City didn’t expect over-capacity crowd [UPDATED]Published 11:01am Monday, May 14, 2012 Updated 8:52am Tuesday, May 15, 2012
City staff knew the meeting was going to be big, but they didn’t know how big. When around 200 people tried to crowd into the Fergus Falls City Council chamber on May 7 to learn about the possible demolition of the Kirkbride building, it was more people than the city was expecting — or could even handle in its meeting space.
“When we made the meeting schedule on Thursday, we had no idea,” said Lynne Olson, assistant to the city administrator.
As a result, the council chambers could not fit everyone who attended, and observers spilled into the foyer and out the door. Police Chief Kile Bergren had to turn some people back, as the space quickly reached its capacity of about 150 people (with chairs in the room).
The lack of space prompted frustrated reactions from some in the crowd. Some called for the meeting to be moved to a different setting with greater capacity, with others complaining that the city was not letting the public have its voice. According to Olson, the setup was the best the city could do at the time.
When staff was setting up the meeting, they planned for more people than usual, but not more than a full house. They were not aware of how wide-reaching the Friends of the Kirkbride’s campaign to bring in preservation supporters had gotten, Olson explained.
“We did make accommodations for them … by putting in additional chairs and making room for standing room only,” she said, adding that no one had called the city to say that the number of people in attendance might exceed capacity.
During the meeting, observers asked that more people be let into the room and that the meeting be moved, but Olson said both options were not legally viable. The first would violate the fire code, potentially causing serious safety or legal issues, and the second would violate open meeting law by changing the meeting location too close to the scheduled event. The city is also limited in other venue locations because PEG Access is only capable of shooting live meetings in a few locations.
“Our room is what it is, and 99.9 percent of the time it fits our needs very well,” Olson said, noting that a packed council meeting is nearly unprecedented in Fergus Falls.
Still, with some attendees complaining that it was hard to see or hear what was going on, Olson said the city is preparing for another crush of attendees at its May 21 meeting, where the council will discuss extending the Regional Treatment Center demolition grant agreement and talk about awarding the land’s Parcel D4 to a local developer.
“They don’t have the right to participate; that’s a council decision to allow them to do that or not, but they do have the right to observe,” she said.
As such, a TV playing a live broadcast of the meeting will be set up in the foyer, and if weather permits and the crowd is an overflow again, another TV will be set up outside.
Olson isn’t sure how many people will be attending the next meeting, which is one of the reasons why it’s hard to know if scheduling it for a different venue is necessary.
The Friends of the Kirkbride are certainly hoping for a repeat performance. Members are encouraging another big turnout, with an online flyer encouraging supporters to “pack the place again!!!”
Friends of the Kirkbride leaders Gene Schmidt, Maxine Schmidt and Laurie Mullen, along with City Attorney Rolf Nycklemoe, could not be reached for comment.