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Master gardeners, BA students dig in on revamp of teaching gardens

Every gardener needs a garden just as every garden needs a gardener. That’s what makes a new partnership between the Bethlehem Academy Ag Department and Rice County Master Gardeners a win-win situation.

BA ag classes typically seek out community members that want help in their gardens, but this year, they’ll be tending to the master gardeners’ teaching gardens at the Rice County Fairgrounds.

BA plant science students have spent the past couple weeks working in the teaching gardens at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Pictured unraveling garden twine from left: Karlie DeGrood, Azy Gourhan and Brooke Johnson. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

“We’re so excited to be able to help the students and BA and they are in turn helping us,” said Cathy Hobens, Rice County master gardener volunteer. “It’s a wonderful collaboration.”

The master gardener volunteers started the teaching gardens at the fairgrounds several years ago after the Rice Soil and Water Conservation District installed a rain garden on the grounds in 2008.

Master gardener volunteer Mickey Dogotch said the volunteers focused much of their attention on the teaching gardens during the pandemic this year. They had “all the time in the world,” but like many organizations experienced during the pandemic, the master gardeners’ funding decreased.

“John Dvorak, the manager of the [Rice County] Fairgrounds, hooked us up with the partnership, and it ended up being something both of us were really excited about for the community and the garden,” Dogotch said.

Dvorak recognized the teaching gardens needed organization and fresh ideas, so he initiated contact with ag educators. The partnership between BA and the master gardeners happened so quickly and naturally, Dvorak joked, “They talked for five minutes, and I was able to leave.”

Looking ahead to 2021, Dvorak said the gardens will function as an educational piece for those who attend the next Rice County Fair.

“My vision when you drive into the fairgrounds is to make it inviting,” Dvorak said. “ … It’s really rewarding for me to see all this coming together.”

Digging in the dirt

From the classroom angle, BA ag teacher Casi Story wanted to give her students a hands-on opportunity to apply their knowledge of plant science to an actual project. In previous years, before Story began teaching at BA, students’ parents sometimes offered their gardens as teaching sites.

Ag, Food and Natural Resources (AFNR) students as well as plant science students will use their knowledge from the classroom to make the teaching gardens flourish.

“Everything we do out here is very relevant and applicable to what we do in class,” Story said.

Within reason, BA students will have the freedom to choose which plants to include in the teaching gardens. BA junior Hunter Janovsky said the class already developed garden blueprints to make the gardens efficient while including as many plants as possible.

While Story teaches students what they know about horticulture, the master gardeners are there to offer input if needed. Over the winter months especially, they plan to discuss possibilities for spring, such as a handicap accessible sidewalk, a bat house and planters. The master gardeners will determine the order of the projects as funding becomes available, Dogotch said.

The AFNR class started off the year focusing on the agricultural piece and more recently began breaking down the plant science components along with gardening. These students also work in BA’s new greenhouse.

BA students in the Ag, Food and Natural Resources class meet at the Rice County Fairgrounds to work on the teaching gardens during class. Pictured from left: Teagan Ferrin, Maci Bongers, Matt Palan and Hunter Janovsky. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

Story said plant science students learn about plant roots, stems, leaves and fruit at a more in-depth level. They spend a significant amount of time doing lab work, hands-on growing and landscaping. Based on what they learn in class, they will know which plants to recommend by considering factors like exposure to sunlight and soil.

Teagan Ferrin, a BA junior, said she came into the AFNR class without knowing much about plants but has since learned their lengths, lifespans, and how to identify them. Matt Palan, also a junior, added that he learned about gardening and how to take care of plants.

Bethlehem Academy students in the Ag, Food and Natural Resources class have the change to work with Rice County Master Gardeners to improve the teaching gardens on the Rice County Fairgrounds. Pictured, Maci Bonger, left, and Teagan Ferrin measure one of the gardens. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

Senior Maci Bongers joined the AFNR class to have something in common with her mom, who grew up on a farm.

“This is all new to me,” she said. “I haven’t grown up in an ag lifestyle, so anything I learn is interesting and new.”

Council hopes to secure add'l. federal dollars, signals support for business assistance

Faribault’s City Council signaled its support for a move enabling it to claim the maximum allowable under the federal CARES Act.

As part of the historically large stimulus, which clocked in at $2 trillion, $150 billion in relief for local municipalities was provided to help them weather the economic storm created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Just how much funding each municipality received was set by the state government. Legislators bickered for several months on how to allocate roughly $850 million in funding, before Gov. Tim Walz did it by executive order. Those dollars have come with strict program guidelines laid out in federal code. They can’t be used to cover lost revenue, but can cover unbudgeted expenses as well as public safety and other administrative costs.

Under the plan proposed by proposed by Finance Director Jeanne Day and backed by the council, nearly $4 million in public safety expenses would be submitted to the state, allowing the city to take advantage of any unspent money returned by other municipalities.

All dollars received would go to the city’s general fund, where it would not be subject to the same restrictions as dollars allocated directly under the CARES Act. Thus, the city could use it to cover unbudgeted expenses, though its budget has remained fairly stable overall. Alternatively, the council could use those dollars to assist local small businesses and provide rental assistance, but without the restrictions and reporting requirements mandated under the CARES Act.

Faribault received just under $1.8 million in CARES Act dollars and has allocated most of it. However, only about half of the assistance recently approved for small businesses and nonprofits was claimed, and roughly $550,000 was never allocated at all.

Councilors Royal Ross and Tom Spooner were impatient to get those dollars in the hands of local businesses. They said that even though the last round of assistance saw only a limited number of applicants, many businesses that have applied for help would do so again.

“The purpose of this is to help the small businesses that were suffering,” Ross said. “If it’s not all allocated I would argue it’s not of apathy but because the amount (is too small).”

Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said that while the financial situation is different for every business, many are indeed still hurting. In particular, Rice County’s sizable hospitality and tourism industry has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Hair salons were also hit hard by early restrictions, due to a relatively high risk of COVID transmission. Business has picked up at Faribault’s Simplicity Salon, according to co-owner Gina Teske, but the salon was among those claiming the latest round of CARES Act dollars.

Simplicity is a small shop, with Teske and co-owner Donita Bauemfeind as the only employees, so the business didn’t face some of the complications others have. Still, Teske said that times are tough and businesses like hers could very much use additional assistance.

“It would really benefit a lot of us small businesses,” she said.

The Paradise Center for the Arts, which typically receives some dollars from the city, also got some CARES Act assistance in the latest round of awards. The Paradise, which has typically relied heavily on in-person events, has faced lean times as a result of the pandemic. Council members toured the nonprofit organization’s historic building as they consider a request to help the Paradise pay off its outstanding building debts. If the city covers part of the cost, the Paradise says that its donors would be willing to cover the rest.

Executive Director Heidi Nelson said that the Paradise is grateful for the support it’s received from the city. Still, she said that additional assistance would be most helpful to her organization and other nonprofits in the area.

“(More assistance) would be amazing,” she said.

Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen didn’t dispute that many area businesses have continued to feel severe economic pain even with the assistance they received. However, she said that other factors may have been at play.

“This could be for grant fatigue or even confusion,” she said. “Many of (our businesses) had received federal funds and didn’t necessarily know how it would work with federal funds.”

Still, Kuennen acknowledged that it’s likely that businesses could continue to struggle for at least several more months. With that in mind, she said the council has set itself up nicely to allocate as much as it can to assisting them.

“There likely will continue to be a need for helping our small businesses survive the crisis,” she said. “By having the council claim the dollars for public safety and get those dollars into the city’s general fund, they can now decide that they want to do another program.”

A target explodes after Joseph Kunze fires at it Sunday. Kunze shot 22 targets in his two rounds. (Photo courtesy of Todd Rost)

Faribault council to consider conflict of interest policy

Upon the recommendation of its Charter Commission, the Faribault City Council is considering changes that would strengthen and clarify the city’s conflict of interest provisions.

The change was one of two recommended by the Charter Commission at its annual meeting last month. The other would modify the city’s public expenditures policy, allowing it to be reviewed and approved by the Council on a biannual basis.

Currently, the Charter recommends that the public expenditures policy be approved on an annual basis, but changes have rarely been made. Should either staff or councilors wish to see changes, the topic could still be brought up at any time.

No councilors objected to that change, so it’s likely to be passed by the Council within the next few months. However, amendments to the city charter must be made by unanimous consent, so the opposition of just one councilor would be enough to block it.

The other, more controversial provision would update the city’s conflict of interest code. Currently, the definition of conflict of interest given in the charter is very limited, only covering cases of overt contractual obligation.

State law as interpreted by the Minnesota Supreme Court takes a much broader view of the cases of potential conflict of interest, according to a memo issued by the League of Minnesota Cities that was included in the council’s information.

For example, it notes that even in non-contractual situations, a city who has a financial interest in an official non-contractual action would be expected to fully recuse themselves not only from the vote but any discussion or debate preceding it.

Potential conflicts of interest aren’t simply limited to cases of direct financial interest, the memo states. Elected officials with business interests and/or family connections would be expected to recuse themselves even if no direct personal gain was at stake.

Other areas for potential conflicts of interest include special assessments, zoning decisions, and licensing or permit issuance. The memo notes that some situations may fall into a “grey area,” particularly regarding decisions affecting groups with whom an official may have some relationship.

City Administrator Tim Murray said that changing the City Charter won’t have any fundamental affect on what constitutes a conflict of interest. However, he said it would help to provide clearer guidance to councilors when such a situation arises.

Murray said that as the council is a self-governing body, the primary responsibility falls on the members themselves to avoid any conflict of interest. In limited areas, such as regarding any council pay raises, the correct course of action may be specified in law.

Should members of the community or affected applicants feel a city official did not take appropriate action to recuse themselves, they would have a right to take legal action under Minnesota law.

Several councilors expressed concern that the language around “non-contractual obligation” was too broad, potentially preventing councilors from taking a wide variety of official actions in cases in which only a convoluted conflict may exist.

“There could be a conflict of interest in everything we talk about,” said Councilor Janna Viscomi. “Who’s to decide what’s a conflict of interest?”

Murray said that the Charter Commission had pushed hard for answers to that same question but had ultimately been satisfied by the League’s memo as well as testimony from City Attorney Scott Riggs.

At the behest of Viscomi, Murray said that he would invite Riggs to give similar testimony to the council at an upcoming meeting. However, former mayor and Charter Commission Member Chuck Ackman said that he believes the change would actually help to clarify the provision.

“If you look at the paragraph as it’s currently written, it’s not a very easy read,” he said. “I think a rephrasing of the paragraph into a more readable form, and would also expand the definition.”

The Council’s liaison to the Charter Commission, Elizabeth Cap, has said that the issue of potential conflict of interest is far from theoretical. Cap, who’s slated to leave the council in January, sounded the alarm on the issue in an interview with the Daily News last month.

“A big part of why I do not want to be a part of local government is conflicts of interest,” she said. “I didn’t seek public office to line the pockets of my business associates or friends.”