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Council vote throws street improvements in doubt

WILLMAR -- The city's proposed 2008 street improvements were thrown into doubt Monday night when the City Council failed to muster the seven votes needed to approve the improvements because a low-income housing project that three council members oppose is on the list.

The vote so infuriated Mayor Les Heitke that he slammed his gavel on the table and ordered a five-minute recess, which stretched closer to 10 minutes.

The vote followed a public hearing during which Public Works Director Mel Odens briefly explained the reconstruction, new construction and other projects. State law requires the city engineer to submit a preliminary improvement report each year to the council.

The tension began after the hearing closed.

The council first defeated on a 3-4 vote an attempt to approve the report with the exception of the low-income residential development known as Westwind Estates Third Addition.

The motion to approve the report, with Westwind excluded, was offered by council member Ron Christianson, who has fought against the project.

He said Westwind should be excluded because approval of a conditional use permit that allows Westwind to have owner-occupied twin homes has been appealed to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Christianson also said he opposed Westwind for other reasons.

Heitke urged the council to include Westwind until some action is taken that would remove Westwind from the list.

Earlier, the council approved the Westwind preliminary plat on Jan. 22.

"I think this just a delaying tactic, and I think we need to get on with the business of the city, now that council has made a decision,'' Heitke said. "I urge you to not support this.''

Joining Christianson were Jim Dokken and Cindy Swenson.

Voting against were Doug Reese, Steve Gardner, Bruce DeBlieck and Denis Anderson.

Reese then offered a motion to approve the entire list, with Westwind included. Also voting to approve were Gardner, DeBlieck and Anderson. Voting against were Christianson, Dokken and Swenson.

Heitke at first declared that the report approved, which would allow the engineering department to prepare plans and specifications and open construction bids in late April.

However, City Administrator Michael Schmit and a few others pointed out that seven affirmative votes were needed to move forward. Rick Fagerlie, the eighth council member, was absent.

Heitke asked Christianson, Dokken and Swenson why they voted against. "Don't you want the city to move ahead?'' Heitke asked.

Christianson said the reasons were obvious. Heitke said they weren't obvious to him. Christianson said the mayor "should look at the last few meetings, especially the Planning Commission meeting.''

Also, Christianson said the permit is under appeal. He said Westwind is not good for Willmar, which is why he voted no. "With the pending appeal, we'll see what happens.''

Anderson said reconstruction and new construction projects were being held hostage, including the new Fifth Street Southeast, also called the mall road.

"How long have we waited to get Fifth Street done?'' he asked. "I just absolutely don't understand this at all. I think this a terrible mistake.''

Dokken said the council should be taking care of the core city. He said Westwind developer Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership had the opportunity to do a project like this within the four wards, "and that was my preference, and I'm allowed to have that preference, Mr. Mayor.''

Swenson said she agreed with Dokken. She wanted investments in the current housing stock. She said Westwind was not economically good for the city and wanted to know the outcome of the appeal.

Heitke said past councils would vote and move on. Heitke said the vote holds up the mall road, paths, other streets and storm water projects.

"It seems like you three council members are not willing to accept the decision ... and you continue to hold onto an issue that holds up a lot of things in the city of Willmar,'' he said. "You're just being obstructionist. ... You don't let go of an issue. Alright, we have no street improvement project for 2008. Nothing.''

Heitke then moved to the open forum. Terrill Reimer was about to discuss his reasons why the council should not vote to abolish the Police Civil Service Commission, when Heitke slammed his gavel on the table and called a recess.

Later the council, on the same 4-3 vote, approved the Westwind final plat.