Minutes before the start of the Tuesday December 1st City Council Workshop, Eden Prairie Mayor Ron Case had a question for State Representative Steve Elkins, “Are you sitting on a porch or something? It looks pretty cool.”
“Yeah,” Elkins replied, “we’ve got kind of a three season porch but now that we’ve completely replaced the sliding doors with energy efficient models we can use it longer.”
Hybrid model for public forum debuts
The Mayor and other officials were looking at Elkins projected on a large screen in a lower level, City Center meeting room. Elkins was in his West Bloomington home. This was the debut of the City’s “hybrid” model for public meetings during the Covid-19 era; meetings with stay-at-home and show up in-person options.
Council Members Brad Aho, Mark Freiberg and PG Narayanan, Senator Steve (“Cwod”) Cwodzinski and department heads were at City Hall for the workshop. Council Member Kathy Nelson and State Representatives Carlie Koteza-Witthuhn and Laurie Pryor, like Elkins and other city staff members were on-line from various remote locations. Workshops precede City Council meetings and are collegial huddles with informational briefings and Q&A rounds. This one was for city officials and local legislators to chat about the upcoming 2021 legislative session in St. Paul.
Mayor Case called on Sen. Cwodzinski, seated nearby, to speak first. “Last time we were here,” Cwod began, “there was gonna be aaah, what was it? … a one and one half billion dollar [State] surplus, the economy was skyrocketing. No one had ever heard of the word ‘pandemic’ unless they were citing the Spanish Flu of 1918 in their history classes ….”
Southwest Transit status update
The pandemic had injected priorities with uncertainties and this was Brad Aho’s last evening at 8080 Mitchell Road as an elected official. As his 16 years on the City Council approached the finish line, Aho wanted clarity on the status of Southwest Transit, the popular and innovative commuter bus service for Eden Prairie, Chanhassen and Chaska.
SW Transit has suffered a 90% drop in riders from 2019 pre-pandemic levels. Proposals for the takeover of Southwest by massive Metro Transit, a Met Council agency, might regain traction as bus ridership plummets on all long-haul, suburban express routes.
Traveling on separate but mostly parallel lanes, Brad Aho and Representative Steve Elkins (HD49B) had each become effective transportation boosters for the southwest suburbs, especially the Interstate 494 and Highway 169 corridors. Aho also chairs SW Transit’s board of directors and Elkins sits on House transportation committees and was an advocate for Southwest Light Rail at the Met Council.
Aho wanted the legislators to understand that as SW Transit recovers and adapts to new work place dynamics, it will have an important role for the three cities it serves.
“You know we really understand our riders.” Aho told Elkins. “Most of our riders are not riders of need, but riders of choice.” He warned that if the Metro Transit model of bus service was forced on SW Transit, most customers would not return.
He added that SW Transit is actually collaborating with Metro Transit and other agencies and businesses and is gearing up in Eden Prairie for connector service to and from the new light rail stations and work places and is evaluating autonomous vehicles to do same.
Elkins assured the workshop that he had not noticed any current interest at the Met Council or the legislature to merge SW Transit into Metro Transit. “I appreciate that Steve,” said Aho. “We at Southwest Transit [are]trying to morph ourselves into the changes that are taking place.”
Public officials highlight efforts to address pandemic impacts
Speaking from her Minnetonka home, Rep Laurie Pryor (HD 48A) said that she would not have attended the workshop with out a virtual option. She added that virtual meetings will be used during the upcoming legislative session and urged city officials to remain in regular contact with their legislators.
Given the fast growth of virtual public meetings, Elkins has been working with the League of Minnesota Cities and The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information to update the State’s open meeting laws. They refer to 20-year old technologies. Elkins anticipates bipartisan support for the initiative.
Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn (HD 48B) said that her leading concerns are those of her Eden Prairie constituents: easier child care access and the struggles of child care providers and small businesses. Kotyza-Witthuhn added that she will also work to simplify the application process for reversible home mortgage loans and to reduce the risk of foreclosure during difficult times.
Council Member Kathy Nelson called for the legislature to help those who have lost jobs and can not pay rent from being evicted from their apartments. “It would break my heart to see a whole bunch of our constituents in that kind of trouble in January, especially with kids.”
Kotyza-Witthuhn added that the Minnesota Housing Partnership, Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative and legislators are working to extend the moratorium on evictions. Elkins noted that $100 million in rent relief is currently being distributed by social agencies. “It helps,” responded Nelson. Pryor added that State programs like “Bring it Home Minnesota” are needed to shore up the safety net if Federal dollars expire.
Local government salary cap discussed
Council Member Mark Freiberg asked about repealing the State’s unique local government salary cap law. He feels that municipalities not the State are best for determining employee pay rates. Freiburg, Case, Cwodzinski, Elkins and Pryor agreed that, with a salary cap, larger Minnesota cities are disadvantaged when attempting to hire talented and innovative administrators, competition is national. The League of Minnesota Cities and Metro Cities, Elkins added, are strongly in favor of fixing the cap.
5G broadband expansion
Council member PG Narayanan said that with more people working and schooling at home, there is demand for 5G broadband expansion. He wanted to know what the legislature is doing. Rep. Pryor noted that the state is considering expanding 5G broadband service but gave no details.
City Manager Rick Getschow added that Eden Prairie already has in place a model ordinance on how it will regulate any city-own property proposed for 5G infrastructure. “We support 5G … but, yeah, we want it to be done in a way that we can manage our city [property]aesthetically and then recover any costs necessary from the equipment [towers]being placed in the right-of-way.”
The workshop adjourned around 6:30pm. Council members Aho, Freiberg and Narayanan, Mayor Case and City Manager Getschow – all masked and socially distanced – moved on to the Council Chambers for the 7 pm start of the more formal City Council meeting. At exactly 8:30pm and 20 seconds, Mayor Case announced that the City had proclaimed December 1, 2020 – “Brad Aho day.”
Note: Typographical errors were corrected by the writer on December 15, 2020
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