Morris City Council works to create better communication

There are many forms of government in our cities. Some of the most common are Mayor-Council, Council-Manager, Commission or Town meeting. Each has good and bad results. Several years ago the City of Morris adopted a charter that included having a Council-Manager form or government. 

The council-manager form includes a city manager with an elected city council. The city manager is a trained professional in urban management. He oversees the staff, makes routine decisions, does the hiring and then reports to the city council. In the Morris Charter there is a stipulation that employees should not talk directly to council members about problems in their department but rather talk to supervisors who would then report to the city manager.

In recent events regarding the Police Department, the council and even the city manager was “blind-sided” somewhat by what was going on. There were officers submitting their resignations giving a variety of reasons including moving closer to family. However, when the department was down to only two officers, the city council and city manager felt they needed to look into it more deeply.

A closed session was held with city manager Blaine Hill where employee issues were discussed. No one is able to put a finger on one specific reason for the loss of employees; however the dissolution of the Morris Police Department was the result. 

At the Morris City Council meeting on July 26, Kevin Wohlers, the lone no vote for the dissolution, read a letter to fellow councilmen, the Mayor, City Manager Blaine Hill, City Attorney Aaron Jordan and members of the audience. In his letter he addressed what he felt was a “communication problem” within the organization.

Wohlers prefaced his letter by saying that he wanted his suggestions to be “positive” and he felt the time had come to implement “a mechanism to evaluate the performance of the city manager. There is no such mechanism in place.” One of his suggestions was to have an annual or bi-annual closed meeting with Hill and council members to talk freely and discuss city operations in general. He wanted to task City Attorney Jordan to research how this can be accomplished.

City Manager Hill responded that this was done in the past and eventually became a “paperwork exercise.” According to the Morris City Charter, the only way city employees can talk to council members about issues is by going through a supervisor and then the city manager.

“With our form of government we don’t have contact with employees,” Wohlers stated. “How do we find out what is going on?”

Council member Kim Gullickson agreed with many of Wohlers points. She stated that the employees may be looking for a ‘voice’, after all “they are constituents too and may have voted them (council members) into office.”

However, Council member Bryan Solvie cautioned that allowing employees to bring problems directly to the council members could also cause problems. “We can’t have them going over Blaine’s head every time they have an issue.”

City Attorney Jordan suggested a periodic survey of employees and then if the council members saw a consistent issue, it could be addressed. Gullickson also suggested checking with the League of Minnesota Cities for ideas of how this can be addressed. Another suggestion was to review the City Charter and maybe compare it to what other cities are doing to see if any changes can be made.

Wohlers also wanted to clarify that the City Manager job would be very difficult with no outlet, other than at the open council meetings, to discuss department issues with the city council. “I put myself in your spot,” Wohlers stated, “you have five other people here. How can we help you?”

“This is not a bashing of anyone,” Gullickson added. “This is how we can make this better.” 

The council members decided to have Wohlers and Gullickson meet with Hill and come up with an idea to present at the next meeting.

The city council also learned that progress is being made on the negotiations with the Sheriff’s Office for services. Officers are encouraged to apply to the Sheriff’s Office as they will need additional deputies. There will be no change in services to the city when the Sheriff’s Office takes over. 

Hill reported that several city owned parking lots will be receiving additional handicapped parking spaces.  Concrete sidewalk work will also be taking place in many of the city parks. Work is progressing on the Columbia Avenue road project and tarring is being done at the airport.