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Talks lead to dust-up between the mayor and city official

WILLMAR -- City Council discussion about nominating a replacement for a consistently absent Charter Commission member led to a dust-up Monday night between Mayor Les Heitke and council member Ron Christianson.

The two sparred over the nomination of former council member Verna Kelly to replace Shelly Cash on the Charter Commission. Cash has been absent from seven of the past eight meetings of the nine-member commission since its first meeting on March 5.

The council in October 2008 called for the commission to be convened. Its members were nominated by the council and appointed by the chief district court judge. Since then, the commission has been reviewing each article in the City Charter. Christianson said he was unaware that Kelly's nomination would be on the agenda until he opened his agenda packet Saturday. Christianson said he did not have a problem with Kelly, but said he wanted to have involvement in nominations from council members, the Charter Commission or the public.

He said Kelly's name came from Heitke and from City Administrator Michael Schmit.

"You didn't ask me, you didn't ask the council, you didn't ask the commission to come up with names. Nobody did. Can't we be part of the process? Too many times we're left out,'' he said. "I don't have a problem with her, but I would like to be part of the process. I do have a name I would like to submit, but let's submit them all at once.''

Christianson said Heitke was lobbying for Kelly.

"I know you know Verna very well. But let us be part of this process, too,'' Christianson said.

Heitke asked Christianson why he was accusing him of submitting her name.

"I have not talked to Verna Kelly until 11:30 this morning when I called to ask her -- if her name was approved by the council -- would she be willing to serve or be willing to have her name submitted to the district court,'' the mayor said. "That's the first and only time I have talked to Verna. I resent the fact that you accuse me of trying to pull something over on you, Ron. I think she's an excellent candidate.''

"As do I,'' replied Christianson.

"Then why doesn't the council support her and submit her name to the district court? Whether the judge agrees is up to him. I don't know why this council would not support her. I do resent how you accuse me when you have no grounds for that and no basis for that, Ron,'' Heitke said.

The council approved 5-3 a motion by Christianson to submit Kelly's name to the Charter Commission for its consideration for nomination to the district court.

Voting in favor were Christianson, Steve Ahmann, Tim Johnson, Jim Dokken and Rick Fagerlie.

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

Schmit apologized for causing the apparent controversy. Schmit said he was suggesting a name as a result of a conversation he had with City Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Halliday, who attends the commission's twice-monthly meetings. Schmit said Halliday indicated a sense of urgency in finding a replacement.

Schmit said he was trying to find an individual who could come in at a late date, who knows what everybody is talking about and could represent the interests of elected officials, which doesn't exist now.

"Verna's name came up because one individual on the Charter Commission had mentioned it to the city clerk who mentioned it to me,'' Schmit said.

Looking at Christianson, Schmit said, "When you called me on Saturday night, I told you specifically that the mayor did not know anything about this until he opened his agenda as well.''

"I recall that,'' Christianson said.

City Attorney Rich Ronning said the council can, as well as the commission, submit more than one name. Names can also be submitted by petition. Ronning said the judge can pick a name or reject all names and make his own selection.

Fagerlie suggested nominating three alternates. (They were suggested by the council to the court last year but were not appointed by the judge). Schmit said two no longer want to be involved. He hadn't talked to the third.

DeBlieck said the council should nominate Kelly and the Charter Commission could submit its nominations.

Reese said the discussion seemed trivial. "If we all agree that Verna is the kind of person we want on there, I don't see why we don't just submit her name.''

Anderson said the council was "making a big deal out of nothing,'' and he thought nominating Kelly would be in the council's interest.

Johnson said he wanted to think about the matter and possibly recommend other names. He said the commission may have someone in mind. "My preference is all the names go at the same time,'' he said.

The Tribune left a voice message Wednesday morning at Cash's office, Counselor Realty of Willmar, seeking comment, but the call was not returned. However, Halliday said Wednesday afternoon that Cash submitted her resignation from the commission.

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