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MUC seeks charter recommendations from planning committee on commissioner terms

WILLMAR -- Municipal Utilities Commission members want their planning committee to first discuss possible City Charter amendments to extend commissioner term limits. Utility commissioners say the community would benefit if members were given longer terms to make greater use of their knowledge of electric industry issues.

The City Charter limits those terms, however, to two consecutive three-year stints. But the terms could be amended because the Charter Commission is reviewing each article in the charter including those dealing with term limits.

In a letter to Utilities Commission President Doug Lindblad, Charter Commission President Bob Bonawitz said the Utilities Commission is an integral part of the city and will be asked to offer an opinion on recommendations for charter amendments.

The Charter Commission held its first meeting on March 5.

Utilities Commission members on Monday mentioned several possibilities, such as term limit extension.

However, they decided to have their planning committee first discuss any recommendations and return those recommendations to the commission before forwarding those to the Charter Commission.

The Charter Commission can recommend amendments to the council. Amendments are enacted by ordinance and enactment requires approval by all eight council members and the mayor. Amendments can be appealed through the referendum process.

One recommendation affecting the utilities might deal with the City Council's veto authority over the utilities.

Utilities General Manager Bruce Gomm said his biggest concern is educating council members about increasingly complicated utility rules and regulations.

Gomm said he's worked for different municipal utilities and Willmar is unique among them in allowing council veto authority over the utility. In other cities, the council is generally limited to overall ownership of the utility. If the commission or board wants to sell the utility, council approval or vote of the people would be required, he said.

City Council member Bruce DeBlieck, the council's commission liaison, said it was his opinion -- and that of the mayor -- that the council should retain veto authority as long as the utilities is part of the city.

"I don't see any real reason to change that,'' DeBlieck said in an interview. "I don't think it's been a hindrance to the commission the way they operate or perform their duties unless that whole structure is changed, which I don't see happening too quickly either.''

He said educating council members on utility issues has not been a problem.

"I think most of the council members are aware of what happens at the utilities,'' he said. "They may not know all the ins and outs and all the details of it. But I think they're aware of the happenings and how the utilities' operates. If not, I think Bruce (Gomm) is more than capable of educating them to the point where they can make an intelligent decision on something.''

Gomm said it's unusual for commission members such as Willmar's to serve without compensation. Gomm said he is not advocating a salary, but said compensation for their time is reasonable.

Another possible amendment might be allowing commission members to serve who live outside the city limits but still have a business or are a utility customer.

Commissioner David Baker offered the motion, which was approved, to have the planning committee first discuss possible recommendations.

In an interview, Baker said he did not see the veto issue as that important until he is told otherwise.

He said keeping commissioners who move out of town but remain a customer is a bigger issue. Compensation was more of a minor issue for him.