify Golden Valley weaknesses, many respondents cited the City Council as a problem.
The council was called “cowardly, ignorant, self-absorbed” and accused of playing political favorites rather than making the best decisions for the city. “Right now, the City Council is the city’s greatest weakness and frankly, a liability,” one participant wrote.
Commenters described a city government whose operations have been hindered by the council’s micromanaging of the professional staff.
“This Council is mucking around in the minutia [sic] of day-to-day operations, getting in the way of the City Manager and staff doing their jobs effectively,” one commenter wrote.
Mayor Shep Harris was dinged for being “openly critical of city staff — leading to a high level of distrust of him among city employees.”
On Tuesday, Harris said he wouldn’t dwell on “a few unsubstantiated comments made by several people who do not speak for the entire city staff of close to 200 people.
“These are a few unprofessional comments that shouldn’t be the focus,” he said. “We’ve got a fantastic community with much potential still to be realized.”
Both Harris and Burt cited a survey of Golden Valley residents conducted two years ago, in which 92 percent said the city was moving in the right direction.
That rigorous, statistically valid survey should carry more weight than the anonymous comments of a few people, they said.
Praise for city staff
The analysis that criticized the mayor and council offered lavish praise for the city staff, with nearly two-dozen comments touting the performance of city employees.
Asked about Golden Valley’s strengths, survey participants cited things such as “a top notch professional staff and crew that delivers high quality services” and “dedicated and experienced staff that is in the trenches getting the job done each and every day.”
A single commenter noted that the City Council is “passionate about the well being of this city.”
In addition to possible tension between the council and staff, evidence of conflict among council members themselves has been apparent for some time. The council has had several sessions with the management consultant, Craig Rapp. Council members also have been getting together for informal dinners to help improve their interpersonal relationships.
“I kind of call it our marriage counseling, to work through some of our problems we’ve had as a council,” Council Member Joanie Clausen said last week.
Another management consultant, a political supporter of Harris, criticized the planning report for including inflammatory comments.
“It’s highly inappropriate,” said Jeffrey Prottas, a member of the Golden Valley Community Foundation board. Prottas, who was not involved in the report, said that it was not “a fairly weighted document.
“I don’t know if I would define it as a hit piece. But I feel there was a clearly weighted agenda,” he said. “Because they were anonymous sources, it’s very hard to validate. If you’re going to say those things, I say, put your name on it — put your name out there.”
‘Real role for difference’
Disagreement among city officials isn’t necessarily a sign of dysfunction, said Kathy Quick, an assistant professor of public management at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
“I think there’s a real role for difference, and expressing difference,” Quick said. “I don’t think it’s actually necessary or productive or realistic to have people singing ‘Kumbaya.’
“Dissent is not the same thing as incivility,” she said. “It is important to have robust debate and disagreement. It crosses the line when that gets into personal attacks, name calling, [hitting] below the belt. It seems to be happening more and more often that there are these acidic relationships among city officials and the staff and the public.”
Three of the five Golden Valley council seats are up for election in November: those held by Harris, Clausen and Steve Schmidgall. Harris said Tuesday that he plans to file next week for re-election.