Council clashes, but mayor says it’s ‘nothing we can’t handle’

Published 7:08 am Thursday, January 7, 2010

Austin City Council has had its share of contentious meetings lately, often sparked by the issues of revising the city charter and dealing with transition at the fire department.

Wednesday night was no different.

What was slated to be a casual council retreat at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center became a more heated discussion about those issues and others.

At the center of the conversation was councilman John Martin, who accused several council members of wielding too much power in picking the new fire chief and reiterated his stance against changing the charter.

Martin also said he was not kept in the loop regarding the exact time and location of the retreat, while adding that he felt more pressing issues could have been put on the agenda.

The meeting featured a visit from Ardell Brede, the mayor of Rochester and president of the League of Minnesota Cities, for a discussion on codes of ethics within city governments. Several Austin department heads also addressed 2010 goals with the council Wednesday.

Martin said after the meeting that he is committed to representing his constituents, regardless of whether that gets him into debates with other council members. He said others on the council don’t do this and instead simply “rubber stamp” things that come their way.

The councilman also said he knows he has a confrontational personality, but he is confident that he’s doing what he was elected to do.

“I’m rough around the edges. That’s who I am,” Martin said. “The people who voted me in knew that. They want someone who will bring issues to the forefront.”

But other council members aren’t always receptive to Martin’s style. During a Dec. 21 meeting in which Martin and Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi, a charter commission member, got into an argument, councilman Steve King said he was embarrassed to be on council.

Councilman Jeff Austin said Wednesday he wasn’t embarrassed to be on council generally, but on Dec. 21, he agreed with King.

“It was embarrassing to be at that meeting,” Austin said.

Austin and King, as well as Dick Pacholl, are also members of the city fire committee, which Martin said has too much power in selecting Dan Wilson’s replacement as fire chief.

However, Austin and King both said the committee will only be recommending someone from a list of three provided by the Austin Fire Civil Service Commission. And even then, they noted, the council can reject the recommendation.

“That’s not much power,” Austin said.

Austin said he thinks Martin may simply be opposed to the system of government in place locally, which Austin said isn’t a feasible position for a council member.

“You don’t reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Pacholl, who’s been involved with council in some form for 28 years, said the current council is the most challenging he’s worked with.

“It’s different,” he said of the relationship. “It’s hard to understand.”

The veteran councilman said Martin’s actions do sometimes bother him and he doesn’t always know where Martin is coming from. Pacholl said that Martin ultimately needs to learn to compromise on certain issues.

“I’ve been against things too,” Pacholl said, “but I work for it.”

Mayor Tom Stiehm, who has been accused by Martin of not listening to him, said he and others can deal with the sometimes contentious meetings.

“We’re all adults. It’s nothing we can’t handle,” the mayor said, noting that council routinely moves on quickly from heated discussions and gets a lot done at meetings.

Like Pacholl, Stiehm said he thinks Martin needs to learn how to work within the system and bend when necessary.

“It’s a group situation,” the mayor said. “You don’t always get along.”

Martin, however, is not likely to soften his stance anytime soon.

“I can stand up and do what my constituents want me to do,” he said. “I say the peace of the people.”