Winona’s weak democracy


From: Scott Makstenieks



Over the past months, it has been clear that a free press, freedom of assembly, and vigorous protest are essential to countering state violence, seeking social justice, and countering the economic and environmental destruction of unchecked capitalism.

Unfortunately, over that same period, local governments and institutions in Winona have limited community engagement in decision-making, expressing discomfort with public debate and limiting citizens’ ability to shape our city and county’s future. County commissioners directly voted to forgo a public hearing on the jail proposal, choosing instead to hold an “educational forum” without any public comment. Those most affected by policing and incarceration were not engaged in the democratic process. 

More recently, after receiving a unanimous resolution from Winona’s Human Rights Commission calling for a Zero Youth Detention policy, the majority of the City Council (along with the mayor) dismissed the proposal outright and did not allow for any public commentary. In fact, the City Council and mayor seem to be averse to any public commentary during their meetings. This lack of public accountability removes the voice of the people from the public record and sends a clear message that the community is not welcome in planning the city’s path forward.

On this past June 2, community members, including myself, attended the city’s Board of Adjustment meeting to oppose the requested variance for minimal windows on the proposed jail. Although we were asked to focus our comments, we were specifically given two minutes each to speak on the record in a public hearing. After residents also chose to speak out against the monstrosity of the jail itself, the board chair interrupted this broad dissent, despite the prior assurance of open commentary. Women at this meeting were rudely cut off, and after I reminded the chair that it was a public hearing, the tone quickly became combative. As before, the city sent a clear message — we are annoyed by your democratic participation. Unfortunately, this newspaper’s reporting on this meeting portrayed the community voices (of women) as disruptive rather than highlighting the board chair’s disruption of democratic participation. Instead this newspaper could have noted that prior to the meeting’s start, board members joked around unprofessionally with the current jail administrator, revealing a shocking lack of objectivity and an embedded old boys’ network of white masculinity.

As Iris Marion Young wrote in her book, “Inclusion and Democracy,” “The normative legitimacy of a democratic decision depends on the degree to which those affected by it have been included in the decision-making processes and have had the opportunity to influence the outcomes.” Based on current practices in Winona, our democracy lacks that legitimacy. The City Council must open their meetings for public comment. The County Board must solicit diverse perspectives and listen to the community members affected by their decisions. All public officials must go to the people and ask them what they want for the future of Winona rather than mandating what decisions will be made for them.


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