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Commission hits one-year mark of talks on charter amendments

WILLMAR -- Charter Commission members say their evaluation of the City Charter during the past 12 months has taken more time than they first thought. But members are making progress and studying possible changes that reflect current city practices and address future needs.

The commission first met March 5, 2009. Six months earlier, the City Council voted to establish the commission for review of possible charter amendments.

The last review was conducted 17 years ago.

Commissioners were nominated by the council and nine were appointed by the district court.

City Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Halliday, who attends commission meetings as a staff resource person, submitted a written report to the court, briefly outlining the commission's activities and accomplishments.

The report said the commission has been meeting twice a month and had dedicated time amending Sections One through Five of the 10-section charter.

Anticipating nearly 40 possible amendments, the commission will conclude its review before Sept. 1 in order to send some amendments directly to the City Council for approval or to the voters in the November 2010 general election, the report said.

Charter amendments require either a unanimous vote by all eight council members or approval by voters.

Commission Chairman Bob Bonawitz said the meetings have been going well.

"It's been a much more detailed evaluation than I had thought when we began this process a year ago,'' he said. "But we have a very good commission, very dedicated to doing this job, and we're doing an extremely thorough review of the charter. It will still take a while to finish this, but we're making progress at this point.''

Commission secretary Audrey Nelsen said the commission has done a good job of going through the charter.

"I think we still have a few issues to deal with,'' she said. "But I think the commission is working well together. We're having good debate and looking at what's best for the city of Willmar.''

Commission member Ron Andreen called the evaluation an in-depth study, and member Eileen Huberty said the commission is looking to the future rather than just the present and adapt or change the charter to provide for what might come down the road.

Other commissioners are Shawn Mueske, Richard Hoglund, Michael Nitchals, John Tradup and John Sullivan.

The commission's first recommended amendment was approved by the council last October. The amendment extends the term limits of members of the Municipal Utilities Commission and the Rice Memorial Hospital Board of Directors from two 3-year terms to three 3-year terms.

MUC and Rice officials and representatives said the extended terms would let board and commission members take greater advantage of their utility and hospital knowledge in overseeing those entities. Quick passage allowed MUC and Rice board members whose terms were expiring at the end of 2009 to be reappointed.

Charter Commission members say they have not yet made a recommendation on an MUC request to delete the City Council's overriding veto power over the utilities and grant full control of operation and management of the city's electric, water and district heating systems to the commission.

The Charter Commission met with council members last September who opposed granting such autonomy.

Nelsen says the Charter Commission has been cataloging items and possible updates. The commission has sought advice from City Attorney Rich Ronning, gathered information from city department heads and studied the charters of other cities for ideas that might make sense for Willmar.

Bonawitz said commissioners have discussed whether a charter review should be done more frequently than has been done in the past.

"I think it should be reviewed at least some period of time less than 17 years,'' he said.

The charter is an important document because it's like the constitution for the city.

"It bears on everyone and particularly on those officials and commissions and boards and how they operate,'' Bonawitz says. "Obviously it deals more with those issues than with every individual in the community. But everybody in the community still should be quite aware of what's happening and how the city really does operate.''

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