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Council OKs agreement with Nitchals to serve as interim utilities manager

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council has approved a labor agreement to allow Mike Nitchals to be Municipal Utilities interim general manager until a new general manager is hired.

The council Monday night approved a recommendation from the Labor Committee, which had voted at its March 28 meeting to approve and send the agreement to the council. The agreement was recommended by the Municipal Utilities Commission.

Under the agreement, Nitchals will continue service as general manager on a limited basis following an announced retirement of April 7, 2007. The agreement is intended to allow for an orderly transition to a new general manager, said Steve Gardner, Labor Committee chairman.

The agreement limits Nitchals to 438 hours of work through the period ending August 2008 and sets the salary value at $21,900.

In other Labor Committee business, the council discussed a summary of a city staff review of the Police Civil Service Commission's rules and regulations.

The commission had directed staff to recommend possible updates or changes. The analysis included an observation that the council may want to at least discuss the question of whether or not the city should continue with the police commission.

The commission was created many years ago to ensure fair treatment for all police employees, hire and retain competent employees, protect against political interference in their positions, and to ensure fair and equitable opportunities for employment based on merit.

It was noted that other federal and state organizations provide those rights and protections including the city's personnel policies and procedures and collective bargaining agreements.

Finally, it was pointed out there was no record of any disciplinary hearings in front of the commission because most work-related issues are resolved through the grievance procedure process.

Police Chief Jim Kulset said the commission's rules and regulations slow the process of certifying three officer candidates to the hiring authority, which is the city administrator.

"That takes four commission meetings, and just getting three commission members together at a mutually agreed upon time can slow that by several days,'' Kulset said. "That wasn't a problem when I hired and probably had 300 applicants and it was not nearly as competitive in trying to get the top candidates.''

However, Kulset said a few days' delay can make a difference in getting the number one candidate or settling for the number three candidate. The chief said the county sheriff "can hire people in half the time that we can.''

He said a unanimous council vote is needed to abolish the police commission.

Kulset said the police commissions he has worked with the last 7½ years have been excellent. He said the staff review was not stimulated by any commission action or conflict.

In other business, the council approved a March 28 decision by the Planning Commission to move forward with the orderly annexation of 55 acres of land on the east side of Civic Center Drive Northeast for a proposed bio-fuel pelletizing plant, making fuel from plant material.

The annexation request must be approved by the Willmar Township Board and by the city, and then sent to the state for approval. Also, newly adopted statutes require the city to hold a public informational meeting before the annexation is approved.

The Planning Commission first tabled the annexation request at the March 14 meeting, then reopened and approved the request on a 5-2 vote last week.

Council member Jim Dokken asked why two members of the commission voted against the request.

Planning Commission member Jay Lawton, who voted in the majority, said there were concerns about the proximity of industrial property to the high school and Civic Center. Lawton said the land is on the east side of the bypass and is a half-mile from the school.

He said the city's comprehensive plan designates the area as industrial reserve and would become industrial if the land becomes part of the city.

The plant is being proposed by Gregg and Marion Mast of the Twin Cities. The developers prefer the site because it has access to a railroad spur and the Highway 71-23 bypass, said Bruce Peterson, director of planning and development services.

If the company didn't need the rail service, the company could establish itself in the industrial park, he said.

If the land is annexed, the developers would still be required to apply for a conditional use permit, which would have a hearing before the commission and site development criteria would be reviewed.

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