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IT'S OUR TURN: Should Park Rapids department heads make regular reports?

The jury is out on whether it's usual or unusual for city officials to report monthly to the council. You're the jury. So what do you say?

RobinFish2022.jpg
Robin Fish, staff reporter
Shannon Geisen / Park Rapids Enterprise
We are part of The Trust Project.

Help me out here. I might be crazy. Here is your chance to let me know.

Since I moved into town, one of the things that has surprised me about covering the Park Rapids City Council is the lack of regular reports by management-level city staff.

I’ve counted on my fingers: In my newspaper career in Missouri and Minnesota, I’ve reported on city council meetings in five small cities – three regularly, two occasionally. In all but one of those cities, I could count on hearing something like this. …

Public Works Supervisor: We replaced a valve on Lift Station 3 and cut down a tree in the park. Our water quality test results were good. 

Police Chief: We responded to a burglary call, two domestics and a threat at the school. We made eight traffic stops and two drug arrests.

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Fire Chief: We’ve been getting a high volume of wildland fire calls, probably due to the dry and windy weather.

Liquor Store Manager: Year-to-date sales are up 2% compared to last year.

In terms of hard-hitting journalism, there isn’t much to these snippets. Occasionally, they lead to a bigger story, like “Long-time teen makeout spot taken down by storm” or “Fire danger is high,” etc. Even when these reports mostly end up as bullet points, I’ve always thought they were important.

I thought taxpayers, who fund the wages of city officials, want to know where their money is going and whether their public servants are really serving them.

I thought a city council would be interested in at least a brief account of how each key department is doing, not just when they need funds for a big purchase.

I thought it strange to hear department heads say “no report” when asked if they want to address the council.

These folks may be reporting at a lower level, like a personnel committee or a fire, police or public works commission, each of which involves one or more council members. Maybe those bodies’ minutes are stored where an interested member of the public, or a reporter, could request them.

But in Nevis, at least, that doesn’t stop these staff remembers from reporting to the full council.

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I get it; my perspective is limited. Just because Nevis, Menahga and two small cities in Missouri do things one way, doesn’t mean that’s usual. I asked our city administrator, Angel Weasner, about it and she said that in her experience in multiple cities, it’s actually unusual.

I then took an unscientific poll of Forum Communications newsrooms in northern Minnesota. Some of them agreed that staff reports are usual at the public meetings they cover; others suggested this is more the case with very small communities.

In Alexandria, I learned, the police and fire chiefs report annually; other departments provide written progress reports.

At Osakis City Council meetings, verbal or written reports are always included.

Fargo city staff provide “minute and major updates,” often as an oral report, sometimes with a slideshow or exhibits in the agenda packet.

Duluth officials report at every regular meeting.

In Bemidji, the police and fire chiefs do a basic report, talk about how things are going and share some statistics and what they need. According to my source, other staff members like the city engineer or the rental inspector report, as needed, on a specific agenda item.

However, I also learned that in Wadena, department heads vary from extensive written reports to saying “nothing to report.”

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Another reporter in Fargo says that in most of their area’s city and county meetings, department heads report when called upon.

In the Superior, Wis. area, city and county staff typically report to the committees that oversee them, and that information filters down to the governing body via minutes. I’m told it’s rare to hear them address the full council unless directly asked.

So, it depends on whom you ask. Either it’s usual or it’s unusual for city councils to receive the type of reports that staff members provide in Menahga and Nevis, but not in Park Rapids.

Really, it’s you I should be asking. What do you think? If you’re a resident of Park Rapids, or you work or do business in the city, send me or a Park Rapids City Council member a note saying whether a regular line or two from city department heads would interest you.

This is not a scientific poll. It’s just an invitation to share points of view. Am I crazy? Or should Park Rapids expect this kind of accountability of its public servants?

MORE RELATED COVERAGE:
Enterprise reporter Lorie Skarpness reflects upon the beauty of trees along State Hwy. 34.

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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This guest editorial was written by the Alexandria Echo Press, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper.