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City Council struggles to find 'common ground' on street improvements

WILLMAR -- The city Engineering Department will prepare plans and specifications for the 2008 proposed street improvements.

But the city won't be able to advertise for construction bids as planned because the improvement report was not approved on Monday night by the City Council.

The report was not approved after the council failed to muster the seven votes needed to approve the report because Westwind Estates Third Addition, a low-income housing project that three council members oppose, is one of the improvements.

If the report had been approved, construction bids would have been opened in late April, the assessment hearing would have been slated for mid-May, construction contracts would have been awarded in mid-June, and projects would have been built between July and Nov. 1.

Westwind was among eight projects slated for construction of new streets, along with reconstruction, utility improvements, street lighting, paths and miscellaneous projects in this year's improvement program.

When the Tribune asked what will happen to this year's program, City Administrator Michael Schmit said he hoped council members will find some common ground and move forward.

"Clearly, it's going to set us back,'' from calling for bids and awarding contracts to starting construction, he said.

Although the city cannot advertise for bids, the Engineering Department can prepare plans and specifications.

"We'll be ready to go when the council is,'' he said.

During Monday night's council meeting, Ron Christianson offered a motion to approve the program but exclude Westwind because approval of a conditional use permit to allow construction of rent-to-own town homes has been appealed to the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Christianson and two council members wanted action on Westwind delayed until the Appeals Board makes a decision. That board will meet at 5 p.m. Monday at the Fire Hall.

Christianson's motion was defeated, and the list was approved in a 4-3 vote, but seven affirmative votes are needed to approve street improvements. By the same vote, the council approved the final plat of the Westwind development.

The Tribune asked Schmit if the council could remove Westwind and proceed with the other projects.

"I suppose the council could vote to remove it from the improvement program, but I suspect there might be some legal ramifications. I'm not sure what they'd be at this point,'' he said.

Even if seven affirmative votes could be found, the eight-member council won't have the needed number attending until at least April because council members Denis Anderson and Doug Reese asked to be excused from the next meeting, which is March 17.

Christianson, who has been fighting the development, said Tuesday he supports street improvements but wants Westwind excluded. He said two callers Monday night, 10 callers Tuesday morning and e-mails urged him not to give in.

Christianson believes his vote was correct. He said the seven votes are not there for Westwind, and he said there are too many unanswered questions associated with the development.

For him to vote in favor, Westwind would have to be excluded, he said.

"We'll have a street improvement project. You can bet your bottom dollar we'll have one. It will be later,'' he said. "We've done them in April and later in May, but under my watch, I'll do everything I can to protect my neighborhood, my ward and overall city of Willmar.''

The Tribune was unable on Tuesday to contact council members Jim Dokken and Cindy Swenson, who also voted against Westwind, and was unable to contact Rick Goodemann, executive director of Westwind developer Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership of Slayton.

In other business Monday night, the council:

- Voted to support establishing a veterans' care facility in Willmar. The action, recommended by the council's Community Development Committee, supports an attempt to obtain $7.9 million in state money to cover the 35 percent local/state share of the $22.6 million estimated cost. Federal funding would cover the remainder. Willmar has been named specifically at the federal level, according to the committee report read by vice chairman Dokken.

- Voted to table a Labor Committee recommendation to abolish the Police Civil Service Commission and replace the commission with a Police Advisory Board. The concept is supported by Schmit, Police Chief Jim Kulset and Law Enforcement Labor Services, which represents the police officers. Schmit said eight affirmative votes are required to abolish the commission, and only seven council members were present Monday. Police Commission President Terrill Reimer urged the council to retain the commission.