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GF Council discusses going back to standing committees, doing away with Committee of the Whole

The Grand Forks City Council is talking about a major change in the way it makes decisions by, well, doing what it did 10 years ago. Council President Hal Gershman, one of the big proponents of eliminating the system of standing committees back i...

The Grand Forks City Council is talking about a major change in the way it makes decisions by, well, doing what it did 10 years ago.

Council President Hal Gershman, one of the big proponents of eliminating the system of standing committees back in 2000, is now proposing the council go back to that system -- and many council members agree.

The standing committees had been criticized for not being transparent enough. Like most committees, each had a different portfolio, such as finance or public safety, and made recommendations to the full council for a vote.

Gershman and the group of reform-minded city leaders, including current council members Curt Kreun and Doug Christensen and Mayor Mike Brown, who were elected in 2000, replaced the standing committees with the Committee of the Whole.

All city issues went before the "CoW," made up of the entire council, before going to a formal council meeting for a vote. The new council members simply didn't trust the established council members.

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Today, the issue of transparency is less pressing simply because the council has the ability to televise all of its meetings and publish every meeting agenda on the Web, Christensen said.

The council has also gelled as a team with little of the acrimony from the old days.

"I think we've grown up a bit," Gershman said.

Devolution

What changed between 2000 and 2010 is the introduction of the so-called "standby" committees that have since evolved to act a lot like the old standing committees.

In 2002, council members realized that there were issues that were so big that the CoW didn't have time to discuss them. So they created two committees, one that handles public services and public safety and one finance and economic development. These standby committees would only convene if the CoW needed them.

Over time, more and more issues have gone to these standby committees that were never referred by the CoW, issues that were often not quite ready for council action for months or even years, such as the closing of the city's sewage lagoons.

The standby committees -- the public services committee chaired by Kreun and the finance committee chaired by Christensen -- now meet every other week. The only difference with the old standing committees is many issues still go straight to the CoW, sidestepping the standby committees.

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Positives

Several council members noted the positive side of doing away with the CoW.

Council Vice President Eliot Glassheim, who had been the lonely voice defending the standing committee, said that would be two fewer meetings in the month.

Currently, there are two CoW meetings, four standby committee meetings and two formal council meetings. Council member Mike McNamara, who earlier said he would not run again, had complained that the number of the meetings was a strain on his job.

Gershman said having so many meetings was a burden on city staff, whose department heads are often in attendance.

On the other hand, council member Terry Bjerke noted, council meetings would likely last longer. Council members who aren't on the standing committees will want to ask a lot of questions before they vote, he said.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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