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Experience Rochester's legislative priorities out of sync with city policy

Experience Rochester's legislative priorities out of sync with city policy

A memo outlining Experience Rochester's 2018 top legislative priorities has sparked debate about whether as a publicly-funded organization it should be lobbying for positions formally opposed by the city's elected body.

The document from Experience Rochester, formerly known as the Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau, was made public over the weekend through a blog post by Council Member Michael Wojcik. (Experience Rochester later sent us a copy of the document upon request.)

In the post, Wojcik raised concerns that several of the positions from Experience Rochester — notably those supporting preemptive measures at the state level — are at odds with city policy. 

"We are literally using City of Rochester taxpayer dollars to lobby against the City of Rochester," he wrote.

At the center of Wojcik's case is a 2017 resolution passed by the Rochester City Council declaring the city's support for local decision-making authority and its opposition to legislation that "removes the ability for local elected officials to respond to the needs of their businesses and constituents.” 

The resolution, supported by the League of Minnesota Cities, was adopted amid an effort in the Minnesota Legislature to pass bills preempting cities from acting alone on issues like minimum wage and paid sick leave.

Given the city's position on the issue, Wojcik and others contend that the council should have been notified of Experience Rochester's legislative agenda. Council President Randy Staver serves on the organization's board and is responsible for relaying information back to the council.

"Randy Staver is on the executive board of this private organization and would have likely approved these lobbying priorities," said Wojcik. "He also did not share this with the Rochester City Council."

In an email Monday, Staver said he did support Experience Rochester's legislative priorities when it was brought up to the board a few months back. But because the agency operates independently, he said, it is not obligated to be in lockstep agreement with positions taken by the city.

"[Experience Rochester] operates as an independent organization and may advocate for issues per the wishes of their membership which consists largely of the hospitality industry in Rochester," explained Staver.

"Now, can the city express its displeasure if an organization takes a different position? Yes, according to the city attorney. Could that mean adjusting future funding? Possibly. But if future funding is viewed as punitive or an attempt to curb free speech, then that could be problematic," said Staver, emphasizing that the last statement represents his personal opinion.

Cities vs. States

Passing preemptive measures has been a priority the past couple of years for Republican-held Legislatures across the country. Their goal is to prevent larger, more progressive cities from enacting policies that don't align with state regulations.

In Minnesota, two cities — Minneapolis and St. Paul — have already adopted new paid leave and sick rules. Additionally, Minneapolis has approved a $15 minimum wage that will take effect in phases over the next few years.

In 2017, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill that would have prohibited cities from passing such policies. However, Gov. Mark Dayton ultimately vetoed the preemption measure, arguing that "local governments can be more adept at responding to local needs with ordinances that reflect local values and the unique needs of their communities."

Already this year, though, lawmakers are back at it with a series of preemption bills being proposed. While Dayton has reaffirmed his position that he doesn't see the need for them, pro-business groups like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce argue the patchwork of policies is creating uncertainty and driving investment out of the state.

“The hodgepodge is here,” Cam Winton, the director of labor policy with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, told Minnpost. “While most Minnesotans are able to go about their normal lives, Minnesota’s employers, who are trying to compete and grow and hire employees and attract and retain talent in this type labor market, these mandates are a real problem.”

Here in Rochester, the city has not taken action on any of the specific issues being considered for preemption at the state level. Instead, Staver noted, the city has only taken a broad position regarding local control. 

Staver suggested that for the city's resolution to have any standing, the council would need to take each issue up one by one.

"Michael has a certain opinion regarding minimum wage and whether it should be administered at the local level and RCVB has a different opinion which is why, I believe, he is making his objections," he said. "But the city and city council have not taken a specific position on the minimum wage subject; only a general position regarding preemption and local control."

Questions of oversight

Though Experience Rochester is a private organization with its own board, it does receive public funding through the city's lodging tax — approximately $2.5 million in 2018 — to promote Rochester's entertainment and hospitality industries to out-of-town visitors. In recent months, oversight of the organization has become a hot-button issue, with critics questioning whether its priorities are reflective of the city's best interests. 

Council Member Nick Campion has been among those advocating for greater public oversight of private organizations that receive public funding, including Experience Rochester. 

Asked whether he views it as a conflict that Experience Rochester, a publicly funded organization, would lobby against a resolution passed by the city, Campion said: "I find it detrimental to the contracted mission of the tax-funded RCVB [Experience Rochester] to be taking lobbying positions directly counter to those formally adopted by the city."

Brad Jones, executive director of Experience Rochester, said the list of legislative priorities was approved a few months before the current legislative session started. The document is nearly identical to one promoted by Minnesota Hotel & Lodging Association. Jones serves on the board of the organization and last month participated in an event at the Minnesota Capitol where industry groups lobbied for preemption measures.

Reached Monday, Jones said nobody has approached him with concerns about the organization's activity. He suggested the organization would be willing to modify its position, depending on direction from the council.

"As a good partner with the City of Rochester, we are always open to change or editing of a position if it is in the best interest of the city," said Jones. "We do not have any active lobbying efforts or lobbyist; these are just our top legislative priorities."

City Attorney Jason Loos told us this week he is currently exploring what options the city would have if it chooses to restructure its agreement with Experience Rochester. Already, Wojcik has stated he plans to bring the issue back up after the November elections.

"Legally, RCVB [Experience Rochester] is not part of the city, it is a non-profit corporation," said Loos. "Legally, there is no requirement that RCVB is in agreement with the city on every issue. However, it is up to the council as a whole to decide how they want to handle the relationship with RCVB."

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