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Manhattan Beach: Council, residents argue over open forum, P&Z issues

Controversy regarding open forums and the deputy planning and zoning administrator arose at the Manhattan Beach City Council meeting Tuesday, June 6.

Resident Larry Wannebo spoke about two issues during the meeting's open forum. First, he expressed his disapproval that Mayor Paul Allen serves as the city's deputy planning and zoning administrator, meaning Allen would take over if the current zoning administrator cannot.

"I think it's a conflict of interest," Wannebo said, then asking the council to retract its previous decision to name Allen deputy administrator.

Two other residents agreed with Wannebo; the council did not.

"When we decided to do that, we were in a situation where the zoning coordinator resigned," Allen said, adding there was an issue that needed to be dealt with in a timely manner. If there had not been a deputy administrator, that would not have happened.

The city's planning and zoning administrator is contracted through the National Joint Powers Alliance, and both the mayor and council member Marlene Yurek believe NJPA will step in and work quickly should the current administrator resign. The council consensus was that the mayor would only have to act as administrator in extreme circumstances.

Yurek made a motion to "leave things as they are," which passed unanimously.

Next, Wannebo discussed the council's policy denying the city clerk the right to include information from open forums in the official council meeting minutes.

Arguments over this topic began during the council's May 2 meeting, when council member Barb Hanson-Wannebo questioned why City Clerk Amy Wannebo included open forum notes in the April meeting minutes. Amy Wannebo said other surrounding cities include that information, but Allen said the council decided long ago not to put open forum information in the minutes. The council ultimately voted to have Amy Wannebo remove those notes from the minutes.

Regarding this issue, Larry Wannebo said at the open forum on June 6: "The public ... should have an opportunity to speak ... on the record to those things that the council is going to be discussing."

Most of the council, however, did not agree, and some members spoke against the practice of open forum altogether.

"We are not legally bound to hold open forums. Open forum is a privilege that is exercised by the city council," Allen said. "We are here to discuss agenda items, not non-agenda items ... At open forum, you can get tricked into making a decision on an item that's not on the agenda because open forum doesn't have an agenda."

The mayor added that there's also a risk of a speaker getting misquoted.

Yurek also had complaints on the issue.

"I think open forum is good if it sticks with the agenda," she said. "But I'm sorry to say, a lot of the open forum that's coming from the audience is just throwing rocks at the mayor and the city council. And that's the part of open forum that I don't like."

Council member Janis Allen added: "Anybody can just come in here just to get their name in the paper."

Amy Wannebo, on the other hand, said she researched the issue and "a very large majority" of Minnesota cities include open forum information in some way in the minutes. One idea she pushed for is a sign-in sheet attached to the minutes where residents who wish to speak at open forum can simply sign their names.

"Maybe a sign-in sheet would be a better idea because all it addresses is that this person was there and they spoke. And that's all," Amy Wannebo said.

City attorney Andrew Kalis added that a sign-in sheet could have a disclaimer on it informing residents that by signing the sheet, their names would be public information and could be published in the newspaper.

Kalis also said no matter what the council decides to do, it needs to be careful, though he didn't want to take a stance on the issue.

"If there are ... minutes kept about the identity of the person and the topic at public forum, if those minutes are requested at a future time ... those names may have to be redacted because it may not be public information that needs to be turned over," Kalis said. "Whatever you do, you just have to be cautious to make sure that you're not releasing names because that may not fit the definition of public data under the data request statute."

After much discussion, the council did not take action on the topic.

"If somebody wants to say something at a city council meeting, call the week before, ask to be put on the agenda," Hanson-Wannebo said.

In other business June 6, the council:

• Heard an audit report from Chris Clasen, of Justin, Clasen & Company, who gave the city a clean opinion. The council accepted Clasen's report.

• Approved a fee schedule recommended by the planning and zoning commission.

• Approved a floodplain ordinance recommended by the planning and zoning commission and voted to apply to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program.

• Renewed the city's liquor license 3-1. Yurek was opposed.