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They say local governments are closest to the people and what they’re thinking. That’s certainly the case for the governing board members of rural Homer Township in southeastern Minnesota and the hundreds of residents who stood up to them.
Board members recently decided $145,000 in federal pandemic funding burning a hole in their pocket could be put to good use by funding the demolition of the historic 103-year-old former school building that currently serves as the township meeting hall. The replacement? A pole-barn type building that would house the old school bell as a nod to Homer’s history.
Many of the township’s 1,300 residents swung into action upon hearing about the plan, starting with a petition aimed at their elected officials on the township board.
Please show your voice by signing this petition to save this building and preserve the location. The Homer Township Board voted to demolish the historic Homer Town Hall/School Building without input from the people they represent.
The Post Bulletin says pressure on local officials mounted as word got around that the township hall was itself going to be history soon in a place that recorded its first European settlers in 1831.
For weeks since plans for demolition became widely known this spring, township residents have called for saving the over 100-year-old town hall, a former school house in one of Minnesota’s oldest communities. “Once you get rid of history, it’s gone. You can’t show this to your grandkids,” resident Dana Blong said.
On Change.org, 672 people signed a petition to save the town hall, and resident JoAn Moham said another 216 people have signed a printed petition. “These buildings inform us of our history in ways no book ever can,” resident Jeanne Nelson wrote.
What unfolded next could probably only happen in a place where elected officials and residents actually know each other. The controversy heated up as the township board insisted residents had every opportunity to weigh in on the issue, while some citizens claimed the local government failed to keep the community informed.
Township officials said they had been discussing the possible demolition and construction project for months at open meetings — notices and agendas for which were posted outside the town hall, as required by law — but that no citizens showed up or raised concerns. Residents contended the Town Board did not do enough to let them know about such a major decision.
“In 2016, the idea of razing the town hall was mentioned and met with such resistance,” resident Scott Shira told the Town Board. Given that, the Town Board should have known the community would feel this way and should have talked to its citizens about the plans, he said. “With the months of opportunity you had to talk to the voters, it seemed like it was never tried,” he added.
“I’m deeply concerned, as is my wife, by the process — or maybe a better term, the lack of process …” resident Louie Born echoed.
The two sides thrashed out their differences in a board meeting focusing not only on what to do with the building, but also a perceived lack of openness in government, even at the township level.
Despite the tensions, the Town Board dedicated nearly their entire meeting to citizen input on Monday and numerous concrete plans for improving transparency, communication, and input moved forward. Citizens offered to help the township start a Facebook page or website on which to post its meetings and agendas or other updates, an idea the Town Board supported, and the Town Treasurer Kim Skappel invited citizens to help the township get quotes on renovating the historic town hall. “We would appreciate anything you can bring to us,” she said.
“It’s not us against you,” resident Lee Seeling told the board. “We’re not going against the board, as such. You guys have been there. You’ve done things for us. But if we disagreed we didn’t have any way to do anything about it. This is only about the building. It’s not about any one of you personally.”
“We weren’t trying to hide anything from you,” Skappel responded, saying the township officials just wanted to make sure they applied for and made use of the federal funds.
In the end, the township board backed off, agreeing to put the building’s future to a vote of residents in March 2024. It wasn’t a pretty process, but the community will undoubtedly be stronger for it.
“After all quotes and bids are collected for both options, this will allow all registered township residents to vote on the question of remodeling the current town hall or demolition [of] the current town hall and build a new town hall,” Township Supervisor Pat Prodzinski said. In apparent reference to disagreement over the proposed demolition, he added, “I think that’s probably the only way we get through this thing.”
That decision was met with cheers and gratitude from supporters of the town hall, who hope the township will use those federal funds and volunteer labor to rehabilitate the historic structure.
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