North Mankato’s City Administrator says way too much has been made about the changes to the public comment policy, adding that there are bigger issues to worry about.

On Monday, the North Mankato City Council held its first open forum for citizens, a move spawned by a meeting last month with the League of Minnesota Cities that discussed the City’s public comment policy.

When asked about the meeting on KTOE’s Talk of the Town with Pete Steiner, City Administrator John Harrenstein says he’s surprised by controversy over the public comment policy changes.

North Mankato City Administrator John Harrenstein.

“Couldn’t we agree that a lot of our controversy is, you know, I don’t know that it’s too controversial. I think we’ve got a lot larger issues in life to think about,” said Harrenstein. When Steiner questioned some of the new rules, Harrenstein said, “what issue are you talking about, I don’t even know what you’re talking, have you been reading the things correctly? I mean, what’s the issue?” Steiner responded with, “oh, confrontational here.”

In July, North Mankato adopted a new policy on how the public comment period is handled and limited input from citizens to just business items. If residents have questions, the item must be submitted to the City and will be considered for inclusion on the agenda.

Some on the Council have feared that a lawsuit could stem from the changes to the public comment policy, adding that they were elected to listen.

“They’re protesting the open forum. That’s ironic,” said Harrenstein.

Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director John Gordon says the public comment policy in North Mankato has the potential to erode civic engagement.

“They have the potential to reduce people’s participation in their local government. Really, local, state and city governments should want to be in dialogue with their community members and not trying to seek opportunities to silence them.”

The ACLU is monitoring the situation and Gordon adds that not everything has to come down to litigation.

“I try to avoid that. We want to make sure that we use all of the resources that are at our disposal and that includes a great public education program and a communications program to make sure that, whether or not there’s a lawsuit there or whether or not the action is illegal, people are alerted to the problem and encouraged to stand up and speak up for their right and ability to communicate with their local officials.

For North Mankato residents like Tom Hagen, he feels the action limits involvement from residents and was done to silence regular speakers. He has also alluded to a potential lawsuit over the issue.

“The Citizens of North Mankato need to realize that their free speech rights are being taken away.”

Officials plan to continue the forums, but the meetings will remain untelevised.