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Citizen committees have good and bad aspects for cities

Forming citizen commissions can mean a great deal of relief for a city council, but it can also bring a great many headaches as well.

Cities representatives from around the area gathered Wednesday afternoon and evening to discuss timely issues with the League of Minnesota Cities. Issues included the 2007 legislative session, citizen commissions, open meeting laws, pandemic flu preparations and working together as cities.

Attorney Scott Kelly spoke on behalf of the League of Minnesota Cities about citizen commissions, including the positives and the negatives.

According to state statute, some commissions -- or committees, boards, or whatever name is given to them -- are given the power to make decisions of their own that don't need the city council's approval. Some of those committees seen in Detroit Lakes include airport, development authority, library, utilities and parks.

Others are considered more an advisory committee and make recommendations to the city council for a final decision.

"Planning commissions are a big one," Kelly said. "Most cities have them."

Having multiple commissions under the city council adds to the city's organizational structure and supplements city staff. Maybe more importantly, it gives citizens a chance to participate in decisions made on the local level.

Kelly said some of the positives that come from having commissions include relieving workloads, community representation and developing future city leaders.

The ability to focus on specific issues is another positive, which Detroit Lakes has used when forming the Community Strategies Committee, for example. Or when the committee formed to study the TS Recreational area to see if it was in violation of zoning and what could be done to screen it.

Kelly said the policies being discussed and recommended should be independent from the political process.

"They should be based on needs, not just what they think will pass," he said.

But with the positives, there can be a downside as well.

Some of the negatives Kelly listed include conflict with the direction of the city council, citizens confused about the commission's authority, recommendations repeatedly rejected by the council and some commission members trying to overreach their authority.

Kelly said some of the key elements to the selection process for commissions should include qualifications of a participant, the demographics and the geographic location of that person, suggesting maybe some out-of-towners could serve as well.

He also suggested having a youth or senior seat on the commission and reaching out to those that are under represented.

Usual practice for Detroit Lakes is citizens are asked, or can request, to be named to a committee. For the established committees, the mayor recommends the person to the city council, and the aldermen vote on adding the person to the committee or renewing his or her term.

Commissions -- whether it be through a stipend or an event -- should be recognized for their time and efforts, he said.

"Citizen commissions can be a wonderful source of creativity, but can also develop into a source of friction and misunderstanding," Kelly said.