After lengthy discussion and rare divided vote, Faribault’s City Council voted Tuesday to shelve plans for new staff-run social media accounts.
Councilors initially expressed interest in creating official new city-run pages several months ago. In response, Parks and Recreation Department Communications Coordinator Brad Phenow and Librarian Delane James drew up potential guidelines for the program.
Using recommendations from the League of Minnesota Cities as a guide, Phenow and James said they designed the plan to encourage free discussion while ensuring that residents will be able to easily access any information that could be considered public.
As administrators, city staff would assist in ensuring public access and retention of records, as well as assisting in deleting inappropriate comments. City-purchased software would assist in data capture and preservation.
As she did when the topic was discussed previously last month, Councilor Elizabeth Cap expressed strong concerns that the system could be used to limit free speech. Cap even said she’d have to consider a lawsuit against the city should it go forward with the plan.
“I think it’s a really slippery slope when we have the government telling us what we can and can’t say,” she said.
However, Councilor Peter van Sluis noted that under the proposed guidelines, comments would only be removed if they include discriminatory or sexual content, ads, endorsements of illegal behavior, information that could compromise public safety or protected medical information.
“I don’t have any real concerns with allowing city staff to administer a page,” said Councilor Jonathan Wood, who along with van Sluis ultimately voted to approve the proposal. “To me it doesn’t seem like there’s this quasi thought force out there.”
While the preservation of social media posts is currently not required at the local level, Phenow and James warned it soon could be. If that happens and the city receives a complicated data request without data capture software in place, it could produce a logistical headache for staff. That isn’t the only reason for the new system. Phenow and James had noted that even at the local level, a growing number of elected officials are using official, government-run social media accounts to communicate with constituents.
On Facebook, only Mayor Kevin Voracek, and Councilors Royal Ross and Wood currently have pages. However, those pages are unofficial and have contained campaign-related posts as well as information regarding official city business.
Phenow said that the city would first focus on setting up official Facebook accounts, then Twitter accounts. He said that funding has already been allocated in the budget to purchase software that allows councilors to simultaneously post on Facebook and Twitter.
Other members of the council, like van Sluis, lack a dedicated council Facebook page but have a personal account. However, van Sluis expressed interest in setting up a Facebook page of his own with staff assistance.
Under the proposed system, councilors like van Sluis could still continue to use their personal accounts. However, they would have needed to add a disclaimer clearly indicating the opinions they share do not necessarily reflect the position of the city.
Phenow said that such a statement would help to set up a clear dividing line that does not currently exist between statements made by councilors in their official role, which could reflect on the city, and those which are made in a private capacity.
Councilor Janna Viscomi wasn’t having it. Viscomi said that regardless of what she happens to be doing at a particular time of the day she never truly stops being a member of the City Council and is liable to hear citizen concerns at any time.
“24 hours a day, I’m Janna Viscomi, City Council member, and it doesn’t matter if I’m eating dinner with my family or if I’m at work or if I’m walking here,” she said. “For you guys to try to create that division, well, to me, there isn’t one.”
Phenow maintained that if citizens begin discussing official business with a councilor on their unofficial page, the appropriate response would be for the councilor to respond by directing them to the official city-run page for an official response.
Still, Minnesota Press Association Attorney Mark Anfinson, an expert on public records laws, said that Viscomi’s concern is very much reasonable and widespread. However, he said the much more significant issue that councilors would have to face is the potential for violations of the state’s Open Meeting Law.
Under current statute, the Open Meeting Law could be violated if enough councilors comment on a post so as to create a quorum. In that case, Councilors would be expected to cease commenting and contact the city administrator immediately.
City Administrator Tim Murray warned the council that if such a violation were to occur, any subsequent decisions regarding matters discussed on such a social media post could be challenged in court.
As creating a page wouldn’t be mandatory for councilors, and several have expressed little interest in doing so, the odds of such a current situation might seem low. Still, if enough councilors sign up, Anfinson said the risk would be significant.
“If you had that sort of page available to members of the council, it would almost invite Open Meeting Law violations,” Anfinson said.
Anfinson said he believes that if the Open Meeting Law were to be relaxed, discussion of crucial city issues via social media could actually increase transparency, satisfying the genuine spirit of the law. However, until the legislature revisits that, he argued cities should tread carefully.
Councilor Royal Ross echoed those sentiments in casting a crucial no vote. Ross encouraged the proposal to be brought back before the council after November’s elections, but said the proposal has significant issues that could use correction from the state level.
“Until we get more bugs worked out or the state passes a law saying we have to do it, I’m a no vote for tonight,” Ross said. “In 90 days, there will be a new council, which I may or may not be on. I would encourage it to be brought back and I have a feeling that it will be brought back.”
With roots in the city going back more than 50 years, the Daikin Applied plant on Faribault’s north side has been a staple of the local economy long before it was owned by the Japanese company.
Since purchasing McQuay International in 2006, Daikin has only redoubled investment in the Faribault plant. That’s helped the company, a commercial HVAC manufacturer, snag its latest honor — a nomination for Business of the Year from the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism.
Once a $40 million expansion project is complete, an additional 130 jobs will come to a second plant in Faribault. That’s in addition to the 567 jobs currently at the 24th Street plant, according to a 2018 company report.
“The investment level that Daikin has made in the community, and their commitment to build a second plant speaks volumes to their belief in our community and workforce,” said Faribault Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen.
Daikin is particularly well respected by other local businesses because it has been a key driver in opening the door to increased investment Foreign Direct Investment, particularly from Japan. Across the state, more than 120,000 jobs are supported by FDI.
Joining Daikin in making sizable investments in Faribault have been three other international companies: French-based Saint-Gobain, owners of SageGlass, Mexican-based La Costeña, owners of Faribault Foods, and Aldi, a German based-discount supermarket chain. Traditionally, FDI has been concentrated on the coasts, with some investment in major metropolitan areas such as the Twin Cities. In greater Minnesota, Faribault’s success story is a rarity, though the city benefits from proximity and ease of access to the Twin Cities.
Strong ties between Faribault and Japan specifically have also been built thanks to Daikin’s investment. Last February, Japanese Consul General Naoki Ito visited Faribault and offered warm praise for both the city and Daikin’s facility.
Subsequently, local business, civic and elected leaders traveled to Japan twice with support from the Japan Foundation, enabling the city to raise its profile and spurring hopes that other companies could look at Faribault as a potential site for investment.
Kuennen said Daikin’s investment has come with a full commitment to the community. That has included a strong effort to help interested Faribault youth transition into a high quality job at the plant, with help from Faribault High School and South Central College.
“Based on my conversations with Daikin and their Japanese leadership, when they select a community for investment, their intention is to fully be part of the community, not just to have a facility there,” she said.
As an essential business, Daikin has remained in operation during the pandemic. Will Fort, who serves as vice president and general manager of operations at Daikin’s Minnesota plants, said that employees have stepped up to the plate.
Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson noted that even before the pandemic hit, Daikin paid careful attention to its employees health and well being, helping them to deal with the physical rigors of their job like professional athletes.
Amid the pandemic, Daikin has worked to implement rigorous safety procedures including mandatory use of face masks, rigorous adherence to social distancing and quarantining employees when necessary, enabling the company to avoid major shutdowns.
According to Fort, thanks to the tireless efforts of employees, the company has managed to produce approximately 150 machines that are now in use at hospitals and care facilities, providing crucial comfort for caregivers and the sick alike.
“Their dedication and efforts have been more important than ever,” he said.
Some things weren’t meant to last forever, and one of those things is the bathroom facility at the Rice County Fairgrounds.
“That’s the one thing people complain about the most,” John Dvorak, manager of the Rice County Fairgrounds, said of the bathroom facility. “When they come to the fair, they want to have a good experience, and one way to do that is to have more comfortable bathrooms.”
Apart from being unpleasant, the outdated bathrooms are not handicap accessible and therefore miss the mark of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. During the coronavirus pandemic, the facilities also lack a proper setup for social distancing and fail to meet hygiene standards.
The Rice County Commissioners also saw the need for new restrooms on the fairgrounds and approved an advertisement for bids during its Aug. 25 meeting. Parks and Facilities Director Matt Veridick made the request to the Rice County Board of Commissioners.
Funding from the Coronavirus Relief, Aid and Economic Security (CARES) Act will be used for the project, which Dvorak expects to cost upward of $250,000. The bidding period began Sept. 1 and ends Sept. 22, giving contractors three weeks to compose their bids. Construction will begin soon after selection of the contractor, and the substantial completion date is Dec. 1.
Although traces of asbestos found in the facility delayed the demolition, Dvorak said the bathrooms are ready to be torn down Monday.
While he isn’t sure of the exact year the restrooms were built, Dvorak knows the initial structure functioned as a men’s restroom only. The women’s portion of the facility was added later.
The current restroom has six stalls on either side, and the new restrooms will have the same footprint with six women’s stalls, three men’s toilets and three urinals. Both sides will contain three sinks and handicap stalls. Unlike the old restroom, the new building will have a unisex bathroom with a shower on the west end.
To meet COVID-19 requirements, the modern bathrooms will have an entrance on one side of the building and an exit on the opposite end to prevent interactions. Automatic faucets and paper towel dispensers will reduce the number of surfaces users need to touch.
Depending on the bids, Dvorak said the bathroom may include hand dryers instead of paper towels.
The Rice County Fair is usually the only occasion when the bathrooms are open, said Dvorak, but he hopes the new restrooms draw more activities to the fairgrounds.While it was once an embarrassment to open up the bathrooms for functions, he said the new facility will be more inviting.
“It’s been a long time coming, and I’m just grateful the county administrator and commissioners saw the need that it was time to replace it, and we’re able to use some of the funding coming from the CARES Act,” Dvorak said. “It can only help improve the fairgrounds.”