Earl Haugen thinks the Metropolitan Planning Organization -- the regional transportation planning body of which he is the executive director -- is transparent enough.
“Most agenda items on the MPO are coming to us because of action either City Council has taken or asked us to consider,” he said Thursday, Aug. 8.
Haugen noted that the organization’s executive board has representatives from the East Grand Forks and Grand Forks city councils, the Polk and Grand Forks county commissions, and both cities’ planning commission -- and part of their duties include reporting back to their respective bodies about the MPO’s goings-on. He also noted that the organization has a technical advisory committee comprised of staff from both cities, and they’re supposed to report back, too.
Haugen rattled all that off for the Herald because, on Monday, City Council President Dana Sande questioned the planning organization’s transparency.
“In my opinion, they don’t try very hard to get public opinion,” Sande told the Herald. “They go out of their way to check all of the boxes to ensure that they’re doing everything legally correct without actually having to go out -- without actually even trying to get public opinion.”
The planning organization is a sort-of hub for cities, counties and the feds to coordinate interjurisdictional projects. It also studies and tries to figure out ways to fix Grand Forks-area transportation problems -- it’s been part of a decadeslong debate over a southside bridge over the Red River and might be part of large-scale change around the northside intersection of Gateway Drive and Washington Street.
The MPO spends about $750,000 annually, about 80 percent of which comes from the federal government. Grand Forks and East Grand Forks chip in 10 percent apiece. About half of that budget goes toward consultants, the rest toward the organization’s four full-time employees, interns, and temporary workers, Haugen said.
The organization’s executive board -- a collection of city and county officials and staffers -- meets at noon on the third Wednesday of a given month at East Grand Forks City Hall, and those meetings aren’t recorded or broadcast. Sande questioned how easily people could make it to a meeting at that time, and suggested changing it to 5:30 p.m
He also hopes the planning organization hosts more meetings near the area where it’s studying a project. (A meeting to discuss renovations around the Gateway/Washington intersection was held in a meeting room at City Hall, about a mile away.)
“If you actually want public participation, and you want the people that are affected by things to participate, you have to be available on their schedules,” Sande said Thursday. “If I wanted to have a meeting about a bridge, I’d go to where people are talking about having the bridge, not to City Hall.”
Haugen said that board members have flirted with televising their meetings and changing their meeting times but haven’t done so. The planning organization relies on media outlets, such as the Herald, to get the word out about its goings-on, Haugen said. It also uses its website and Facebook page and forms “steering committees” for citywide projects, which are comprised of residents and business owners near the spot where the planning organization is considering a new project.
The MPO is also working on a new iteration of its “public participation plan,” which it updates every 5-7 years.
“One of the things that we were already researching was updating our website,” Haugen said. They’re also seeking professionals in public participation, website design, and so on, he added.
“Isn’t that nice?” Sande said with a laugh when the Herald told him about the public participation plan. “I think the MPO does some really, really important work for our communities. I think the council members from both Grand Forks and East Grand Forks that are participants in that group work really hard to do good work for our community. I just believe that the MPO leadership, not being elected officials, don’t carry -- they don’t have the same sense of urgency as the elected folks.”