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Reporter Megan Buffington is attending the Grand Rapids City Government Academy this spring 2024 to help us all understand more about how our local governments function.

Why I'm learning more about city government, and why you should, too

Grand Rapids City Hall, built in 1928.
Lorie Shaull
Special to KAXE
Grand Rapids City Hall, built in 1928 in downtown Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

Reporter Megan Buffington attends Grand Rapids' city government academy, which teaches how the city runs to help inform residents and increase civic engagement.

This is the first column in our new KAXE series "Get to Know Your Government."

Reporter Megan Buffington is attending the Grand Rapids City Government Academy to help us all understand more about how our local governments function.

I distinctly remember the first city council meeting I attended as a journalist.

Granted, it wasn’t that long ago, but I was an intern, asked at the last minute to drive to Crosslake to cover a meeting. All I could think about was what a big deal this was.

If my first year as a journalism student taught me anything, it’s that government meetings were journalists’ bread and butter. All my professors took their roles as “watchdogs” very seriously, and I listened to many lectures on the importance of reporting to hold government accountable.

In that moment, I was nervous. I felt the weight of democracy on my shoulders. What if I missed something?

KAXE Reporter Megan Buffington, right, interviews Grand Rapids Mayor Tasha Connelly on the January 2024 night of her swearing-in at Grand Rapids City Hall.
Chelsey Perkins
KAXE Reporter Megan Buffington, right, interviews Grand Rapids Mayor Tasha Connelly on the January 2024 night of her swearing-in at Grand Rapids City Hall.

My coworkers told me there wasn’t much to worry about. Just go to city hall, listen to the meeting and write up what you hear.

Most people find local government boring, just local politicians just going through the motions. Before I became a journalist, I would’ve agreed. The decisions aren’t interesting or even all that important, I would’ve said, but I guess someone’s got to make them.

In truth, those sentiments aren’t entirely wrong. Meetings can drag on, and much of the agenda is routine decisions that pass with little to no discussion from officials.

While nothing more than a brief recap came from my first Crosslake City Council story, KAXE’s reporting in the last few months is a great example of why watchdogs are needed. Yes, the day-to-day operation of a city may be mundane, but city councils and other government units can and do make decisions that can have major implications for their residents.

The importance of my new watchdog role is a large part of what drew me to join Grand Rapids’ City Government Academy. The city’s website says the program was “designed for residents who want to increase their knowledge about city government operations and have a desire to become more involved in the shaping and development of their community.” Pretty closely aligned with my points earlier about civic engagement and making a difference.

I was also excited by the opportunity to share what I learned with our audience. The more informed citizens who are conscious of local government processes and their implications, the better.

At the helm

Wednesday, April 3, marked the first evening of the academy. I and 15 or so others gathered in the Council Chambers to listen to presentations from City Clerk Kim Gibeau, Human Resources Officer Chery Pierzina and Director of Finance Barb Baird.

These women admit that their jobs aren’t exactly the most exciting. But they’re the ones who keep the city chugging along.

As city clerk, Gibeau oversees licensing and permitting, elections and public information requests, among other things. Grand Rapids is a Plan A statutory city, meaning the city clerk is appointed rather than elected and the city operates under state city code.

The Minnesota statutory city code provides a uniform law for all statutory cities to follow and gives them all the same basic powers. However, these cities can’t change the code; they depend on the Legislature to do that.

The statutory city code lets cities choose from three forms of government: Standard, Plan A and Plan B. Plan A cities are the most common city government type in Minnesota. In addition to appointing the city clerk and treasurer, Plan A cities operate under a weak mayor-council structure, meaning the mayor’s role as council chair is largely ceremonial and they don’t have any more power than other councilors.

Standard cities are much like Plan A cities, but the city clerk and treasurer are elected, and the clerk serves as a city council member. Because of that, standard cities have three to five elected council members — aside from the mayor and clerk — whereas Plan A cities have four to six council members.

Councils in standard and Plan A cities have all the administrative authority and responsibility, but they can create boards and commissions and delegate certain functions to them.

While standard and Plan A cities use a weak mayor-council system, Plan B cities use a council-manager system. These cities have an elected mayor and four to six council members, plus an appointed city manager. While the council maintains legislative authority, the manager has administrative authority that clerks or administrators in standard and Plan A cities do not, such as appointing the clerk, treasurer and attorney. Only advisory boards or commissions are allowed in Plan B. Only cities with a population over 1,000 can use the Plan B system.

The other major type of city in Minnesota is a home-rule charter city, which is governed by its charter rather than state statute. These cities operate under whatever form of government they choose in their charter and are not limited to the options of statutory cities.

Behind the numbers

In Grand Rapids, Pierzina’s role is much like that of any other human resource officer. She’s responsible for things like onboarding, time sheets and monitoring performance. Pierzina manages HR for both the city and Grand Rapids Public Utilities.

She said there are 83 full-time city employees and 38 full-time utility employees, plus dozens of seasonal or part-time employees at any given time. I was a bit surprised; an 83-employee local business would be substantial. But the number makes sense considering Grand Rapids is home to over 10,000 people.

Just as Pierzina’s human resources job is much like any other, Baird’s role as director of finance is pretty much what you’d expect from her title.

“The Finance Department [provides] ... information to support the Council and Administrator in making financial decisions on behalf of the citizens,” Baird’s slideshow said. “The Finance Department plays a key role in every financial transaction of the city.”

The five-member department finalizes city budgets, helps issue bonds and administers grants. They complete an annual audit, invest city funds, pay bills, collect rent on city leases and do just about anything else you can expect a finance department to do. If money is involved, so are they.

Most city funding comes from state local government aid and property taxes, Baird said. The county is responsible for setting property values, and the city sets its tax levy.

As part of the annual budgeting process, councils determine how much the city must collect in property taxes to fund the next year’s operations. The owner of every property within city limits contributes toward the levy total when they pay property taxes. How much each person pays depends on their property value compared to everyone else’s: if your value rose faster than your neighbors’, you will contribute a bigger slice of the levy pie.

But if property values rise consistently across the city, there won’t be much change. And if a new property is added to the tax rolls, that’s one more taxpayer contributing to the total. Both scenarios could mean lower taxes year over year.

The city is relatively limited when it comes to raising revenue. Most taxes require a referendum, and many can only be used for specific costs. While the city collects fees on licenses and permits, they can’t just raise them to generate revenue, there must be a demonstrated need to raise fees to cover the cost of managing and administering those licenses.

Public servants

Gibeau, Pierzina, Baird and all the other administrative and finance employees have relatively normal office jobs. They come to work, joke with coworkers, crunch numbers, answer emails or whatever else is required of their specific role. Working for the city doesn’t change the nature of the work, but it does, in some ways, change the meaning.

These women said they all take their roles as public servants very seriously. They understand they are stewards of public funds and that their work is to serve the residents of Grand Rapids directly.

In the current era of rampant misinformation, political partisanship and threatened democracy, local government is more important than ever. This is where residents have the most power, the most direct connection to their representation and, in many ways, the biggest ability to make a difference.

It’s no secret that there's been a national decrease in civic engagement. Fewer people attend local government meetings. In many communities, candidates for local office run unopposed. It’s increasingly difficult for cities to fill volunteer positions on boards overseeing local libraries, community development and other areas that help a region not only survive but thrive.

The reasons for this are complex and not entirely known, but the loss of local reporting is likely responsible for some of this — or at least, it’s played a role in the decline. The closure of local news organizations is also part of the reason our attention tends to fall on national issues and there seems to be so much division in our society.

Larger issues aside, less local participation in government — and less coverage — makes the jobs of those of us left much more important. In many areas, there’s just one journalist left to play watchdog. In even more, there’s no one.

It also makes an informed citizenry especially essential to healthily functioning local democracy, so I hope you’ll continue to follow as I learn more about city government so you can, too.

Megan Buffington joined the KAXE newsroom in 2024 after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Originally from Pequot Lakes, she is passionate about educating and empowering communities through local reporting.