Wednesday, May 6, 2009

ECCO Thinks You're Stupid

The April 2009 ECCO Board meeting was more heated than normal. Not fist-fight heated, but pretty exciting by ECCO standards. Voices were raised. Words were had. So what happened to cause this group of mostly middle-aged and relatively mild-mannered Minnesotans to resort to, well, not violence, but a shouting match? Given that this is ECCO, I bet most of you can guess the root cause of the argument in one try - yep, development issues.

Kay Anderson, an ECCO resident (although not a current Board member) showed up at the meeting ready for action. The way things went down, as described in the ECCO minutes:

“Kay Anderson read a prepared statement regarding letters that appeared in the March and April issues of the UNN [Uptown Neighborhood News]. The March letter was written by Robert Kean, who was identified as an ECCO Board member. The April letter was written by Tim Prinsen who was identified as an ECCO Board member and chair of the Zoning committee. Kay was concerned that these letters would be perceived as an official statement of the board, and, as such, would represent a violation of the bylaws (since they were opinions of individuals, not the consensus of the board). After lengthy discussion, a motion was made and passed to hopefully resolve the issue. The motion states that when publically expressing personal opinions, current or former board or committee members should include a disclaimer clearly indicating that the statement represents their personal opinion and does not represent the position of the board.”

Both letters should definitely be on the reading list for anyone interested or concerned about current or future development issues. Kean’s letter appeared in the March Uptown Neighborhood News under the banner “Save the Uptown Small Area Plan,” and argued that the proposed Lake and Knox development was in violation of the USAP. Prinsen’s letter came the following month, running under the headline “Responsible Common Sense Development,” and was a direct response to the issues raised by Kean. Prinsen supports both the Knox development as well as the USAP-guided process, and disagreed with Kean’s conclusions – certain to get him in hot water with some of ECCO’s most vocal residents. The author descriptions, the ones that Kay Anderson and her friends thought were so confusing? “Robert Kean is on the ECCO Board and lives in ECCO” and “Tim Prinsen is a member of the ECCO Board, chairs the Zoning Committee, and lives in ECCO.”

I suppose that the headline of this post shouldn’t really be “ECCO Thinks You’re Stupid.” It would perhaps be more accurate, although not as pithy, to say “Some ECCO Residents and Board Members are Mad at Tim Prinsen Because he Dared to Suggest That Not EVERY ECCO Board Member Believes New Development is ALWAYS Inherently Evil.” Because really, that’s what happened here. Word on the street (I was, unfortunately, not able to attend the meeting itself) is that the real discussion at the meeting was not about the letters written by Kean and Prinsen; it was specifically about Prinsen and his letter.

I don’t have the exact wording of the new motion (note to all boards: good minutes always record the formal wording of the voted-upon motion, as well as record who voted for it and who voted against it), but based on the description I think it’s a ridiculous rule. ECCO Board members shouldn’t, of course, represent their personal opinions as that of the Board without Board approval. Besides the fact that it was the Uptown Neighborhood News that added the descriptions to the bottom of the letters, and not the authors themselves, there was nothing in either to suggest that the authors were expressing official ECCO Board opinions. A formal disclaimer is a waste of time and a waste of newspaper space. Most Uptown Neighborhood News readers aren’t stupid; they don’t need Kay Anderson’s burdensome regulations to help them identify formal ECCO stances versus the viewpoint of individual neighborhood residents who also happen to be on the ECCO Board.

Even more concerning, this motion attempts to force this new motion on former Board members. Presumably that means only future former members; anyone (including Kay Anderson) who has previously served as an ECCO Board member should be able to ignore the motion, as it didn’t apply to them while they were involved. ECCO might be within bounds to force this silly rule on current Board members, but is it really realistic to think that every ECCO Board member will have to slap this disclaimer on every neighborhood-related opinion piece or letter for the rest of his or her life?

I believe that this sort of public debate, meaning discussion in the form of publicly-available letters and writings accessible to all residents, not just those who can or want to attend meetings, can only be a good thing for the neighborhood. It’s important for residents, developers, politicians, and every other local stakeholder to realize that there is a diversity of opinions out there. Debate, as long as kept civil, could also encourage increased community involvement at the neighborhood level. It serves as a reminder that neighborhood Boards aren’t just casual social clubs, and that local residents, board members or not, can have an impact on decisions that will shape the future of the neighborhood. That’s powerful stuff, and should be encouraged, not stamped out.

I do believe, though, that board members should be recognized as such in their public statements; given that they are given power to vote on decisions impacting the neighborhood and that official Board resolutions carry some weight with the city it’s only fair that neighborhood residents know exactly who it is that they’re trusting to carry out this duty. That doesn’t mean that a formal disclaimer is needed every time someone expresses his or her opinion in public. The Uptown Neighborhood News’ author descriptions were sufficient. But then, of course, this motion isn’t really intended to clarify things for a presumed-stupid or easily confused public. It’s about trying to crack down on discussion and to punish an ECCO Board member who spoke his mind. Protest a new building, fine; write anything in opposition to the NIMBY crowd’s viewpoint, get yourself censured.


  1. As someone who attended the meeting in question, I think this may be making mountains out of molehills. I'm a bit concerned because I don't recall the motion including former board members, but in any case, you are right that they are completely able to ignore the directive (and should do so) if it really does include them.

    And yes, this does seem like a proxy for the tensions over development. It is indeed likely that this would not have come up if Tim hadn't written his letter. But if anything, the incident highlights the sometimes over-the-top hostility shown by some in the community towards growth. Better to have it all out in the open, I say.

  2. It's also worth noting that newspapers and other media reserve the right to edit letters. The ECCO board can't force the press to publish boilerplate disclaimers that waste space and bore readers.