Council bypasses petition; votes to fund Sister City Committee as it is

Petition on agenda asked that Sister City funding be diverted to other areas of need

By Terry LehrkeNews Editor

Little Falls resident Theresa Skorseth submitted a written request to be on the Little Falls City Council’s June 3 agenda to address possible defunding of the Sister City Committee.

However, the June 3 meeting was adjourned after a minute, due to a disruption. The only business carried forward to a special meeting was to pay the city’s bills and approve several timely licenses.

Skorseth’s request was listed on the Council’s Monday agenda.

Skorseth asked not only that the $3,000 per year given to the Sister City Committee be diverted to other areas of need, but that she be allowed five minutes to make her point.

The Sister City Committee was established more than 20 years ago by then-Mayor Pat Spence.

Charles A. Lindbergh landed in Le Bourget Field in Paris, France, after making his famous transatlantic flight in May 1927.

The Sister City Committee takes care of an exchange between the cities of Little Falls and Le Bourget, France. Every two years an exchange takes place: Little Falls residents travel to France, or the French travel to Little Falls.

When the subject came up on the agenda, Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem made the motion to continue to fund the Sister City Committee and program as is.

As Council Member LeeAnn Doucette made the second, Council Member Frank Gosiak asked where the $3,000 funding came from. “It doesn’t come from our general fund,” he said.

The city charges the Little Falls Chamber of Commerce and West Side Improvement Association a $15 fee for each vendor at the Little Falls Arts and Crafts and the Antiques and Collectibles fairs, Finance Officer Lori Kasella said.

From those funds (about $9,000, Kasella said), it was decided in 1998 or 1999, that $3,000 be deposited in the Sister City Committee’s fund to pay for events for visitors from France, who come to Little Falls on a four-year rotation.

Council Member at Large Brian-Paul Crowder pointed out those funds are also used for other items, such as the historic street lights.

The funds collected go in the Parking Lot Fund, Kasella said. “It doesn’t just pay for street lights, but for parking lot improvements and an amount is designated to go to Sister City; part of that has to do with Antiques and Collectibles Fair held at Le Bourget Park.”

For many years, the Sister City Committee didn’t receive any funds from the city, said Council Member At Large Brian-Paul Crowder.

VanRisseghem asked Melissa Peterson, the president of the Sister City Committee for the past 1 1/2 years, to come to the podium to offer information about the committee and “clear some things up.”

Peterson related that the committee was formed in 1987. “I only learned about when we started getting Arts and Crafts Fair money by looking at the (Council) packets online,” she said.

All that funding, she said, is spent to host the French delegates who come to Little Falls for the exchange. “It goes to buying their food, buying their transportation in-country when we take them on bus trips,” she said. When the guests are transported within the Little Falls area, the group caravans with committee members and people associated with the committee using their own vehicles, without reimbursement. There is also no reimbursement to the families who open their homes as hosts to the French.

If the group is taken to an event or area that requires admission, the committee pays for the French guests; Little Falls residents and the public involved pay for their own.

The committee also does some fundraising, said Peterson, with a goal to have between $10,000 – $15,000 to spend on the French guests.

Peterson said the committee is largely made up of new members, with six of the nine members having come on board within the last two years. The committee is learning all over how to fundraise effectively and come up with new ideas for fundraising, she said.

VanRisseghem, whose daughter was appointed to the committee when Brian Mackinac was mayor, called the committee a dedicated group of individuals and said the French definitely appreciated their efforts.

Peterson said the Little Falls entourage would be leaving for France Thursday (June 27).

They will be in Le Bourget for 10 days. “We represent the community … we’re not just tourists, we’re delegates, getting to know these people,” she said. “It’s an exchange of ideas and cultures.

“I pay my own way and so does every other local person. We try to be as responsible as we can with the money and all the bills go to the city to get approved,” said Peterson.

Council Member Jeremy Hanfler clarified that the committee budgets for $15,000 over four years, gets $3,000 a year from the city for each of the four years ($12,000). “So you guys are probably raising $1,000 (a year),” he said.

She said others besides those in the committee help. “Nine of us can’t raise $3,000 every year, we need extra help for that. The committee is larger than it seems to be,” said Peterson.

“They came in with a lot of energy to do this,” said VanRisseghem. “Very honest, hardworking people and I apologize for all of the bad things being said this year about you guys. You are a wonderful committee, a group of committed people to this community, volunteering your time and service and I appreciate that and I know the Council does and the city of Little Falls.”

The next trip for people in the Little Falls area to France will be in four years. The French will visit Little Falls in 2015.

Council Member Loren Boyum, who noted the Sister City exchange was a “very successful program in operation for some 26 years,” asked to call for a vote on the motion on the floor.

Skorseth, who fully expected to address the Council asked Council President Don Klinker, “Mr. President, I’m on the agenda to address this issue, am I not to be allowed to speak?”

Klinker told her the question had been called, apologized and the motion to leave the funding for the Sister City Committee passed 7-1, with Crowder voting “no.”

Before moving to the next item, Skorseth asked again for her chance to speak.

Klinker told her the issue had been decided.

“So the fact that I called and got on the agenda to discuss this and was trumped by Melissa Peterson because she is taking your side, you’re going to have me escorted out now, I assume,” Skorseth said.

Klinker told Skorseth the Council didn’t have to listen to her comments.

“I think it would be common courtesy (to let Skorseth speak), she’s on the agenda, I don’t see what the problem is,” said Crowder.

“It’s already over and done with,” Klinker said.

“I’m not going to deal with you on this level; but I’ll be back,” said Skorseth.

Paul Reuvers, the attorney representing the city of Little Falls in its lawsuit with Robin Hensel, said the City Council can set the procedure on how it wants to handle meetings and “What kind of comment they do or do not want to allow,” he said. “The Council is fully within its rights to do that.

“The Council can decide how they want to address agenda items,” said Reuvers. “No one has an absolute right to be on the agenda; the Council sets their own agenda.”

Skorseth said when she realized she wouldn’t be allowed to speak, “I was completely enraged … I have been dealing with this Council and they keep changing the rules to shut me and Robin (Hensel) out.

“Then they break their own rules; they make you jump through hoops to speak,” she said.

To get on the agenda, Skorseth said she had to call the city administrator to ask to be on the agenda and indicate the subject matter a certain number of days before the meeting.

“You have to schedule it in,” said Skorseth. “There used to be there was a time if you had an issue you could get up before the City Council and state your issue. Then it was moved to the working session, then to the beginning of the work session. Now, apparently, even that’s (getting on the agenda) not good enough.”

Crowder said he voted “no” to the motion, not because he didn’t want the funding to continue for the Sister City Committee, but because Skorseth wasn’t allowed to speak her piece.

“I think it’s a really worthwhile committee; keeping relations and history,” he said.

“It was extremely unfortunate that Theresa wasn’t able to make her comments,” he said. “Our constituents deserve to be heard.”