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How students can become involved in the Northfield government

From volunteer opportunities made available by Carleton’s Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE) to Little Joy and Goodbye Blue Monday, Northfield has consistently been utilized as a classroom for Carleton students. By getting involved with city government, members of Carleton’s student body can take an even greater advantage of the college’s close proximity to Northfield’s dynamic community.

Northfield adopted its city charter in 1910, and currently operates under the mayor-council governing structure where the mayor and city council are separately elected. Through numerous advisory boards and commissions, city council meetings and voting opportunities, there are many ways Northfield residents and citizens can get involved with the city government.

According to Political Science and Environmental Studies professor Kimberly Smith, who served on Northfield’s Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) from 2016 to 2019, there are a number of ways students and community members can work directly  with the city government. 

“There’s lots of opportunities, partly because there are so many boards and commissions,” Smith said. “The government depends pretty heavily on volunteers.” Citizen boards and commissions are groups dedicated to specific issues, such as the Arts and Culture commission and the aforementioned EQC, appointed by the mayor.

There also exist additional government organizations, including a number of initiatives and nonprofits. One example is the ‘Healthy Community Initiative’, which, according to the organization’s website, is dedicated to fostering social connection, policy change and neighborhood leadership in Rice County.

According to Smith, there are many citizen boards and commissions within the city, and the EQC, to be specific, worked heavily on environmental issues. During Smith’s  time on the Commission, it oversaw Northfield’s Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2019 with the goal of making Northfield carbon-free by 2040. 

“The city has lots of citizen boards and commissions, usually appointed by the mayor, and they do a lot of work for the city,” Smith said. “The Environmental Quality Commission is responsible for basically keeping track

of what environmental issues need attention in the city.”

The CCCE sends out a weekly email to subscribers citing opportunities for Carleton students to get involved with Northfield boards and commissions, activist agencies such as the Northfield League of Women Voters, community-based work-study jobs and Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) courses. 

City Council member Clarice Grenier Grabau shared a few ways that students can involve themselves with the government, through the aforementioned boards and commissions and in other areas. 

“Well, certainly, you can attend any meeting, in person or virtually; you can contact your representatives, and another great way to get involved is to do it on a commission,” Grabeau said. “We’re always looking for people to serve on the various boards and commissions that work for the government.”

According to Charter Commission President Lance Heisler, there are ways that residents can make changes to the city charter itself. Heisler said that the charter is a document establishing Northfield as a city and allowing it to have increased sovereignty as a city. 

“We have this opportunity to govern ourselves in ways that a lot of cities don’t,” Heisler said. “If you don’t have [a charter], you’re at the whim of the state statute, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you can have local control—especially in a small town—why wouldn’t you want to?”

Provisions to the charter can be proposed by the charter commission, the city council, or the citizens themselves. After being revised, these propositions can be put on the ballot for citizens to vote on.

Heisler added that the city charter and charter commission provide citizens with a greater ability to challenge the city council in occasions when the charter commission and city council are in disagreement.

“It gives citizens more information and a better perspective to go to their councilperson and say, ‘Hey, the charter commission disagrees with what you’re saying,’” Heisler said. “So, that’s a roundabout way of actually getting the charter enforced.”

The charter also provides a way for cities to maintain their power, outside of the state statute, according to Heisler. 

“We have this opportunity to govern ourselves in ways that a lot of cities don’t,” Heisler said. “If you don’t have [a charter], you’re at the whim of the state statute, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you can have local control—especially in a small town—why wouldn’t you want to?”

According to City Council member Suzie Nakasian, the Northfield city government has adapted a lot since she began working with the council in 2010. She finds that this is in large part due to the flexibility of the local government. 

“Climate, diversity, and the arts. Those are themes that weren’t around when I started, and I’m not saying I did it, but it just goes to show the resilience and flexibility of the government to take the ideas from the community and make it happen,” Nakasian said. “You’ll get more done in the local government than you will in your whole life.”

Heisler pointed to another advantage of local government, specifying that Northfield is one of the few cities in the country where the hospital is owned by the municipality, in accordance with the city charter, and not a separate business. 

“Healthcare is something that is important to almost everyone, so having a local hospital means a lot to this town because you just don’t see that very often,” Heisler said. “With businesses buying [the hospitals] all up, we’re becoming more and more unique.”

At a base level, according to Grabeau, local governments can provide residents with a feasible way to be a part of the decision-making process that enables democracy.  Whether it is through joining a board or commission or attending a city council meeting, there are numerous ways that citizens can make their voices heard.

“It feels really good to be part of democracy, to be part of [the] decisions being made at the local level, so it’s a very rewarding position,” Grabeau said.

Nakasian concluded by saying that Carleton students should take advantage of the ability they have to work with the Northfield government. 

“The opportunity to use Northfield as your classroom,” Nakasian said. “That is the education that, I daresay, you are going to remember.”

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