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Growing pains, growing gains

Dear City of Tiffin; you’ve come a long way, baby.
It has been about four years since the Leader regularly began attending and reporting on the town’s city council meetings. Early coverage included four-hour meetings, a lot of action required to rectify reportedly years of inadequate record-keeping, and no small amount of catfights between council members and the mayor, stemming as much from personality conflicts as philosophical differences. Occasionally, lengthy discussions dissolved into fist slamming on the table and whispered– or blatant– side conversations while someone else had the floor. The backstories, while always colorful and entertaining, were largely unprintable and mostly irrelevant to official city business.
Today, the decorum bears more resemblance to civil discourse. Disagreements still get loud, but more often out of passion for a deeply-held belief about the public good instead of simply getting good and mad. Action is now focused on the future of the city, although a lot of it is amending ordinances that no longer serve the city’s development trends. At least the council now anticipates, rather than reacts to, those trends.
In the last four years, the council has updated its shelf-dusty Comprehensive Plan, hired an engineering firm to help them create a solid, financially-backed Capital Improvements Plan instead of an annual project wish list, obtained $500,000 in grant funding from MPO-JC that had previously eluded Tiffin, built a modest but adequate City Hall, and is in the process of creating a sorely-needed economic development policy that will guide future requests for tax-based incentives as it more carefully considers how development will bring new businesses and more jobs to the community.
The January resignation of City Council member Mark Petersen was a more recent glance back to the older days. Two separate incidents of yelling in a meeting (one of which resulted in a staff member abruptly exiting said meeting) by all off-record accounts were the outward manifestations of some old garbage that was never fully disposed of in the past.
But like it or not, Petersen had the good grace to step down from his post without stirring up that garbage for all to sniff, even though the media offered him ample opportunity to do so. Whatever he did or said in private, Petersen made a clean and decent public exit. The remaining council quickly moved to appoint a replacement without fuss, unanimously voting on Tiffin Planning & Zoning commissioner Al Havens.
Faced simultaneously with the resignation of City Administrator Michon Jackson at the height of budget season and in the midst of such major projects as the Ireland Avenue extension, a sewer plant upgrade and expanding city utilities to a new elementary school, no panic was visible at the council table. They unanimously agreed to hire a professional head-hunting firm for her replacement, because the city is big enough now that taking a chance on a community-based hiring committee to find the quality of candidates it requires is… well, chancy. There was a difference of opinion on the firm to hire, but nobody threw a fit.
Of course, they are still working out kinks. City employees have decided to unionize, which will most certainly influence the dynamics in future budget sessions. The city and the Clear Creek Amana School District have a rocky history yet to fully smooth over, though the working relationship between Mayor Steve Berner and Superintendent Tim Kuehl seems to be one of two professionals who know how to appropriately advocate for the bodies they represent without kicking sand at one another. The council as a whole still manages to confound certain developers by its occasional collective mind-changing and a penchant for case-by-case considerations– oddly combined with an overly-cautious approach to precedent-setting– all of which still result in inconsistent applications of the rules.
But more often than not, the question asked at the council table is this: “How can we do better in the future?”
It’s an appropriate question for a small town that was long in the tooth before it suddenly found itself a city in infancy, thrust headlong into development and speeding fast toward being big. The city is learning from its mistakes. It’s admitting when it needs help and knows when it’s prudent to ask for guidance.
And the thing I like most: the city administration, the council and the staff have not grown so big for their breeches that they have lost sight of whom they serve. When a resident speaks in public forum, they genuinely seem to mull over the concern. When a developer argues with council, the members openly state their individual positions after asking lots of questions to get there. When the newspaper calls, they answer.
It may still be a long road to maturity, but Tiffin, you’ve had serious growing pains, and you are proving you’re not a baby anymore.