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Willmar City Council OKs gun range cleaning

Willmar City Council gave the go-ahead with a lead contamination study of the gun range in the basement of the City Auditorium, but acceded to the request of the Willmar Rifle and Pistol Club to allow the club to perform contractual gun range cleaning after the city’s safety officer closed the range weeks ago due to possible health concerns. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR — After more than an hour of debate, parliamentary maneuvering and a series of tie-breaking votes by Mayor Frank Yanish, the Willmar City Council this week gave the go-ahead to a ventilation and lead contamination study of the city gun range.

At the same time, the council acceded to a Willmar Rifle and Pistol Club request to allow the club to clean the range as allowed under a longtime contract with the city after the city’s safety officer had closed the range several weeks ago over possible health concerns.

There will be no shooting at the range pending the completion of the study.

Council action stems from a recommendation by Fire Chief Gary Hendrickson, also the city safety officer.

He works with Safe Assure, a Willmar company contracted by the city to investigate and identify possible federal occupational health and safety violations in city buildings.

As part of that inspection, said City Administrator Charlene Stevens, it was determined that the air handling system of the range, located in the City Auditorium basement, was not working appropriately.

The city brought in heating and ventilation contractor Chappell Central Inc. of Willmar to investigate. Stevens said options to keep the range open were considered but were not possible. Staff told the Public Works/Safety Committee before Labor Day that there was a problem with the range.

Stevens said firearm safety instructors were notified the range would be closed temporarily until the extent of the ventilation problem was determined.

“Since we were not quite sure how long the ventilation system had maybe not been functioning properly, it was the recommendation we look at having a company come in and do testing in terms of the lead dust to see if we had a problem down there,” Stevens said.

The committee also discussed the problem last week. Gun club members told the committee they would volunteer to assist in reducing improvement costs.

The offer was repeated Monday night by Donovan Kuehl, gun club president. Kuehl spoke after Councilman Ron Christianson, Public Works Committee chairman, reported the committee’s recommendation to approve a lead study and return that information to the committee.

Councilwoman Audrey Nelsen asked if discussion of the issue was just among council members. Christianson thought he could ask someone to speak since he was committee chair. City Clerk Kevin Halliday ruled Yanish as presiding officer makes the decision, and Yanish allowed Kuehl to speak.

Kuehl and more than 30 other club members and range supporters filled the meeting room, including several firearms safety instructors, who urged the council to keep the range open.

Kuehl said the club could easily solve the problem for free by moving an air vent, rather than spending $70,000 as quoted by Chappell Center for a new air handling system.

Also, Kuehl questioned the legality of closing the range, quoting a Minnesota law that he said states a firing range cannot be closed arbitrarily without proof. To shut down a range because there might be something there is ridiculous, he said, and said the range should be unlocked.

“The only issue identified by Safe Assure is ventilation,” Kuehl said. “ … It shouldn’t be closed just because of the ventilation and it shouldn’t be closed because it might have contamination. We better not eat processed food because it might give us cancer or we better not walk across the street because we might get run over. You can’t all of a sudden close a gun range.”

City Attorney Robert Scott said he did not think the prohibition of closing a range applied in this instance. Scott also said he was deferring to staff judgment for closing the range.

Scott said he looked at the law last Friday. Christianson asked if Scott had a copy of the law with him. Scott said he had not.

“You knew this was going to come up tonight,” Christianson said. “I can’t believe that our city attorney wasn’t prepared. I’m disappointed.”

The Tribune heard an audience member in the rear of the room say, “The attorney doesn’t know anything about the law.”

Nelsen praised the club’s intent to assist with gun range improvements, but said she was concerned about liability issues.

“Once we know what we’re dealing with, if there is a possibility that they can help with it, great. I think we have a responsibility to follow through with a request that was done by our safety officer, by our staff, that we needed to find out more,” Nelsen said.

Steve Brisendine, community education and recreation director who oversees the range, said it has not been used much in the last three weeks and assumed emptying trash and removing brass casings and lead had already been done.

“If you could have little bit of patience, we can have it up and running in a timeframe that will accommodate the majority of the usage there,” he said.

The maneuvering began when Christianson said he agreed to get the testing done as soon as possible, but amended the motion to say the city allows the club to do its normal cleaning as always but to do no shooting. Councilman Rick Fagerlie seconded.

Yanish requested clarification. Halliday said the council must first deal with the amendment to allow the club to perform the cleaning.

The vote was 3-3 with Fagerlie, Christianson and Steve Ahmann in favor, and Nelsen, Bruce DeBlieck and Denis Anderson against. Jim Dokken and Tim Johnson were absent.

Yanish first said he would delay his vote. Halliday declared the amendment failed and said the council must vote on the motion for the study and to have the club return after the results are in.

Christianson asked if the mayor can change his vote and said he didn’t think Yanish understood the motion.

Nelsen objected, saying Christianson was again trying to cue the mayor, which she said was “totally inappropriate.”

An audience member asked what delaying the vote meant. Yanish responded he didn’t know. Halliday declared Yanish was losing control of the meeting by taking audience comments.

Yanish said he made a mistake and asked to change his vote, but Halliday declared the amendment had died for lack of a majority.

Christianson then offered a motion to reconsider the failed amendment, seconded by Ahmann. Yanish said he was confused. Halliday said the mayor can vote in favor, against or not at all.

Nelsen questioned what the council was considering, saying the concern was brought forward by the safety officer, city staff, city attorney, insurance “and we’re not listening to it.”

Fagerlie said he didn’t know that insurance was involved now.

“If that’s the case, let’s close down the whole auditorium and don’t let basketball be played at noon, no showers downstairs,” he said.

Yanish called a roll call and the motion to reconsider the amendment was approved, with Christianson, Ahmann and Fagerlie, and Yanish, in favor and DeBlieck, Anderson and Nelsen against.

Christianson then again offered his amendment to allow the gun club to clean the range, with Ahmann seconding. The amendment was approved with Christianson, Ahmann and Fagerlie, and Yanish, in favor. Voting against were Anderson, Nelsen and DeBlieck.

DeBlieck offered an amendment to close the auditorium until the issue is resolved, seconded by Nelsen. Halliday ruled the amendment out of order. Attorney Scott agreed.

Now, said Halliday, the council would vote on the newly amended motion — to proceed with the lead study, to have the gun club return after the results are in, and to allow the club to clean the range.

The motion passed 4-3 with Christianson, Ahmann and Fagerlie, and the mayor, in favor, and Nelsen, DeBlieck and Anderson against.

Nelsen offered the motion to close the auditorium. “What we’re saying is if there is a concern, then perhaps nobody should be in the building until a study is done,” he said.

The motion failed with Ahmann, Fagerlie and Christianson, along with Yanish, opposed, and Nelsen, Anderson and DeBlieck in favor.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150