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Willmar City Council to consider charter amendments

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council would be required for the first time to conduct its meetings under an authorized set of parliamentary rules of order and business, rather than its own rules and order of business, if the council adopts a proposed City Charter amendment tonight.

The council would be required to adopt one of five authorized sets of parliamentary rules proposed in the amendment.

Besides requiring the council to select a set of rules from those listed, the proposed amendment eliminates language in the current charter that allows the council to adopt its own rules and order of business, although the council has never formally adopted rules and order of business, according to Charter Commission Chair Shawn Mueske.

"They have never done that officially, ever,'' he says.

The council will consider that amendment, along with other charter amendments, on Monday night.

The Charter Commission has for more than three years been discussing and working on proposed charter amendments. The charter was last reviewed in 1993. In October 2008, the council established the commission.

Since holding its first meeting in March 2009, the commission sought advice from the city attorney and department heads, studied the charters of other cities and conducted work sessions with the council to discuss and reach consensus on proposed changes.

The charter allows amendments to be enacted either by voter approval or by a unanimous vote of all eight council members.

The commission is trying to implement the amendments by unanimous council vote rather than an election in an effort to avoid costly legal publication requirements.

In the first attempt Jan. 3, 2012, the council failed on a 6-2 vote to adopt amendments including one that would have required the council to specifically adopt the Minnesota Mayors Association Rules of Order for City Councils. The rules were recommended by the League of Minnesota Cities, of which Willmar is a member.

Opponents balked at being told which rules to adopt. They said council members are civil in their discussions and said the council could adopt its own rules.

Mueske said he thinks everybody understands the need for parliamentary rules. The discussion was whether or not to specify a certain set of rules. The commission compromised by proposing the council select one from a list of rules.

"I think the compromise was to put in a choice of rules and let the council pick one,'' said Mueske. "Some people's ideas are we rule by common sense. But that's not usually how governments function. They usually have some parliamentary rules. That was one, I think, we were willing to go to the mat on.''

Mueske said parliamentary rules are absolutely critical for a functioning government.

"When you get into a controversial issue, either the voice of the minority is not protected or you can have some order issues,'' Mueske said.

"If this does not pass, we will have to obviously reconvene the Charter Commission and proceed perhaps to a special election or resubmission. All of those things cost taxpayer dollars to publish that charter in the newspaper,'' he said.

In deference to the council, the commission proposes to eliminate Sec. 2.08. This section would have spelled out the duties of the city administrator and the city attorney.

"One of our major functions when we revisited the charter was to describe what happens with city government and to lay out the roles and responsibilities of all of the people that make those decisions, to reflect current practice,'' said Mueske.

Current language requires the council to appoint a city administrator; the duties are listed in city ordinance. The commission had proposed inserting those duties from the ordinance into the charter.

The commission also proposed inserting the city attorney's job description, as drawn up by the previous city attorney, into the charter. Currently, there's no charter provision for appointing a city attorney; the council contracts with a law firm for that service.

Mueske said the council did not like that section because changing any of those responsibilities would require the charter to change and it's much harder to change the charter than it is to change ordinance.

"We're sort of leaning toward the idea that if there are updated ordinances for both of those positions, the charter could say something to the effect that those duties and roles are described in ordinance and people could reference the ordinance so everybody would know whose job it is and responsibilities are,'' he said.

Other amendments:

n Preamble. The current charter does not have a preamble, which the commission felt should be included. It states the people of Willmar adopt the charter in order to secure the benefits of self-government and that it confers powers, subject to restrictions, procedures and governmental structure.

n Form of government. It states the form of government is known as "weak mayor-council,'' which means most of the authority lies within the council itself. The elected mayor does have power and authority but is not the ultimate decision-maker.

n Vacancies. Proposed language more clearly defines what happens with council vacancies. Among other things, within 45 days after the effective date of a vacancy, the council must either appoint someone to fill the vacancy or schedule a special election within 90 days to fill the unexpired portion of the term. Currently, vacancies of more than one year before the end of the term shall be filled by election. Vacancies of one year or less prior to the end of the term must be filled by appointment.

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