Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

A little sunshine please

Refusal to answer questions suggests Tower officials don’t like their answers

Posted 3/21/18

Asking questions. There are few tasks more critical to the workings of a newspaper as it serves its vital watchdog role.

We ask questions most often to ensure accuracy. But sometimes we ask …

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A little sunshine please

Refusal to answer questions suggests Tower officials don’t like their answers


Asking questions. There are few tasks more critical to the workings of a newspaper as it serves its vital watchdog role.

We ask questions most often to ensure accuracy. But sometimes we ask questions because they need to be asked, and because they aren’t being asked by the public officials who make decisions that affect us.

In our experience, public officials don’t like questions when they aren’t proud of the answers.

And that appears to be the situation with the city of Tower, which has now officially informed this newspaper that it will not respond to questions related to the city’s decision to connect the Hoodoo Point Campground to the Tower-Breitung municipal wastewater system. Ironically, the city’s decision not to respond to legitimate questions came during Sunshine Week, a nationally-recognized event designed to highlight the importance of transparency in government.

Sadly, there is far too little sunshine in the city of Tower these days. For more than a year, we’ve urged city officials to reconsider this project, and more recently, we’ve asked for any evidence that the three pressurized mound systems that have provided wastewater treatment for the campground for the past 25 years actually needed to be abandoned.

This was a key question, not only because connecting the campground to the municipal sewer system would be costly, but because it threatened to consume a sizable portion of the remaining capacity in the municipal system, potentially hamstringing future economic development efforts and requiring far more costly expansion of the municipal capacity.

Without solid evidence that the existing mound system was failing and could not readily be restored to full function, the city council’s decision to abandon it was foolhardy.

When pressed on the issue, city officials have fallen back on their city engineer, saying that the recommendation to connect to the city system came from him. In response, we addressed a number of pertinent questions to the city engineer. We have since been informed that the city will not be responding to any of them.

So here are the questions we want the city or its engineer to answer. Perhaps the public will begin asking these questions as well and we can finally understand the rationale, or lack thereof, for this costly decision.

1) Could the campground project have included the repair/replacement of the sewage collection lines from the campground to the lift station, and still left the [pressurized mound system] intact, eliminating the need for a sewer extension?

2) Were you aware when you recommended the sewer extension that it would potentially consume a significant portion of the remaining wastewater treatment capacity for the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board?

3) If so, were you aware that this would likely necessitate that the TBWB undertake a sewage capacity expansion, or that it would severely limit planned or proposed economic development in the city?

4) If so, did you inform city officials of the development implications of consuming so much of the remaining treatment capacity?

5) Why did you recommend that the city pursue the sewer extension?

6) What actual evidence do you have that the existing [pressurized mound system] was or is failing?

7) Were you aware that the existing septic system has three [pressurized mounds] that were supposed to be alternated on an annual basis?

8) Were you aware that one of the valves had been stuck open for a period of years?

9) Did you ever evaluate the cost or feasibility of replacing the problem valve?

10) According to Linda Keith, the televising of the sewage collection lines at the campground revealed they were in bad condition, with numerous breaks. Is that your understanding?

11) Based on that, do you believe that the system may have been experiencing significant inflow and infiltration of fresh water?

12) Do you have any evidence that addressing the inflow and infiltration issue would NOT have adequately addressed whatever concerns might have existed around the [mound systems]?

13) Finally, would it be possible for the city to hold off on disconnecting the campground from the existing [mound system] to maintain existing wastewater treatment capacity until additional municipal capacity is brought online?

None of these questions is inappropriate. Indeed, these are all questions that the city council should have asked. By refusing to respond, city officials are refusing to be accountable for their own actions.

We recognize that small town governance isn’t easy, and that public officials often lack the technical expertise that’s needed to make informed decisions on complex issues. That means they frequently rely on engineers, consultants, and attorneys to advise them.

That’s appropriate, but it does not excuse officials from exercising due diligence and from using their own common sense. In this case, it appears that the city failed to adequately explore whether it was actually necessary to abandon an existing wastewater treatment system, and what the broader implications of such a decision might be.

Finally, it’s worth considering the impetus for this entire situation, which began with a perfectly reasonable request to upgrade a portion of the city’s campground to add seven seasonal RV sites. Unfortunately, what had seemed a modest project quickly mushroomed into a very costly venture, with wide-ranging implications. At some point, city officials should have stepped back, and re-examined the city’s real priorities. By failing to do so, they’ve incurred significant expense that was very possibly unnecessary, forced far greater future expense, and hampered prospects for economic development in the process. All to add seven RV sites at the campground.

We all make mistakes. The best we can hope is to learn from them. Unfortunately, their refusal to ask questions, or even answer appropriate questions posed by others, suggests city officials are more intent on circling the wagons than attempting to understand what went wrong.


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